The Future of Quakerism

Tonight I came across this video blog by Callid Keefe-Perry, a Quaker theologian responding to survey results published by Friends General Conference. FGC is the largest association of unprogrammed Quakers in North America, possibly the world. My yearly meeting in Illinois is a member and I serve as one of ILYM’s representatives to FGC’s Central Committee, which created the survey Callid references which has provoked some concern in him.

In a nutshell, Callid sees a “disconnect” between the survey’s finding that a significant number of us see “outreach” as the leading challenge facing FGC, yet we see “deep worship” as the leading indicator of a healthy meeting. He wonders why we don’t say that our main challenge is maintaining deep worship, and let the Spirit guide us in outreach and other necessary ministries?

As a caveat, I will quote that old joke, “there are three kinds of falsehoods: lies, damn lies, and statistics!” As a political science major who has also done some work with survey research methods and analysis, I can say without doubt that this survey is significantly porous. Respondents interpreted the questions differently and weighted their responses as best they could using their different interpretations. If we sat those Quakers down in a room and had a “focus group” discussion asking “what do these questions actually mean?” we would get another punchline, 3 Quakers equals 5 opinions.

That said, if I were answering this survey I would say, and I very likely did say when I actually participated, that in my opinion, the leading challenge to FGC is that we cannot reach unity on outreach and growth. Do we try to find new attenders deliberately? Do we work at nurturing new attenders so they become permanent members? Those two things have to happen if we want to reverse the decline in numbers.

I also would not say that the main sign of a healthy meeting is “deep worship,” but rather from the list compiled, I would have to choose “nurturing gifts and ministry.” Outreach and growth is not something we can do if we do not have vital nurturing ministry. If we sit in disciplined silence week after week, have eloquent moving vocal ministry, healthy committees, and balanced budgets (a sign that people care enough to dig deep!) but are not growing in numbers, then “deep worship” is not a sign that we are healthy.¬†Now, if most meetings have those things actually occurring, I would expect that this would attract new attenders and nurture new members. I also suspect that most meetings have a deficiency in one or more of these areas. “Deep worship” is easy to fake, actually. It can be just a habit we’ve learned. Sit still for an hour, be pleasant during the introductions and coffee chat, and then go on your way.

I suspect that the reason why the survey highlighted “outreach” is our anxiety over our shrinking numbers. I also suspect that the reason the survey highlighted “deep worship” was because we haven’t really decided that we want to grow and thrive, but would rather maintain our pleasant little worship meetings. If a meeting folds, we will go elsewhere, not really grasping that year over year there are just a few less of us unprogrammed liberal Quakers around.

9 thoughts on “The Future of Quakerism

  1. “Health” for a Meeting is not a condition it enjoys alone; it’s a relationship. Plant in soil: healthy. Plant pulled loose: nothing works.

    Too many Quakers are thinking of “deep worship” as something they might enjoy– rather than as an act of relationship.

    Deep worship– If we succeeded, would lead to “gifts.” Would lead to a concern to share, hence a prayerful, guided outreach effort. Would make us a body worth seeking.

  2. We need to invite people to meeting and we need to welcome them. I would add that we need to have something vibrant that they will want to join. Perhaps it is not the same issue, but I do feel that Quakers a 40 or 50 years ago could boast more about all they were doing for peace and justice.

  3. The fact that you say that deep worship is easy to fake leads me to believe that you have not experienced it. In my experience, deep worship is impossible to fake. It is a gift from God, which can be nurtured by Friends who live deeply in the Spirit, but is not something you can manufacture.

    1. There are layers to the question what is “deep worship” and how that would foster a vibrant, growing quaker community. In my post above, I had in mind not “actual” deep worship, but a sort of game Quakers sometimes play and call “deep worship.”

      On the other hand, I find your snap judgment of my lack of deep worship a bit insulting, but I have no desire to defend myself on that topic.

    2. Not at thing physically observable from outside, though different people at different times may ‘sense’ a palpable rush of energy surrounding the people involved.

      Not an experience, though people experience it.

      Not something people ‘do’, though deliberate intention, hope and effort may facilitate it.

      Not an emotion, though it typically brings deep emotion.

      Not a ‘belief’ nor a worldview, though it may make changes to the worldview of people caught up in it.

      Not a communication between people, though it brings them into a potential for deep communications between them.

  4. Ashley, my original comment about deep worship being easy to fake is simply my experience of how some Friends talk about their meetings. They claim to be experiencing very deep worship, but then bicker in business meetings about minutiae or criticize each other behind their backs. My meeting nearly folded because of burn-out on committees and the attempt to fix that burn-out – calling a “Sabbath year” – turned out to only exacerbate the problem. And yet, through it all, folks kept saying how worship was deep and gathered. My experience was that it was thin, habitual, and individualistic. I didn’t speak up because I was still fairly new to the meeting, but it seemed that we weren’t trying to grow in real community and ministry. I still wonder whether we’re past those attitudes.

  5. Where can western mystics go if they want a path within their own culture except for the unprogrammed Quakers? Nowhere is my answer. We should not be concerned about the expansion of the Quaker path but should respect and understand that it will continue as it has for nearly four hundred years. We can never be sure that a meeting for worship is of great depth for all participants but we can be grateful that it is available for whatever depth any participant is able to experience. Many of us do not embody the divine fully and continuously in our lives either in meetings or in the world but that possibility of enlightenment or being one with the in-dwelling God remains a dream and a possibility for all of us. Thank God for the continuation of unprogrammed Quaker worship and let us have faith and confidence it will continue without any attempts to advertise and recruit. People will find us and are finding us as they have done over the centuries.

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