When 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?