Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Problem: Many unprogrammed meetings seem to be dying, at least in the eastern part of the country. I know that many people react to this by arguing that saving meetings from extinction is NOT what we are called to do. I guess I must be old-fashioned. When I see an abandoned meetinghouse or a meeting with a few faithful old timers trying to hang on, I feel very strongly that we shouldn't look the other way and do nothing to help to rebuild these meetings!
A few years ago a power company lineman came to the farm on business. He told me that he is a native of the deep South, and that his family had moved several times as he was growing up. His father, a Southern
Baptist minister, was a "turn around specialist." When a local church was losing out, his father would be called in to provide leadership, to get the church rehabilitated and healthy again.
I have heard of cases of turn around specialists working in pastoral meetings, sometimes successfully and other times rejected by the locals who did not want to change because they were contented with the status quo, even if it meant gradually dying as a meeting.
I don't see similar efforts among unprogrammed Friends. I have discovered that there are several books, some probably rather enlightening, on how to reorient dying churches. One book addresses 50 ways that local churches turn off newcomers. See *Unwelcome: 50 Ways Churches drive Away First-time Visitors*: http://www.amazon.com/Unwelcome-Churches-Drive-First-Time-Visitors/...
Other books attempt to speak to the condition of dying churches. *Autopsy of a Dying Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive* http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/143368392X?psc=1&redirect=true...
*Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around, and Yours Can Too* http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0805445366?psc=1&redirect=true...
Where are the turn around specialists, or at least the turn around mentality, among unprogrammed Friends?
I don't believe that the Meeting I currently belong to has ever escaped the rigid grip of people determined to remain as they are and have their Meeting remain as it is. When one visitor spoke of wanting to see the many empty seats in our new Meeting house filled over the next 20 years, one of us responded that his only concern was that everyone there would be "Quakers".
There is something to be said for "letting the dead bury the dead."
I wrote: "When I see ... a meeting with a few faithful old timers trying to hang on..."
Sometimes, the few remaining Friends are in fact responsible for the decline of a meeting. I have known instances where the few who remained actually caused the meeting to decline by their attitudes and actions! Turning a meeting around often involves challenging an entrenched oligarchy; reorienting the meeting would mean painful change for these people, including giving up their control of the group.
I POSTED THIS 11 SECONDS AFTER FORREST POSTED HIS COMMENT. His post and mine seem to address similar issues!
SynchroniciDaddy strikes again!
Resurrection is something God does, as appropriate. I'm hoping God sends in more people like the newcomers of the last year or so, to accomplish what I couldn't -- but it's still a tiny bunch, and for now I'm bailing for the larger, more active Meeting in town.
The model that makes most sense to me... although I don't know if it'll ever happen -- would be small groups gathering for flexible forms of worship in people's houses, occasional gatherings of the whole Meeting in a larger building -- less car travel, and less of an institutional exoskeleton, for what (at least here out West) is after all a widely scattered minority.
A small group of us at Manhasset have been trying to do that. The problem is our meeting house is not located in an area where we can easily be a church. We are trying to figure that out. There are some good churches in the area with popular pastors so it's not like there are no spirit filled people around. Of course a good old fashioned revival would be nice but it seems like our meeting house missed out on the last spiritual revival in the area and instead hitched it's wagon to the Peace movement. Now without a draft that seems like a poor long term choice. Working on just trying to be as loving as possible and open to the spirit. Time will tell.
Thanks Bill for your caring post.
My meeting was dying at one point due to our hanging on to old Quaker traditions that added no value to modern seekers, and also were not foundational to the theology of Quakerism.
It has taken us about five years to dismantle that bureaucracy and learn to truly be open to the Spirit. Some of the changes that have occurred in our liberal Quaker meeting include: less emphasis on committees (we had more committees than we had people on Sunday!); researching and operating more like the very earliest Quakers - which mostly means becoming a totally spirit-led group (we no longer care about formal membership for example and we often discern things as a whole meeting); truly valuing simplicity in our meeting structures and organization; being more open to all who find value in our spiritual community (evangelical Christians, atheists, Republicans, Libertarians, whoever); realizing, admitting, and valuing that it is entirely the spirit of Jesus' teachings that are the underpinning of our liberal Quaker spirituality; starting an adult spiritual discussion every Sunday based on many different spiritual works during the 30 minutes prior to our hour-long unprogrammed worship (surprise: this has rarely influenced the vocal ministry during worship); paying qualified youthful "First Day" School teachers so that consistency and quality is present for our kids; spruce up our meetinghouse with things that will enhance community (like a full front porch across the whole meetinghouse that is eight feet deep - a place where Friends now gather each Sunday to sit, chat, and have refreshments); and finally a frowning on ANY discussion or promotion of political agendas (we now have many politically conservative Friends among us) - opting for just an emphasis on our Quaker testimonies instead.
The result has been a steady inflow of interest in our spiritual community. Many new ones have joined us (and by the way, they are immediately accepted as VALUED members of our meeting), and long-time Quakers who had stopped coming to meeting are back with us. Average worship attendance after five years of effort is now four times more Friends than it was.
So how do we manage all this diversity of theology, politics, age, etc.? We constantly talk about the fact that our unity is our unconditional love as modeled by Jesus and many others who have had his same Spirit. And it all appears to be working to the benefit of our spiritual community!
Your post exemplifies the "turn around" spirit and agenda I advocated.
Another book on the "life history" of congregations is Nancy Ammerman's *Congregation and Community*. http://smile.amazon.com/Congregation-Community-Nancy-Ammerman/dp/08...
Nancy Ammerman is a very capable sociologist who has specialized in the study of congregations. Her book is a real eye opener!
What a sociologist says about a religious body may sometimes be as useful as what a physician says about a human body. But in both cases, it's the soul that gives it life, and makes that life worth preserving.
One symptom of 'deadness' in a religious institution is that its members automatically read its failing condition as a series of sociological "problems" to be reasoned about and "solved" by suitable changes of policy -- but so far as I've brought what I saw as failings to Meeting attention, whatever measures are taken in response are undermined and ultimately fail because they are merely symptomatic of something deeper.
On another hand, I feel that God does continue to care for and to some extent guide my Meeting, keeping it going as an institution for the people who continue to find it helpful -- who naturally gravitate to what fits their needs for now. I want something more; but the Meeting is not required to suit me.
Forrest Curo wrote: "What a sociologist says about a religious body may sometimes be as useful as what a physician says about a human body."
Accurate and disciplined description and analysis of an organization or culture, often incorporating what the layperson overlooks, is the heart of the sociological enterprise, and its great contribution!
The sociologist cannot probe the "soul" of an organization, but can analyze what its participants say and do in relation to its ethos.
Forrest commented further: "One symptom of 'deadness' in a religious institution is that its members automatically read its failing condition as a series of sociological "problems" to be reasoned about and "solved" by suitable changes of policy."
I don't see this as deadness at all, but as an indication of critical self-awareness!
Like this: What bit of "critical self-awareness" gets admitted to M&O and the business meetings... is dealt with as if the concerns were strictly exercises in applied sociology, details in need of incremental improvement. And that fails to address the fact that the patient is dead.
Ursula Jane O'Shea, writing of Quakers as a kind of ~'religious order in crisis' -- ended up concluding that despite the various panaceas people might try, successfully coming through that crisis would have to depend on how diligently Friends attended to the Spirit's guidance.
You can try to build a nice tidy house for the Spirit, but it decides where it can breathe...
Forrest Curo wrote: "Ursula Jane O'Shea, writing of Quakers as a kind of ~'religious order in crisis'..."
Forrest: Please provide a citation for Ursula O'Shea's comeents! It is hard for me to understand the import of her remarks without some context.
I write the last words of this lecture from Woodbrooke in England, as
autumn leaves begin to drift past my window. Coming to the end, it has been
tempting to put forward my own views about the Way forward for Australian
Quakers at the end of the twentieth century: words about our business methods,
testimonies, changes in eldership and oversight, committees for clearness, and our
life of worship and prayer and concerns. In the phrase of eighteenth-century
Friends, to do so would have 'outstripped my guide'.
It would also have cut across the movement of this lecture which has asked
Friends to focus on the how of the Quaker Way, exploring from the perspectives
of the past, the limitations and the possibilities of our future. In the Quaker Way
the transcendent and immanent aspects of our lives are indivisible; the spiritual
vitality of our meetings depends on each of us being faithful to the inward guide;
and action for justice to transform the world arises from our inward awareness of
God's way in the world.
There are new challenges and changes sweeping British Quakerism and
Australian Quakerism as we struggle to give birth to renewed communities, but
the specific structures are less important than how we formulate them and how we
use them. They will be Life-giving if they reflect our fidelity to divine guidance
and are lived flexibly yet tenaciously under that same guidance.
Living upside down in the rightside-up world, we are asked to be and to do
many things seemingly beyond human wisdom or power. Colonies of fruit bats
unexpectedly (at least by human wisdom) fly hundreds of kilometres to a forest of
native blossom that has not flowered for years. There they feed on nectar and
pollinate the hardwoods. If we are open to the Spirit, the signs of our times and
our Quaker heritage, we will find new a nd unexpected places to give the fertility
needed by the world, taking our own nourishment at the same time.