Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Note: This was originally a Facebook post I was unexpectedly led to write this morning after having yet another conversation about how to attract younger people to meetings. Friends seemed appreciative of it, and Martin Kelley encouraged me to spread it to a wider audience.
With all the talk about why our Friends meetings and churches can't retain younger people, I want to share why Quakers managed to keep me, a "convinced" Friend. This isn't about what sets Quakers apart from other groups (though I can talk about that, too, elsewhere). It's about how a meeting invited me in.
It's pretty simple. At my first time at Austin Friends Meeting back in 2002, a guy name Dave introduced himself and treated me as a regular person, rather than being fearful that I was of a different generation. He asked me what led me to worship with them that morning. He actually listened to my reply and informed me about two small groups I could check out (a bible study and spiritual discussion group). I went to both. These groups gave me the opportunity to make connections with people and learn about Quakers' faith and practice. I was plugged in, and my connection to God was revived. It was a couple of months before anyone even mentioned committee service to me.
College-age attenders have plenty of clubs, committees, and activist movements to join on campus. Many college grads are overwhelmed with entering the job world and aren't looking for committee service right off the bat. They're looking for a spiritual path, and to find others to walk alongside and help them find their bearings.
If our meetings don't have newbie-friendly small group opportunities with some degree of a spiritual formation component, or if we're afraid of younger seekers because they are "different," how can we invite them in? Committee service comes later, when they've found the connection and spiritual nurture that they, in turn, want to support.
Funny thing is, I think this is all true for older seekers, too.
The Red Letter Christians website had an interesting piece this week that seems relevant. It seems like the goal of "attracting young people to the church" is about the institution, not about the people it's trying to serve; and so there's no particular reason for "the young people" to show up.
In particular, the interview with Diana Butler Bass about her new book, Christianity after Religion, has some good stuff about this.
What if our meetings/churches really were about the people and not the meetinghouses/steeplehouses? Perhaps more of us would naturally behave like the Friend Jeff encountered his first time at Austin Meeting.
The Quaker church I went to just out of college did a number of things that kept me on board. I have to say I chose to stay there and become a member because I felt I was a Quaker no matter what and it was the only Quaker church around (plus it was only 20 blocks from my house!). I think I would have been equally welcomed at the Quaker meeting, just as close to me, but I hadn't grown up unprogrammed and didn't want to make that change.
Anyway, a couple different people at the church regularly gave me rides to church or other events. After time had progressed, I was invited at various times to be on different committees and groups. I (and everyone else) was always greeted so warmly every Sunday morning. One year I wanted to put on a Stations of the Cross in the church basement. Even though no one had a clue what I was doing or what my vision was, they let me do it and supported me. I can't tell you how amazing it was to feel supported despite everyone's doubts. (And it turned out really well.) When I went off traveling the church prayed for me. They happily provided clearness committees when I needed them. It's hard to think of all the little ways that I felt supported and welcomed by that church. Probably why I still consider it home, even though I moved away 4 years ago.
In the Twin Cities there are only unprogrammed meetings and several to choose from. We mostly go to the one my husband is a member of. This meeting has been very welcoming of me, even though I'm not a member yet. I've gotten monetary help to attend various Quaker events through the years, I've been asked to be involved in the life of the meeting through committees and sharing at adult education. They happily set up a support committee for me and have written traveling minutes for me.
I thought this sort of thing was normal, but I've been learning that not all meetings/churches are this welcoming. I've heard of places where yafs aren't really supported unless they become a member. Monetary help, etc, is held out as a carrot in exchange for membership. I think that is unfortunate.
I'll never forget the first person at the first meeting I ever attended who welcomed me - his name was Dwayne. His warmth and kindness made it a place to which I wanted to return. I have since tried to be a welcoming face to newcomers of all ages.