We the Church, the People and the Fellowship

Lib­er­al Friends today fre­quent­ly ques­tion the mean­ing of mem­ber­ship. Its neces­si­ty and oblig­a­tions are debat­ed. Does it fos­ter sep­a­ra­tion? Is it an exclu­sive club? What cul­tur­al norms get in the way of wider fel­low­ship? Why do so many of our meet­ings have the same lim­it­ed demo­graph­ic and why do they look so unlike the larg­er com­mu­ni­ty. The way we answer these ques­tions affect the way we think of out­reach and min­istry and what we mean when we think of who “we” are. (Inter­est­ing recent dis­cus­sions from a seek­er here and amongst Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends here.)

Mem­ber­ship is a pow­er­ful means of facil­i­ta­tion fel­low­ship, some­thing that most of us need to grow very deep into the Spir­it. But the fel­low­ship of our month­ly meet­ings (and of “Quak­erism” in gen­er­al) can eas­i­ly become a dis­trac­tion, a means to its own end, a false idol. We need to keep our eyes on the prize and real­ize that mem­ber­ship in meet­ing is sec­ondary to mem­ber­ship in the body of Christ and into that Spir­it which seeks to build the King­dom of God in the world.

Here I’ll look at three over­lap­ping ways of defin­ing “we”: the Church, the Fel­low­ship and the Peo­ple. They’re not mutu­al­ly exclu­sive but they’re also not iden­ti­cal and its pos­si­ble to have one with­out the oth­ers. “We” are out of bal­ance and unable to grow into our full mea­sure as indi­vid­u­als and as a faith com­mu­ni­ty when we don’t keep our eyes on all three together.

The Church

This is the col­lec­tive body of all those who have expe­ri­enced the pow­er of the Inward Christ and turned toward Him. Lib­er­al Friend that I am I’m not going to insist on what name peo­ple give to the oth­er side of this encounter (espe­cial­ly at first). The expe­ri­ence of vis­i­ta­tion comes in var­i­ous man­i­fes­ta­tions and we will be alter­nate­ly judged, com­fort­ed, etc. God loves us and doesn’t hide Him­self from us and reach­es us wher­ev­er we are. This is not to say that all reli­gious tra­di­tions are equal­ly use­ful guides to that path, just that God is merciful. 

The vis­i­ta­tion is not a one-time affair but ongo­ing. As we respond we will change and we will find our­selves vol­un­tar­i­ly re-aligning our lives in ways that let us hear the Spir­it more clear­ly. It is quite pos­si­ble to be a respectable mem­ber of a reli­gious body and stop lis­ten­ing (the root of Friends ner­vous­ness about pro­fes­sion­al min­istry). As we mature spir­i­tu­al­ly and fine-tune the instru­ment of our dis­cern­ment, we will be pre­sent­ed with ever more sub­tle and inge­nious temp­ta­tions and snares to fur­ther progress. It becomes almost impos­si­ble to progress with­out the active fel­low­ship of oth­ers com­mit­ted to this jour­ney, who will con­firm and chal­lenge us as need­ed and ampli­fy our praise.

The Fel­low­ship

We orga­nize our­selves into frail human insti­tu­tions to pro­vide that fel­low­ship. This is fine and nec­es­sary at times but comes with its own snares. It is all too easy to raise up our­selves and begin to exalt our­selves. It is easy to think that our pur­pose is to serve our­selves. We must nev­er for­get that the Body of Christ is our first mem­ber­ship and that its bound­aries will nev­er match up with our print­ed direc­to­ries or mem­ber­ship roles. The pri­ma­ry role of the month­ly meet­ing and lower-case “c” church­es is to spread the good news of the spir­i­tu­al res­ur­rec­tion of Christ and the life and pow­er that exists when we serve God. “The Mem­ber­ship” is always a tem­porar­i­ly illu­sion, a pale imi­ta­tion of The Church and a tem­po­rary stop-gap as the King­dom of God aligns itself on the world. 

The Peo­ple

“Christ has come to teach The Peo­ple Him­self,” one of George Fox’s most impor­tant insights. We’re all in this togeth­er, spir­i­tu­al sal­va­tion is for us all. Those of us who have felt the work­ings of the Inward Spir­it in our hearts must sing that out to every­one we meet. We must hum the song of God and so let oth­ers hear it in their hearts. 

In the Bible “the peo­ple” are the Jews, a spe­cif­ic social group whose spir­i­tu­al devo­tion fades in and out through the cen­turies. The Old Tes­ta­ment is sto­ry after sto­ry of the Jew­ish peo­ple falling down and get­ting back up, usu­al­ly with the help of a prophet whose role was to remind them of God and show them how far they had fall­en out of align­ment with His will. 

Jesus was prophet extra­or­di­naire. When lawyers asked him to define neigh­bor – who is it that our reli­gious insti­tu­tions exist to serve – he gave the sto­ry of a despised Samar­i­tan who did the right thing by help­ing a fel­low human in need. A point of this sto­ry was to show that the Jew­ish God works among non-Jews and that faith­ful­ness doesn’t depend on one’s social sta­tion in life.

The Peo­ple are every­where. We all have access to the Spir­it. And if we are to be the build­ing blocks to God’s King­dom here on Earth we must serve one anoth­er across the super­fi­cial­i­ties that seek to divide us: lines of class, race, eth­nic­i­ty and yes even sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion. These are snares. We must seek to rise up togeth­er, focus­ing less on per­ceived fail­ings of those around us than on our own inward call to a greater per­fec­tion (com­mu­nion) with God.

What does this all mean to Friends?

Most Quak­er meet­ings I’ve vis­it­ed are good at one or two of these mod­els of we-ness. But with­out bal­ance they become self-serving. 

The Church with­out Fel­low­ship becomes a “ranter­ism” where every­one is tempt­ed by the snares of self-delusion. Church with­out the Peo­ple becomes a élite spir­i­tu­al­ism that detach­es itself from the pain of the world and the need to wit­ness and serve our neighbors.

Fel­low­ship with­out the Peo­ple becomes a social club unin­ter­est­ed in shar­ing this good thing we’ve got going. Fel­low­ship with­out the Church becomes the shell of an emp­ty form wor­ship­ing itself.

The Peo­ple with­out the Church give us a con­sumer cul­ture which exists for the next fash­ion, for the next sale at the Mall. The Peo­ple with­out Fel­low­ship becomes a flock of sheep dis­persed, easy tar­gets for the wolves of temp­ta­tion whis­per­ing in our ears.

Human fel­low­ships like a Quak­er month­ly meet­ing exist sole­ly to bridge the Church and the Peo­ple. Some of that work involves learn­ing our min­istry and ser­vice, facil­i­tat­ed by month­ly meet­ings and helped along by the tools of our Friends tra­di­tion. But most of the work of the Church is its dai­ly wit­ness to the world of the trans­for­ma­tive pow­er of the Spir­it in our lives. If we’re doing our job right our meet­ings should con­stant­ly buck­le and break under the weight of new mem­bers and our wor­ship will spill out into our lives. We will care more about our neigh­bors than our fel­low­ship. “Out­reach,” “Inreach,” “Min­istry” and “Wit­ness” will all be the same work. 

  • Tony

    Thank you!! This is beau­ti­ful. It is like you took the thoughts right out of my head and wrote them. It is very easy to slip into com­pla­cen­cy and/or self-congratulation, and at times we do seem to be on the brink of doing so. Of course wor­ship, fel­low­ship, etc. are impor­tant, but I think we some­times tend to be too inward-directed, like spend­ing so long look­ing in the mir­ror fix­ing up our face that we are nev­er ready to leave the house. There are so many good lines in here I could quote, but “We [should] care more about our neigh­bors than our fel­low­ship” sums it up. I think Friends’ think­ing and activ­i­ty should be outward-directed — our pri­ma­ry focus should be the out­reach of ser­vice and love. If we engage our ener­gy in help­ing oth­ers, we won’t have to wor­ry as much about spir­i­tu­al nour­ish­ment as it will large­ly take care of itself. “Seek first the king­dom of God and its right­eous­ness and all else will be added unto you.” (And also, our blogs should reflect this. It seems strange that this, months lat­er, is the first com­ment on this post.) Thanks for voic­ing a truth that needs to be heard.