Friends today are called to the same radical work that has always driven us: to step back from the world and submit ourselves to the guidance and care of the Inward Christ, that ever-present, ever-patient Spirit. We are the inheritors of the radically simple good news that God’s message is nearby and that we can hear it if we only still ourselves enough to listen.
Look around at a world of individualistic consumerism run amuck, terrorism in the name of radical Islam, and the political lobbying of intolerance and war in the name of Christ, and you will see that the Quaker message is as fresh, as dangerous, and as relevant as it’s ever been.
Echoes of Quakerism are spouting in the mainstream. The popular Internet religion quiz at beliefnet.com tells thousands of users a year that their beliefs are most in line with ours! A trendy religious fad among young seekers is the "Emergent Church Movement," a loose collection of new churches that share much of Quakerism’s keep-it-real openness. Last year I was at a house party with members of a Philadelphia emergent church and asked a new acquaintance how he would describe the worship there. "It’s primitive Christianity revived!" he told me excitedly, unaware that he was borrowing the phrase from William Penn. I wanted to invite him to worship with Friends, but I couldn’t think of any nearby Friends meeting that would better exemplify Penn’s vision than his own church.
We Friends have gotten ourselves into something of a rut. We’ve come to value don’t-rock-the-boat cordiality too much. Many people now join Friends because it’s the religion without a religion; it’s a community with the form of a religion but without any theology or expectations. We are proud to be a community of seekers, and all is well until somebody finds.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m very glad we’re friendly. But I can’t help thinking that the world needs more than meetinghouses full of smiling Quakers. Our monthly meetings weren’t established for our comfort. They are shared witnesses to the Kingdom of God, a community that lives in the life and power that knows the Spirit is near and ready to instruct.
I suspect many Friends have stronger spiritual beliefs than they admit to. Many of us have had experiences of the Divine breaking into our lives. We’re much closer to the roots of Friends than we admit, and the teachings of Jesus continue to shape so many of our day-to-day beliefs and practices, even when the source is unclear. Are we being honest with new attenders when we dumb down our Quaker spirituality?
Friends today are approaching a kind of crossroads. Will we shed our Quaker skin entirely to become a kind of nondenominational spiritual seekers group, or will we reacquaint ourselves with our own tradition and mine it for its hidden treasures?
In the past few years, a number of Friends have taken to the Internet to blog about Quakerism: what it means to them, how it affects their lives, and how they wrestle with their monthly meetings and with their own internal doubts. One of the most amazing developments has been the blossoming of friendships across traditional Quaker denominational lines. Friends have been able to share their stories with an openness that is largely (though not entirely) without rancor. We don’t judge and we don’t try to agree. What we share is a curiosity about the Quaker world outside of our monthly and yearly meetings, and an openness to other manifestations of the great Quaker experiment. My Friend Robin Mohr of Pacific Yearly Meeting has dubbed this group "Convergent Friends."
The phenomenon is growing, and not just online. I see the same openness in the reports from the World Gathering of Young Friends. I see it in Evangelical Quaker graduate students picking up Fox, and liberal Quaker kids picking up the Bible. At a youth ministries consultation hosted by Friends General Conference last year, a survey found that all the attenders under 35 wanted more multigenerational conversations about faith, while only one Friend over 35 expressed interest in such a conversation.
It’s time Friends began having these kinds of open conversations about faith. We need to reach a new level of honesty and tolerance within our meetings, where we feel free to use the language we have and be honest about our spiritual experiences. We will find we have some shoring up to do in our meetings. Here are some themes I see emerging:
A reexamination of our roots, as Christians and as Friends
What babies were thrown out with the bath water by turn-of-the-century Friends who embraced modernism and rationalism and turned their back on our traditional testimonies? As a peace activist, I’m chagrined to find that older statements of our Peace Testimony often feel deeper and more meaningful than much of what we write today. Friends testimonies used to connect much more explicitly and seamlessly with faith than they do today. Is it possible to go that deep again?
Last year I led a workshop with high school Friends during which we studied the Gospel account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I was struck anew by how much of what I identify as Quakerism is in there. Early Friends lived in a society where Christianity was often used as a bludgeon against the defenseless and weak; yet they responded by calling the faithful back to the roots of Jesus’ teachings. What lessons remain for us there?
A desire to share the Good News
Too many of us are content with our nice, cozy monthly meetings. We use them as a kind of support group or extended family. That’s great, but why are we keeping this great Quaker message to ourselves? What would happen if we were to get serious about evangelization and outreach? If Quakerism grew tenfold over the next 20 years we’d have to build meetinghouses, have extra worship, and reorganize our committees—yet we’d still be a relatively tiny religious denomination! Many of our meetings are ripe for growth, located in booming suburbs or thriving urban centers, but year after year they stay small. Are we afraid of sharing the Good News through Quakerism?
A more personally involved, time-consuming commitment
Religion in the United States has become yet another consumer choice, an entertainment option for Sunday morning, and this paradigm holds true for Friends. We complain about how much time our Quaker work takes up. We complain about clearness committees or visioning groups that might take up a Saturday afternoon. A more involved Quakerism would realize that the hour on First Day morning is in many ways the least important time for our Religious Society. Younger seekers are looking for connections that are deeper and that will require time. We can’t build a religion on the cheap. It’s not money we need to invest, but our hearts and time.
A renewal of discipline and oversight
These words are taboo for many modern Friends. But we’ve kept to such an open-hearted tolerance so far that we’ve forgotten who we are. What does it mean to be a Quaker? Seekers are looking for answers. Friends have been able to provide them with answers in the past: ways to conduct oneself in the world, and ways to reach the Divine. Many of us yearn for more care, attention, and oversight in our religious lives, and more of a connection with others.
A confrontation of our cultural assumptions
We’ve got a lot of baggage left over from the days when many Quakers stopped doing outreach and focused on their established meetings. We’re too willing to sacrifice Truth-telling in the name of politeness; we have an overdeveloped intellectualism that has become snobbery against those without advanced schooling; it is taboo to be too loud or too "ethnic" in meeting. Racial diversity is a part of this, too, but only a part. When we have something to offer besides upper-class liberalism, we’ll find we can talk to a much wider selection of seekers.
A diversification of our meetings
I’ve noticed a growing number of worship groups spinning off from established meetings. Might it be that our monthly meetings are not necessarily "one size fits all"? Friends come with different expectations for their monthly meeting; maybe we need to be easier with this kind of diversity. If we think of ourselves as "Convergent Friends," we’ll be able to socialize and share together without feeling threatened. Most of our yearly meetings are mature enough that they can embrace a diversity of theology and practice without coming apart at the seams.
Friends traveling in the ministry and in fellowship used to knit our religious society together. Even though we can now travel thousands of miles in a few hours, we’ve lost some of our visiting skills. We need to get to know each other. Communication technologies can help in this—the Internet is a great way of introducing ourselves to one another!—but we need to follow it up by shaking hands and worshiping together. Many interest groups have formed around particular interests and these have a role in nurturing Friends who might feel isolated in their own monthly meeting, yet we also need to reach out to the wider family of Friends. What do we have to learn from those "other" Quakers?
We Friends have a wondrous tradition to call upon. Cautionary tales of Friends breaking apart are just as valuable as the highlights of Friends rising up to proclaim a new human truth. The world is hungry for what we’ve tasted. History is not through with us. Let’s go out once more in the Spirit that inspired and fed generations of Friends.