In 1966 Time magazine published a famous cover story asking “Is God Dead?,” and at the time it may have seemed to many to be a reasonable question.  Membership in mainstream churches had begun its long decline; in some cases, according to, in traditions such as the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational (UCC) churches, membership has dropped by nearly fifty percent in the fifty years since 1960.  In North America, the Catholic Church has seen their numbers grow almost exclusively because of new immigrants from the global south, but otherwise has experienced huge attrition.  There has been growth however, sometimes spectacular growth, in many “conservative” denominations, among groups like the Evangelicals, the Mormons, and the so-called “fundamentalist” churches.   This rapid growth in the social (and political) influence of the Christian fundamentalists beginning in the 1970's,  especially in the United States, may be one of the most significant events in the “Christian century”. 


But now there are voices,  like theologian Harvey Cox in The Future of Faith, who are arguing that fundamentalism of all kinds is dying.  It may be a slow, noisy, sometimes violent death, but there are signs that the dominant influences of fundamentalist religions are at least on the decline.  Whether it can be seen in the public backlash against extremists like the Westboro Baptist Church or the “Koran burning” pastor Terry Jones, or the inability of the ultra-conservative religious messages in the last election to resonate with most of the public, or most significantly, the failure of Christian fundamentalism to enlist large numbers of young people, there are reasons to think fundamentalism has passed its peak, at least for now.  Add to this the growth in an outspoken and populist version of Atheism, and it may almost look like Time was merely running fast a few decades...


But there is also something else happening.  A growing number of Americans (nearly a third, according to one Gallop poll) describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  Books with titles like “Christianity After Religion,” “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time,” and “The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus” are gathering a growing audience.  And the Emerging Church movement, seeking to live, as Harvey Cox puts it, “in a new Age of Faith rather than the old Age of Belief,” is inspiring many young people (and not a few of us old folks!) with fresh winds of the Spirit.  It feels like once again, as in the old Buffy Ste. Marie song, “God is alive, magic is afoot.” And more and more people want to be a part of it.


If the Spirit of Jesus is doing wonderful new things in the world (as Quakers have always maintained), what role might the Religious Society of Friends play in this new Movement?  We were - and still are - part of those declining church numbers.  We never were (thankfully, IMO) part of the fundamentalist phenomenon.  Do we have anything to say to those Red Letter Christians who are stepping around a doctrinal approach and are not looking for beliefs about Jesus, but are seeking the Way of Jesus?  Is there anything our Quaker tradition can offer to this rising chorus?


I believe there is, and I would like to share my musings on just three things our tradition might offer as our spiritual gift (1Cor 12:4) to this new movement of the Spirit.  These are not new ideas - these things have been said many times by Friends and others - but they are worth repeating.


1.  As we often proclaim, Friends are, for the most part, non-creedal and non-hierarchical.  When we are at our best we’ve avoided creeds, and when we are at our worst we’ve just been bad at them.  One of the apparent features of the emerging church movement seems to be a general disinterest in formal creedal statements of belief that everyone is expected to conform to in order to be “in.”  Friends’ attempts to wait for the Spirit to lead rather than turning to a human leader is one of our historic precedents.  Our testimony on equality, so radical at the time of the early Friends, speaks to the cultural reality of the new Jesus People and the spiritual reality to which they aspire.  And Friends, did anyone see something of “that Friend speaks my mind” in the People’s Microphone at Occupy Wall Street?


2.  Friends have long held an abiding faith in the continuing revelation of God.  We may disagree on what that revelation is, and our different branches may have different views on how that is revealed to us, but it is safe to say few Quakers believe that God went away when the canon was closed.  Popular evangelists like Rob Bell and Shane Claiborne draw large crowds of young Seekers precisely because they speak of meeting the Holy Spirit through experience, not concept.   For many of the speakers of this new Movement, and I can only assume for their aspiring listeners, the stories they want to hear are not about what God can do for us, but what God is doing in the world - and how can we be a part of it.  Isn’t that the continuing revelation of God?


3.  To these new Followers of Jesus, faith means an abiding trust in the non-violent and redemptive love of God for everyone regardless of race, religion, social status, sexual orientation, political beliefs, criminal occupation, or anything else we humans use to separate ourselves.  This new Awakening expends little energy on theological debate and like many Friends does not equate Christian life with questions of reward/heaven versus punishment/hell.  Sin and salvation are not so much ignored as trumped by Grace.  And in a world filled with poverty, violence, addiction, exploitation, hopelessness, fear, and suffering of all kinds, the emerging church is longing for a prophetic witness for peace and reconciliation.


Like the one the Quakers are noted for.


Now everyone within the Society of Friends knows our reputation often far exceeds our reality.  Friends have spent a great deal of the last two hundred years bickering over many of the same arguments the rest of the church has struggled with, and it is by no means over yet.  In our individual Meetings we far too often clash over personalities, positions, and a general failure to love one another.  We are just as fallen and in need of Grace as anyone else.  But our best voices have always called us to turn toward the Light, “till by turning, turning we come ‘round right”, and our prophetic tradition has always found hope in the fact that there is that of God in every person.


The new movement within the Church is looking for a community of faith active in the world, engaging the world, feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, healing the broken, challenging the Powers and Principalities - and that is part of our Quaker heritage as well. 


Friends, let us learn from this movement of the Spirit in our day.  Let us join with them and pray with them and grow with them, not that they may “become Quakers” (whatever that means), but that together and across traditions, we may see what Love can do in our world today. 


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Comment by James C Schultz on 6th mo. 11, 2013 at 11:16am

That friend speaks my mind.

Comment by Bill Smith on 6th mo. 11, 2013 at 4:28pm

Sounds like convergent Friends to me.  That group of Young Adult Friends (20s-30s) have been saying this for a while.

Comment by William F Rushby on 7th mo. 13, 2013 at 7:31am

At the risk of appearing to be a "wet blanket", I take exception to several of Randy Oftedahl's remarks.   The concept of "fundamentalism" as a unitary religious movement that has recently taken a downturn seems out of touch with history, to me.  The "Fundamentalist" movement has been in decline for half a century, after Billy Graham, Carl Henry and Christianity Today began to define "Evangelicalism" as an alternative.

A further cliché trotted out here as "news" is the distinction between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus.  I don't think that this notion would stand up to rigorous analysis.  Jesus taught many things "about" himself that would belie the idea that "of" and "about" are clearly defined alternatives.

As for the idea that Friends should tie their kites to one or another popular new movement because it offers hope for the future, permit me to express skepticism.  Yes, "Occupy" and "the Emergent Church" are trendy and seem to resonate with ideas from our faith tradition, but we would be wise to be cautious and avoid over-identification with what are likely to be passing fads.

Friend Oftedahl wrote: " We are just as fallen and in need of Grace as anyone else."  This, I believe, is where we need to begin, in a state of humility.  Smugness about what Friends have to offer is one of our worst enemies!


Comment by Randy Oftedahl on 7th mo. 14, 2013 at 5:20am

Friend William;

Thank you for your comments.  I'll just respond by first saying that I was asking the question, based on Harvey Cox and some apparent "movements" that Fundamentalism is weakening.  I did not intend to say it is going away.  But then, you seem to agree that it is in decline.  And yes, I believe there is a distinction between "of" Jesus and "about" Jesus.  All of the 40,000 plus Christian denominations are "about" Jesus - but is it really true that they are ALL "of" Jesus?  I would have to say I believe that some - Westboro Baptist for example - are clearly not.  But I know not everyone would agree.

And forgive me if "over identification with trendy fads" sounds a little like it could be thrown at Quakers as well.  It's not whether something is trendy or popular or "in the news" that I feel Friends should pay attention to it, but rather if it appears to be in the Spirit of Christ, and MAY be the way the Spirit is reaching out in this day.  And if it does, we shouldn't reject it even if it comes in hip-hop music and dreadlocks.  

And I truly apologize if I said anything that appeared to suggest "smugness about what Friends have to offer".  That was not my intent.  I do, however, feel that Friends may have a role and a witness that can speak to awakening consciences and modern day Seekers.  If I didn't think that so, I wouldn't be a Quaker.  If I didn't think the Spirit could speak through other traditions and other means, I wouldn't be a Christian.   Though I may have said it poorly, that was what I wanted to say.  


Randy O

Comment by William F Rushby on 7th mo. 14, 2013 at 5:45pm

Hello, Randy!  I think that my comments were a bit overheated, and I apologize for the tone.

Christian fundamentalism has been weakening for a long time, but a lot of the energy has gone into the evangelical alternative.  Even Jerry Falwell was "evolving" (pun intended) toward a softer version of his belief system, and his sons have apparently gone even further in that direction since he died.  (By the way, Kevin Roose (brought up liberal Quaker) wrote an interesting book on his experience at Liberty U  I have encouraged him to write a book about his Quaker experience, but I am not sure that will ever happen!

I agree that there is a distinction between religion "of" Jesus and "about" Jesus, but the Lord himself ignored that difference.  He had much to say about "I am the Resurrection and the Life..." and "I am the true vine...", etc.  He understood himself to be the Christ, the Son of Man, not simply a teacher of ethical ideals.

I went a bit overboard in cautioning against identification with movements such as the Emergent Church.  Its ideas may indeed become more than a passing fad; we don't know what kind of impact this movement will have yet.  On the other hand, we need to maintain enough distance from it to evaluate it critically.  No such movement is likely to be a panacea.

My comments about Quaker smugness were not in any way directed at you as a person.  They were a response to your call for humility, which I strongly affirm.


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