An Interview with Robin Mohr
Friends World Committee for Consultation has recently published its updated census of Friends throughout the world. What trends did you find since the last chart in 2007?
One trend is that the growth of Friends has largely been among Evangelical Friends in Asia, Europe, and Africa. The most unexpected area is Asia and the West Pacific, where Quaker numbers almost doubled. Numerically speaking, Taiwan and Nepal are both now among the top ten countries of Friends in the world. The number of African Friends continues to grow. One of the fastest-growing places is Burundi, where Friends have been very much involved in the reconciliation work following the war. In North America, FWCC has reported a decrease of about 10,000 over the past five years.
Is membership valued differently in yearly meetings around the world?
The process for becoming a member, and the value of being a member, varies quite a bit. The ambivalence about membership seems most prevalent in English-speaking countries, especially North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. In other countries, the importance of being a member is more evident. In Cuba, it’s a political act to be a member of the Friends church, and they are very strict about who can travel in the name of Friends. In some Kenyan yearly meetings, there is a clearly laid out, multi-year process of education and growth in the spirit before one can be called a member.
Why do you think the Society of Friends is growing in other parts of the world but not in the United States? And are there growing segments of Friends in the United States?
The growth is the result of an active effort of evangelical Friends to share the good news. What that consists of varies, whether it’s saving souls from hell or sharing the joy of a relationship with Jesus.
FWCC doesn’t track statistics within yearly meetings, but the growth of Hispanic Friends churches in North America is a powerful trend. Many of these are new churches formed by Central American immigrants in the United States. Some are of Spanish-speaking people from different backgrounds discovering Friends, but my impression is that this is largely fueled by people who were Quakers somewhere else. Evangelical yearly meetings have all made a concerted effort to help establish churches for Spanish-speaking Friends in the United States, but I don’t think that we have reliable statistics for membership there.
Beyond that there are individual meetings and churches that are growing, but I don’t think there’s a strong cross-fertilization among them. The other thing we’re seeing is the continued growth of small Christian-Quaker worship groups. Some of them have been more visible online and others are more locally focused. I don’t think there’s been any concerted effort to collect statistics on these.
Should it make a difference if there are more Friends in other parts of the world? Why should a North American Liberal Friend care that there are more pastored Evangelical Friends in Nepal?
Liberal unprogrammed Friends are the minority in the world of Friends, and some humility and openness to learning is a good thing. This change in the worldwide demographics of Friends is mirrored in the United States, with the growth of what were minority populations into pluralistic demographics in many states. We can all ask why other forms of Quakerism are so attractive.
I’m not interested in converting people who are content with their faith life, but there are so many unhappy people who are filling their emptiness with food or exercise or work or shopping. We Friends could spend all our time focused on reaching out to them and be busy for the rest of our lives. It’s not about converting the unwilling, but reaching out to the people who are hungry and searching for a faith community and who don’t know it’s called Quakerism. Many seekers don’t know there are religious communities where women’s contributions are valued, where being Christian and pacifist can go together, where one’s personal wrestling with tradition is important. We can hear that voice of Christ Jesus—or that still small voice or whatever name we want to give it—in our own heart, and change, and do better, and be happier because of it. That’s an essential gift we can be giving to people who are suffering in this world.