I have been involved with Conservative Friends, sometimes more and sometimes less, for 50 years.  Many times I have pondered what it would take to revitalize our faith and faith-community, and make them more responsive to Christ.  Several attempts have been made to nurture renewal, and most of them have failed.  The continuing decline of Conservative Friends seems to outstrip these various efforts to foster renewal.

 Failure is discouraging, but it can also teach us lessons if we are willing to learn.  Snoopy once observed that “we have met the enemy and he is us.”  Smug self-satisfaction and a “business as usual” attitude are among the greatest obstacles to renewal among Conservative Friends, in my experience.  But failure and dissatisfaction can help us to overcome our own inertia and resistance to change, if we will allow them to.

 Wisdom From a “Rocket Scientist”

 Albert Einstein once ventured a definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.”  We should consider whether he was “speaking to our condition.”  How Conservative Friends lost numbers and spiritual vitality is really not a mystery.  Our faith-community has deteriorated because of some very specific circumstances, quite apart from those that affect all religious groups in our society.  Let me cite a few of these problems: lack of effective ministry and structures to nurture it, failure to understand and transmit the Christian basis of our faith, “ritual flattening” of Conservative worship and the lack of sustained evangelistic outreach.

I know that it will seem like bitter medicine, but let’s also acknowledge that Conservative Friends have borne a heavy burden of institutionalism.  The preoccupation with operating institutions has sapped Friends’ energy, attention and other scarce resources.  One consequence has been the neglect of local meetings as the basic building blocks of Conservative Quakerism.  A prominent Friend once told me that OYM folks were “bored” with their local meetings.  We should not be surprised!  Local meetings are exciting and interesting ONLY if we have a vision for them, and if we INVEST our time and spiritual gifts in their corporate faith and life.

 It is all too easy to criticize and complain about what others have and haven’t done.  More difficult is the task of putting together a program for renewal, and implementing it.  I do not pretend to have all of the answers, BUT I do think I can envision a few goals we need to strive for.

Looking Toward Renewal  

Rick Warren wrote The Purpose-Driven Church, a book some of us read several years ago.  I think we missed one of his most basic points.  According to Warren, a healthy church is one that tries to be balanced, rather than being lopsided.  He went on to identify five facets of church life where balance is needed.  These included worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry to those in need, and evangelism.  Most of our meetings do not achieve much balance.  We have meetings for worship and business, and the occasional potluck, and that’s about it.  The few meetings that really seem to be vital and growing are those that go beyond this “bare bones” format and emphasize spiritual nurture, fellowship and evangelism.

With our limited resources, achieving the kind of balance Rick Warren has in mind is probably too ambitious a goal for many of our meetings.  On the other hand, taking the first few steps in this direction is something even very small meetings could do.  Planning a “brown bag lunch” after meeting, with a previously distributed article as a basis of discussion, should be feasible for even the smallest meeting.  This would foster spiritual sharing and focused but informal fellowship, which are elements of a healthy meeting.

Bible study is another step virtually any meeting can take.  There are plenty of written resources to draw from.  And there is no reason why a meeting could not ask someone from a neighboring fellowship to help in getting the process started.  In a Christian meeting, Bible study nurtures ministry.  Without it, ministry will tend to be shallow and unedifying.   I know from experience that weekly group Bible study can overburden those involved.  Instead of abandoning the idea, however, I would propose biweekly, or even monthly, study sessions.  A good understanding of the Bible will go a long way toward nurturing ministry in our meetings.

There is nothing like gathering occasionally in each other’s homes to build fellowship in a local meeting.  The format need not be anything in particular.  Gathering for a social or to celebrate a special event or holiday is a good way to share together, and it builds a sense of community.

We also need to reverse the “ritual flattening” of Conservative Quaker worship.  This would mean examining again the rich ritual life of Conservative Friends in the past and rediscovering elements from our tradition which would infuse new life into our worship.  I have nearly completed a paper on this topic after seventeen years of work.  When it is published, it should stimulate plenty of discussion if we are honest in facing our present situation.

Efforts have been made over the years to revitalize evangelism among Conservative Friends.  Unfortunately, this effort has been intermittent and only partially effective.  All too readily, we retreat to insularity and isolation from the world’s glaring need for the Gospel.  Evangelistic opportunities right at the doorstep of our meetings are too easily ignored.

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The paper I just posted revises one I wrote 20 years ago.  I would like to add one more initiative to the list, which is intervisitation among congregations.  It is very easy for a viable meeting to overlook the situation of struggling smaller groups.  Sometimes meetings need to meet jointly to foster new life by the strength of larger numbers.  I know of two meetings in Ohio that meet together one Sunday a month, for worship, a shared meal, and good fellowship.  Back in the 60s and 70s, intervisitation was common in eastern Ohio.  This need not be limited to gathering together with other meetings from the same yearly meeting, or even from the same denomination!  Such mingling could foster learning from each other and create new relationships! 

In its more vigorous days, the Rockingham Meeting undertook a program of intervisitation with other meetings in the middle Atlantic states.  

Hello William,

Just to be clear. Are you suggesting, if the Conservative Friends follow the outward prescriptions and formalities you have laid out, the conservative body of Friends will be revitalized?

Thanks for replying, Keith!

Keith Saylor said:

Hello William,

Just to be clear. Are you suggesting, if the Conservative Friends follow the outward prescriptions and formalities you have laid out, the conservative body of Friends will be revitalized?

Christ is the renewer, not me!  I can cast in my two mites, but He alone can make it happen, or not.

"Christ is the renewer." 

Amen. It is the direct and unmediated experience and guidance of the immanent presence of the Spirit of Christ in the hearts of people that is the answer. The use if the process of reflection (formalities, prescriptions, etc.) in matter of spirituality and human relations diminishes the power and presence of the Life itself .

As a point of clarificati0n.

In Williams response to my question, my question is quoted, however, included within the body of my quote is  his answer to my question. This makes it look like his response were my own words. 

Keith Saylor said:

Hello William,

Just to be clear. Are you suggesting, if the Conservative Friends follow the outward prescriptions and formalities you have laid out, the conservative body of Friends will be revitalized?

Christ is the renewer, not me!  I can cast in my two mites, but He alone can make it happen, or not.

The sentence "Christ is the renewer, not me! I can cast in my own two mites, but He alone can make it happen, or not." are Williams words not mine.

Hi William!

It's been a long time since we have corresponded. I hope you are well!

Have you checked out North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative for some tips? They seem very Christ oriented and have some vibrant meetings.  Although they are centered on Christ, there is a trend there to simplify/eliminate forms in favor of deeper spirituality; the "living Christ within".  I read that Virginia Beach Friends Meeting has recently stopped recording "ministers" in the old Conservative tradition in favor of a more liberal Quaker approach of unnamed ministering to each other.  This could be the result of the mingling between  North Carolina's Conservative and liberal Quaker meetings that seems to be happening to the benefit of both traditions. I know that in the South in general (in Virginia and North Carolina for example), at liberal Quaker meetings Christ and his direct teachings are increasingly and routinely being addressed and are much valued again. There is also a trend of eliminating forms in favor of that direct guidance and relationship from the divine that Keith speaks of. This also may be a result of that mingling of the two traditions. Both traditions in Virginia and North Carolina are growing as a result - both in numbers and in depth. Even though we are in a pandemic.

Hello, Howard!  Thanks for your input and your unique perspective on Conservative Friends. Bill

Howard and I look at Conservative Friends from divergent perspectives!  His experience is with North Carolina Conservative Friends, and he highlights any movement among them (which is not hard to find) toward Quaker liberalism as a wonderful thing.  He regards liberal Quakerism with unabashed enthusiasm!

My primary experience is with Ohio Yearly Meeting although I have some experience with North Carolina and Iowa Yearly Meetings.  I have also had considerable experience with liberal Friends and do not look at them with stars in my eyes!  I hold old-fashioned Wilburite Quakerism in high regard, but do not swallow it whole!  I have seen its seamy side and want the good traditions minus the undesirable features.  This leaves me wanting to recover what I regard as the virtues of Conservative Quakerism without its weaknesses.  Liberal Friends may reject my take because it does not idolize their faith.  "Swallow-it-whole" Conservative Friends would reject my take because it raises uncomfortable questions about how Conservative Quakerism is interpreted today. I am more conservative than they like!  That's how it is, folks!

Remember, I joined Friends as a teenager in 1960, and Conservative Friends in 1970.  My wife was a birthright Conservative Friend.  Most of my critics are, by comparison, "Johnny-come-latelies".   This makes a difference.

Hello William,

You wrote in response to my question.

"Christ is the renewer, not me!  I can cast in my two mites, but He alone can make it happen, or not."

I've carried your words with me since you wrote them. Your affirmation that Christ renews is well received. Yet you go beyond this affirmation that Christ is the renewer, and that you are not, by engaging in the process of establishing and promoting your reflections on how conservative friends can be renewed through a list of outward prescriptions they should follow. Are you concerned by engaging in the process of reflection to guide conservative Friends to renewal and regain the initiative that you are overstepping the direct and unmediated initiative and prerogative from the direct impulse of Christ in conservative Friends? Is it not sufficient to affirm and admonish all Friends to rest in or wait upon the everliving and immanent presence of Christ in the conscience of people to govern and guide human relations outside of engaging in the process of reflection?

Hello, Keith!

You asked: "Is it not sufficient to affirm and admonish all Friends to rest in or wait upon the everliving and immanent presence of Christ in the conscience of people to govern and guide human relations outside of engaging in the process of reflection?"

The evidence suggests that Friends need the counsel of one another to implement their commitment to Christ.  The list of counsels I gave is a distillation of my experience and leadings over a long period of time.  Even with such a list starring them in the face, I am not sure much will happen!

Benjamin Lay faced a similar problem, as reported in the following narrative: 

"He finally rose to address this gathering of 'weighty Quakers.' Many Friends in Pennsylvania and New Jersey had grown rich on Atlantic commerce, and many bought human property. To them Lay announced in a booming voice that God Almighty respects all peoples equally, rich and poor, men and women, white and black alike. He said that slave keeping was the greatest sin in the world and asked, How can a people who profess the golden rule keep slaves? He then threw off his great coat, revealing the military garb, the book and the blade.

A murmur filled the hall as the prophet thundered his judgment: “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.” He pulled out the sword, raised the book [Bible] above his head, and plunged the sword through it. People gasped as the red liquid gushed down his arm; women swooned. To the shock of all, he spattered “blood” on the slave keepers. He prophesied a dark, violent future: Quakers who failed to heed the prophet’s call must expect physical, moral and spiritual death.

The room exploded into chaos, but Lay stood quiet and still, 'like a statue,' a witness remarked. Several Quakers quickly surrounded the armed soldier of God and carried him from the building. He did not resist. He had made his point.  This spectacular performance was one moment of guerrilla theater among many in Lay’s life."

Sometimes. counsel from others, even dramatic counsel, is required to get Friends' attention!  My wife and I got carried from the room, figuratively speaking, even without spraying the contents of an exploding pig's bladder!  To put the matter bluntly, we were disfellowshipped!  "Business as usual" prevailed.

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