A few weeks ago I talked to a longtime member of a Friends meeting in a Southern U.S. state. He told me attendance has steadily dwindled over the last few decades and they now get around ten people to worship a week, with a few more on Zoom. He’s in his 70s and is worried. He was trying to locate a recent Friends Journal article on dying meetings.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that phone call and about this month’s lead article by Andy Stanton-Henry, who urges us to think about what it would mean to focus our attention on a radius of ten miles. This exact measurement comes from a rousing line from twentieth-century Friend Thomas Kelly: “Such bands of humble prophets can recreate the Society of Friends and the Christian church and shake the countryside for ten miles around.” Kelly in turn got it from seventeenth-century Quaker founder George Fox, who said that anyone raised up as a modern prophet might “shake all the country in their profession for ten miles round.”
Ten miles seems like such a triflingly small distance to us today. It’s a few minutes at highway speeds. The U.S. Census Bureau tells us the average work commute is 27 miles; the Department of Transportation calculates that U.S. drivers average 36 miles per day.
Personal electronic communication has made distance even more meaningless, and it’s easy to build and maintain friendships unbounded by any geography. There’s a mea culpa in this: I’m one of those extremely online people who spends their days in constant communication with people well outside of a ten-mile radius. This can be productive, and yet: those ten miles.
I live in a small town in a semi-rural area but looking at census figures, I’m astonished to see there are tens of thousands of people within that distance. A suburban area can easily house half a million people. A ten-mile radius of the Friends Journal office reaches millions of people. That’s a lot of potential Friends!
I’ve been getting more involved in the outreach efforts of my meeting in the last year. One of our most successful recent public efforts was a Halloween trunk-or-treat event. We contacted the homeowners association of the housing development behind the meetinghouse and distributed flyers to its families. I don’t know if we exactly shook the neighborhood, but we enticed a few dozen people to step into the meetinghouse. Maybe they’ll come back to next year’s Halloween event. Visit by visit we become neighbors, known and appreciated.
We’re working on getting new signs for the driveways, inviting local township committees to upcoming events, and producing a new printed flyer. There’s nothing at all radical in this, but these are all connections made within the ten miles. We still have a website, of course, and there’s no reason that local outreach can’t happen in conjunction with hybrid distance worship. But with so many people so physically nearby to so many of our meetings, it seems we have enough opportunities to be optimistic about our futures, if only we can pull together a humble band of prophets to carry out the work.