If there’s one good thing we can say about viruses, it’s that they have taught us a great deal. Scientists discovered viruses in the late 1800s and made great strides in stemming or curing deadly viral epidemics in the last century. Some viruses today are even integral to new approaches to treating diseases through immunotherapy. But real viruses aren’t the theme of this issue. The spread of ideas is. The term “going viral” is a way of describing the rapid and “infectious” spread of content on the Internet thanks to the network effect. When we—as a Religious Society in particular, but even as individuals—face stasis or even decline in our fortunes, it’s easy to notice and envy the apparently easy growth we might see elsewhere. What can we learn? How can we make this happen for us?
Luck may factor in, but I don’t believe it’s about catching lightning in a bottle. When George Fox climbed Firbank Fell in 1652, the story goes, he preached to and convinced a crowd of a thousand on the spot. The Westmoreland Seekers he addressed were gathered there on the premise that this iconoclastic hill-wandering Bible minister just might be the teacher for whom they, self-proclaimed Seekers, were seeking. Not every situation can be so ripe for success! But a corps of several dozen early Quakers, who became known as the Valiant Sixty, knew they could grow their numbers by traveling and sharing the way of living and worship they had learned and become convinced of in their souls. Ideas spread. The way of Friends took root. The Quaker way of which we are caretakers today has grown from that original culture, and it has changed, mutated, and evolved into something that must now survive in new conditions. Can it spread and thrive? How?
We face these questions together. In this issue of Friends Journal, we bring together approaches that include the perspectives of Emily Provance and Donald W. McCormick. Provance has a ministry of helping Friends meetings that want to grow identify and effect the cultural shifts that would help them become what they aspire to be. McCormick follows up his much talked-about Friends Journal piece last February with findings from churches that have managed to find growth, not by abandoning the religious tenets at the centers of their traditions, but by aligning their practices with what seekers today are looking for in a church.
A premise shared by several of this issue’s contributors is that Quakerism will change. It has to. If we truly believe that every Friend brings a unique and essential part of God and God’s plan with them, how can we help but change when more are gathered in this community? Fear of change is natural, but we must recognize that fear can be conquered, particularly by love. And we are allowed to grieve, as Provance points out, when elements of what must change were sources of comfort or delight to us.
If there is a certainty in all of this, I believe it is that those people who are seeking a faith and seeking fellowship will find it. Will it be with you and me? If so, we must allow the power of our example and the power of our worship and love to burn through what is inessential, so that it may spread to those we want to walk with us. You might be surprised at how many may be searching. Friends Journal and QuakerSpeak now reach an audience we estimate at 1,000,000 strong each year, fueled by the same power of networks and technology that enables ideas to go viral. It’s our calling to share just what it is of the Quaker way that burns through. Your readership and your support are essential to us in this work.
Correction: Donald W. McCormick’s earlier piece with us appeared in the February 2018 edition of Friends Journal.