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.