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Let God Out of the Meetinghouse

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micahWhen I became a Quaker, one of the first things I learned about my new faith is that we do not view one time or place as more holy than another. In contrast to many other religious groups, we do not observe special occasions or venerate buildings. Holy ground is wherever God’s Spirit chooses to move.

Though I was told all these things as a seeker, I soon came to understand that our actual practice is a little more complicated. While I have never encountered a meetinghouse that has been formally declared a sacred space, most of the meetings that I’ve visited treat their buildings as hallowed ground.

There are probably as many ways to venerate buildings as there are meetings. There are the recently built meetinghouses that often reflect the artistic creativity, determination, and financial commitment of the associated meeting. There are other meetinghouses that hold great nostalgic value (“think of all the carry-in dinners that have been held in this basement, all the First-day school classes that have been taught in this classroom”). Then there are the very old meetinghouses that carry the weight of historical preservation. A few meetings I’ve visited seem more like an association of caretakers for a very important historical site with their focus on the heritage of the building and grounds, rather than on the Spirit.

We put so much work and emotion into our meetinghouses, it’s not surprising when the physical plant ends up being our main focus. The evidence is found in the way we present ourselves. For example, when I visit the website of a Friends meeting, more often than not the first image displayed is not of people, but of a building. With startlingly high frequency, when people talk about “the meeting,” they are referring to the building itself, rather than the community of Friends who gather there. “Will I see you at meeting tomorrow?” “This Saturday, we’ll have a work day at the meeting.”

It is ironic that Quakers, whose movement was founded in great part on the idea that the church is people, not a building, should revert to this same confusion today. The fact that this pattern has crept back into Quakerism indicates to me that misdirected focus is a perennial human problem. We get attached to our physical spaces, our buildings, and our grounds. In many ways, they are more permanent and consistent than the human community itself, and they often serve as mascots for us.

This current perspective isn’t all bad. For far too long, Quakers have deemphasized the physical to such a great extent that we have become almost gnostic, denying the reality and goodness of physical creation, including the human body. Sometimes, perhaps, our fixation on the meetinghouse is a recognition of the importance of place, physicality, and connection with the Earth.

There are times when a special affection for a meetinghouse feels really appropriate to me. For example, I often experience a sense of holiness in the Stillwater Meetinghouse in Barnesville, Ohio. It is as if the walls of the building, which was built in 1877, have been soaked with the prayers of generations of worshiping Friends. When I enter the meeting room, I often feel some sort of tangible, energetic difference. Despite everything I have been taught about the spiritual equality of all times and places, I cannot help but think of this building as special.

Unfortunately, our love affair with meetinghouses has a serious downside. Like most of the Christian community, we Quakers live within a cultural context where church (or meeting) has long been considered a physical place. In this view, church is what happens on Sunday morning, in a designated building, while certain rituals (whether based in preaching, spoken liturgy, or silence) are performed.

For a long time, this model seemed to be very successful. The 1950s saw peak involvement in this type of congregation. The vast majority of Americans joined the club and attended church on Sundays. The church building (or meetinghouse) was the site of religious education, prayer, and worship. What it meant to be a Christian was largely focused on what the family did on Sunday morning.

In the last 50 years, however, the ground has shifted under our feet. Western culture has changed dramatically, and this place-based, Sunday-morning type of Christian experience is speaking to fewer and fewer people. While a few congregations have become extremely large (think megachurches), membership in Christian communities overall is down dramatically. But the decrease is not due to a waning interest in matters of faith and higher meaning. On the contrary, more and more people are seeking out connection with a deeper way of life, a purpose greater than themselves. But Sunday-morning style religion has become increasingly irrelevant for these seekers, and they don’t know where to turn instead.

Now, more than ever, we long for a faith that impacts all parts of our lives. We want to belong to a community that involves every aspect of our existence (work, play, family, and friendships). We seek a path that will help us make sense of life and make healthy, Spirit-led decisions. We are looking for more than the Sunday-morning, building-centered church experience can offer.

This reality presents a great opportunity for Friends, who traditionally have upheld these very values. The early Quaker movement was all about bringing the reality of Christ’s presence into every nook and cranny of our lives, and not allowing it to be locked up in sacred buildings or reserved for special times. At its best, the Quaker movement is one that breaks down divisions and offers a vibrant life of wholeness in the Spirit.

Unfortunately, in the last few centuries, we too have gotten caught up in the Sunday-morning game. We have become respectable, church-going people—a far cry from the radical movement that exploded distinctions between sacred and profane, releasing God from steeple houses and exclusive rituals. Do we have the courage to reevaluate the ways that we shackle the Holy Spirit today? Are we ready to let God out of the meetinghouse?

If so, the Quaker community will look very different in 20 years. Instead of being centered around sacred buildings and quaint rituals, our meetings may gather in homes, workplaces, and public spaces. We could once again break down distinctions between meeting for worship and the rest of life, exploring ways to develop a greater awareness of God’s presence and power throughout the week, whether in silence or rush-hour traffic. Our practice, rather than fixating on a particular worship format or business process, would come to encompass the entirety of life.

This vision will look different depending on the conditions and needs of our local communities. Some meetings will do best holding on to their meetinghouses and Sunday-morning worship. But even then, are there ways that we can throw the doors open? What would it look like if we made our buildings and meeting times fertile ground for fresh expressions of God’s presence in the world? How can we let go of our identification with buildings and attachment to rituals, allowing them to serve as resources for God’s mission rather than as a definition of us?

On the other hand, some of us might do well to let go of our buildings altogether. What kind of resources would be released if a smaller meeting sold their building and directed the funds to releasing ministry and empowering works of mercy and justice? Could we learn to take full advantage of small size (by meeting in homes, offices, and public spaces) while at the same time learning how to become larger (by connecting our small groups together in supportive networks that grow and multiply throughout our cities, towns, and neighborhoods)? What kind of creative energy might we discover if we focus only on building up Christ’s body, instead of perpetuating structures (physical and institutional) that are no longer best suited for facing today’s challenges? What would it look like to re-think the entire concept of meeting?

Now is an exciting time to be alive. Our world is changing in ways that our spiritual ancestors hardly could have imagined. God is giving us the opportunity to reshape our communities and traditions so that we can best serve the new society that is emerging. Will we accept the invitation to participate? Are we ready to embrace this opportunity for learning, growth, even adventure?

Micah Bales is a founding member of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship (Fojf.org), a network of communities and ministries gathered around a common experience of Jesus in our midst. He blogs regularly at The Lamb’s War (Lambswar.com), and has been published in a variety of online and print publications. Micah lives with his wife in Washington, D.C.

Posted in: December 2013, Features

3 Responses to Let God Out of the Meetinghouse

  1. Rev. Chester Kirchman December 2, 2013 at 6:20 am #

    City & State
    Orangeville, PA
    Micah’s views are easy to see, but difficult to reach in our monetary society. Even local governments are more concerned with the monetary view of houses in their community than a reach to God by its residents. With experience in differing congregations of alternate churches of Faith, my faith is the base for joining the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, (QUF). Quf willingness to listen to the views of individuals from many different cultures, provides a base for expanding Global Faith. You do not need to believe as I believe. As a Friend, your ‘Piece of God.’ ‘Inward Light,’ or ‘Inner Light,’ is yours, not as someone states it needs to be. Every Individual in Mankind believes. What another believes may be different from what you believe, but a willingness to learn each other’s belief is a basis for saving the earth God gave us to live on with each other. If money or/and physical appearances/possessions are your belief, as with many USA citizens, reaching beyond your personal world may be difficult. Micah’s Friends of Jesus Fellowship may help you or any other as QUF has done for me. Please reach out and find your place in our world.

  2. Sara Smith December 3, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

    City & State
    Concord NH
    I think this is a very interesting perspective, but I will speak from a different one. I speak from a meeting that met for many years in a day care center, then decided to build its own meetinghouse. We found that we were mostly invisible in the community. If we had an important speaker or event, we would rent the nearby UU church. To many people this would appear as a UU event. So people did not seek us out as much as a follow-up. We were a bit hard to find even with our First Day sign put temporarily in front. Our first day classes were surrounded by messages that did not fit our message, ie cheap Disney books for the little ones. We searched for many years (really about 20) for alternatives in our small community. We found nothing. Programs that could have enlightened the nearby community felt inaccessible to outsiders. Eventually we decided to build our won building. Working together for this goal made us a stronger community. Much love and forgiveness was needed and shared.
    Now people come to our meetinghouse- seeking us out, finding us on our website, seeing our sign on the highway. They seem to appreciate the green building- super insulated, heated with wood pellets, sited for future solar, cabinets made by local businesses and prison workshops, re-purposed materials, and work we did ourselves. This is a message in itself of our values.
    Now we do have a resource we can share with the community as well. We also partnered with a local non-profit that mentors at youth risk. And most importantly to us, it is a place young families can come and teach these values to a new generation. Most importantly, new people report on how important it is for them to be able to sit and worship mostly in silence and feel the spirit.
    So this is my perspective, based upon my experience. Micah has suggested many ideas too. They may really work for him and I hope he reports back to us on how he develops them. I think they could be meaningful to many. I wonder where other people can discovery growing edges of faith.

  3. Jim Schultz December 3, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

    City & State
    Lake Ronkonkoma, NY
    I think I will have something to say about this next year. Stay tuned.

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