Are Friends growing or shrinking? The answer, of course, is, "It all depends"—on where, over what time, and by how much. Our statistics are only as good as the information we are given—which is why we ask yearly meetings for updates each year. Using the most recent figures we have and the information in American Quakers Today, 1971, edited by Edwin Bronner (published by FWCC, several editions, but now long out of print) we can see the trends for the last 35 years.
The situation in the northern part of the Section of the Americas is not very encouraging. For all the excitement that we feel when new families arrive and new people join, with few exceptions new Friends have not replaced those who have died, moved away, or left.
The most serious losses have been in Alaska, Jamaica, and Central yearly meetings. Alaska, made up of indigenous Friends living north of the Arctic Circle, has lost 60 percent of its members, presumably due to migration to areas where there is work. Central Yearly Meeting, formed in 1926 when Holiness Friends separated from Indiana and Western yearly meetings, and Jamaica Yearly Meeting have both lost more than half their members. These were small yearly meetings to begin with, in the hundreds, with the feel of extended families. However, through vigorous outreach, Central does have a significant number of attenders.
Those yearly meetings that are affiliated only to Friends United Meeting (FUM) have declined by an average of 57 percent in the last 35 years, unfortunately the largest decrease in all the yearly meetings collectively, with a net loss of 31,000 individuals. The loss of 7,000 of those can be accounted for by the move of most Californian Friends out of FUM and into Evangelical Friends International (EFI), but not a single FUM yearly meeting has increased its membership. Rural depopulation has hit some areas badly, with a couple of the larger yearly meetings losing two-thirds of their members. Did they join other denominations? Did they "marry out" and join a different church? It would take a research study to find out.
Despite emphasis on church growth and planting, Evangelical Friends have experienced tough times in the U.S., too. If it were not for the move of Evangelical Friends Church Southwest, formerly California Yearly Meeting, from FUM into EFI, the total number of Evangelical Friends would also show a decline. As we saw, Alaska Yearly Meeting lost 60 percent of its members, and two other yearly meetings lost over one-third. However, Evangelical Friends Church Eastern Region shows 19-percent growth, and Northwest Yearly Meeting is remaining steady.
I hear a lot about the growth of unprogrammed meetings, and of the need to add extra space for First-day school and social events. That is true in some places, most significantly in Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association (SAYMA), which covers seven states. New faces are welcome, but the statistics do not point to noticeable growth everywhere. Perhaps those who leave are noticed less. The yearly meetings that are affiliated only with Friends General Conference (FGC) show an overall loss of 8 percent. The bulk of that is the loss of more than 4,000 members of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.
Conservative Friends show an overall loss of 14 percent from a base that was already small. Iowa and Ohio are both down from the 700s to the 500s, whereas North Carolina is up a couple of hundred members.
The most stable group is made up of those yearly meetings affiliated to both Friends General Conference and Friends United Meeting, with a 6-percent overall decline, which is due entirely to significant losses in New York. The other yearly meetings—Baltimore, Canadian, New England, and Southeastern—have all grown over the last three decades.
The three small, unaffiliated yearly meetings in the west, all part of Pacific Yearly Meeting in 1971, have grown from just over 2,000 to well over 3,000. Not a large number, but a 65-percent growth rate.
While there is encouraging growth among some groups of Friends, in Canada and the U.S. overall, attrition is greater than the gains: Friends in Canada and the U.S. have declined 27 percent over the last 35 years.
In contrast, Latin Americans, particularly Evangelical Latin Americans, are transforming our Section. Cuban Friends have increased by nearly 68 percent; Mexican Friends by well over 300 percent—from a modest base, but clearly in the right direction. In El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (one mission field in 1971, with under 2,000 members) there are now more than 23,000 Friends, an increase of more than 1,000 percent.
Turning to South America, 35 years ago there were estimated to be 3,000 Friends in Bolivia and Peru combined. Now, depending on which statistics we accept, there are between 23,000 and 33,000. Whether it’s a sevenfold increase or a tenfold increase, it is significant, and it shows no sign of slowing.
Missionaries from different branches of Friends in North America—Holiness and Evangelical—chose in the 1920s and 1930s to take the Gospel to the Aymara people. These indigenous people in the Andes were among the poorest of the poor, in a culture that excluded them socially, economically, and religiously. The Aymara welcomed the respect and sensitivity with which the missionaries treated them and were open to their religious message and social concerns. Picking up from where the missionaries left off, the Aymara Friends preach the Gospel, identify where the needs are, plant churches, and establish schools and sometimes clinics. There seems to be no end to their work, their energy, and the needs, particularly with the massive internal migration from the countryside to the cities.
Over 35 years, Friends in the Caribbean and Latin America have increased eightfold, from just over 6,000 to almost 60,000. Much of that growth is among Friends for whom Spanish is their first or second language (after their indigenous tongue). The growth of this sector of Friends is the reason why overall the Section of the Americas has grown since 1971 by between 10,000 and 20,000 members.
As Latinos move north for work opportunities in Canada and the U.S., Spanish-speaking Friends congregations (usually calling themselves Hispanic Friends Churches) are found in an increasing number of Canadian and U.S. cities. While they are often planted and pastored by Friends originating in Guatemala, many worshipers are new to Friends. There is a large and exciting challenge to introduce these new attenders to Friends traditions, theology, and testimonies. How will the growth of Hispanic congregations affect the landscape of Friends in North America? This could be the largest area of growth.
One question that often puzzles me is why so many Hispanic Friends congregations are meeting in churches belonging to other denominations. I would love to see established Friends meetings with their own property sharing space with Hispanic Friends. It would be an opportunity to share growth and challenges together. What would be the stresses, the synergy, the transformation, and the joy, for Friends to reach across the boundaries of language, culture, and tradition to share space, social time, religious education—and perhaps even worship? Would your meeting be willing to share its space with an evangelical Hispanic Friends congregation?