Quakers are Way Cooler Than You Think

Quakers are Way Cooler Than You Think

by Emma Churchman

George Fox was 28 years old when he stood on the top of Pendle Hill and envisioned a great people to be gathered. Samuel Bownas began his ministry at the age of 20 when traveling minister Ann Wilson caught him sleeping in the back of his meeting for worship and called him to account. She asked him essentially why he was wasting his life, and within just a few weeks, Bownas spoke in meeting for the first time. In 1698, when he was 22 years old, he set off on his first ministerial journey, walking across Scotland with a traveling minute from his monthly meeting. When he was in his 70s, he wrote a seminal guide for Quaker ministers: A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister.

John Woolman was 23 years old when he experienced his first leading to stand against slavery. Susan B. Anthony was 28 years old during the Seneca Falls Convention. Friend Thomas Kelly was also 28 when he went to Germany in 1921 to work with American Friends Service Committee, after having served for two years as a professor at Wilmington College. Bonnie Raitt, who was raised in New York Yearly Meeting, produced her first record album when she was 23. Jon Watts did so when he was 21 years old.

Friends have a historical track record of Young Adult Friends shaping the direction of our religious society. Today we have a steady decline of young adult Friend members and attenders in our monthly and yearly meetings.

I have known many older Friends to bemoan this, wring their hands, pray about it, talk about it, and wish it were different. I’d like to encourage us to shift the question from “Why don’t we have more young people in our meetings?” to this:

How are we meeting the needs of our young adult Friend members and attenders, and how could we meet them better?

These days I mainly hang out with high school and college-age Quakers through my job at Earlham College. This is what I love about working with younger Friends: They are open and inquisitive and engaged. They are still figuring out who they are and how they want to be in the world. This generation especially is remarkably intuitive and so smart about so many different things. They are always interacting with their growing edges. They are, in fact, our hope for the future, and I want to encourage them and support them to bring their brilliant, beautiful selves into our religious society in powerful ways. They are our true leaders of tomorrow (often even today!), and I want to do everything I can to help equip them for this leadership and keep them engaged in our Society.

Here are some specific ways you can help to equip and engage them:

Ask. Here’s a radical idea: Ask the young adult Friends you interact with what it is they need to feel engaged in your monthly or yearly meeting, Quaker organization, or just our religious society in general. What do they need/want/desire and how can you help them get it? They might surprise you with their specific ideas.

Be invitational. Here’s another radical idea: Invite someone under the age of 40 to clerk your meeting or your membership committee, or to serve as a director of your Quaker organization.

Or just begin by saying hello to a young adult at your meeting. I travel in the ministry, and 95 percent of the time I’m at a new meeting, no one introduces her/himself to me, even when I’m the guest speaker. Yikes! And, technically, I’m not even a young adult Friend anymore. Can you imagine how YAFs must feel when they attend a meeting for the first time and no one talks to them?

Be willing to transform. The structure of monthly and yearly meetings doesn’t work for a lot of younger Friends. Many young adult Friends identify with a yearly meeting rather than a monthly meeting. Other YAFs identify themselves as Quaker without membership in a monthly or yearly meeting at all. These young people are unable to commit to a monthly meeting primarily because they move so frequently, or because they attend school far away from the meeting in which they grew up. They struggle with membership in a religious society that requires them to remain in one place. Often, they also are unable to fulfill the financial requirements of membership.

Other YAFs feel that their needs are not being met in the context of a monthly meeting. Nothing entices them to become engaged. They are looking for like-minded peers, for social and social justice activities that help them explore their interests, and for opportunities to make a difference and be nurtured as leaders.

Here’s my motto: If it’s not working, stop doing it. Standard membership right now isn’t working for the majority of young adult Friends, especially those between the ages of 18 and 25. What are we going to do about it?

Are you willing to help this age group consider what membership could look like outside of the typical structure of monthly or yearly meetings? What could it look like for them to retain their membership in Friends General Conference, say, or Friends United Meeting instead of a specific monthly meeting? What if we revitalized a national Young Adult Friends Meeting that housed membership for young adults in transition between the meetings they grew up in and their next home meetings? What are we willing to do, as a religious society or at least as a specific branch of Quakerism, to embrace these young people in new ways?

Discern. Most of my conversations with young people revolve around discernment of pretty big life issues: What do I do after high school? How do I make new friends and let go of old friends? How do I respond to my parents getting divorced? How do I grieve my friend having committed suicide? How do I figure out what my passions are? What should I do for a living? Young adults are continually faced with intense life issues like these. Granted, I teach discernment specifically to young adults, but generally this is just an excuse to invite young people I meet to get real with me. On a good day, I can be real in return, which is a rare and precious gift to a young person: to be equally honest, vulnerable, and open with them. Have you been vulnerable with any young adults today? Have you sat with them and really helped them to sift out what they are struggling with?

Stop talking and start doing. Invite the young adult Friends group from your yearly meeting or nearby college to have a weekend retreat in your meetinghouse and cook for them. Become a spiritual friend to a teen in your meeting. Write a letter to a young adult Friend from your meeting who is in college. Better yet, send a care package. Invite a young person to spend one-on-one time with you—protesting, having tea, watching a movie, knitting, playing a game. If you are not his parent, he will love you for it.

Be visible. As a Society, we have got to put ourselves out there! Young adults exploring faith during or just after college may first learn about Quakerism by attending a protest or other social justice activity and meeting a Quaker. Or they learn about Quakerism through attending a Quaker high school or college. At Earlham, we have seen a significant number of non-Quaker students embrace Quakerism as alumni, especially as they are looking for a faith home for their family or looking for like-minded people in a new city.

It takes an average of seven impressions before a person notices a particular message or idea. What types of impressions are we sending about Quakerism, and is this age group receiving enough impressions? When attending a protest, do you talk about Friends testimonies of peace and equality? Do you connect your outward actions with your faith? Is the Quaker high school or college you are connected with proactively teaching Quaker faith and practice?

Many young adults also learn about Quakerism through the Internet. Friends, we need to expand significantly the explanations of Quakerism that are currently available, using the blogosphere and YouTube. Because we currently articulate a narrow understanding of Quakerism on the Internet, young people who are exploring Quakerism for the first time get a pretty skewed view of it through the World Wide Web. You may not want to hear this, but it’s true. We can either accept the technological realities of the 21st century, or continue to lose connections with young adults.

Use the M word. Quakers have a serious marketing issue. We look funny, we talk funny, we refuse to list our phone numbers in the yellow pages or to have updated websites. We figure that people will find us if they need us. That’s cool. And humble. And not working.

For Earlham College last year I designed a T-shirt that declares, “Quakers are way cooler than you think,” as a way to address said marketing issue. When I’m feeling particularly gloomy about the future of our religious society, I like to wear my T-shirt to the grocery store because inevitably someone (i.e., a non-Quaker) will stop in her tracks, stare at my chest and say, “Yes! Quakers are cool!” I love that. And then I get to have a conversation with a total stranger about her theology and my theology. (Yes, that is my idea of a good time.) You can wear the shirt too! It’s for sale in the Earlham College bookstore.

Educate. We need radical education of our young people. We need to take seriously our intention to offer actual religious education in First-day school. I am embarrassed by the number of young Friends I talk with who have no idea that Quakerism has its roots in Christianity. I have students who are 18 years old and who grew up in a Quaker meeting and have absolutely no knowledge of scripture, of Jesus’ teachings, or of the connection between Friends testimonies and our roots in these teachings.

Call me an evangelical if you wish, but here is the reality: By not teaching our young people the ways of early Quakers, we are raising people to believe in whatever they want to believe in and to call themselves Quaker only when it is convenient or makes them look good. I’m not making this up; I literally had a Quaker college student tell me this yesterday. And I agree with him. This model of believing whatever we feel like, when we feel like it, is not serving us in the long run, Friends. I know you know what I’m talking about.

We also need more specific opportunities for young adults to learn our practices, especially the practice of spiritual discernment, the Clearness Committee model, the art of consensus decision-making, and the role of clerking. These Quaker tools are awesome! We need to be more intentional about teaching our young people how to use them. How can we expect to grow future leaders if we don’t provide them with the tools they need?

Put your money where your mouth is. I hear a lot of older adult Friends talking about how important YAFs are to them. I also see a recent trend of eliminating funding for programs that support young adult Friends, especially in terms of nurturing their connections to the religious society of Friends and cultivating their leadership skills. I would like to suggest that there is a correlation between our decisions not to support YAF programs and initiatives financially and the lack of YAF presence in our meetings and organizations.

Can you tell that I’m irritated? I don’t understand, Friends. Who the heck do we think is going to lead our Society into the future? We need to provide generous support for the programs that still exist to cultivate Young Adult Friends’ leadership development. At this point our Quaker colleges are the ones leading the way in this area. Earlham College, George Fox University, Guilford College, and Wilmington College all have scholarship-based Quaker leadership development programs. Donate to them.

There are so many ways for Friends to support our young people as they engage in life transitions and in their articulation of their faith. I encourage you to embrace any of the ideas suggested in this article, and to create new ideas of your own to share! In doing so, I hope that you will also join me in living into the possibility of the religious society of Friends growing its membership in the 21st century by reaching out to and supporting young people more proactively.

Emma Churchman

Emma M. Churchman is a member of Friends Meeting of Washington D.C. and an Associate Member of Chavakali Yearly Meeting in Kenya.  She founded and facilitates the Quaker Fellows program for Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., and she is completing her Master’s in Divinity degree at Earlham School of Religion.

8 thoughts on “Quakers are Way Cooler Than You Think

  1. Thank you, Emma. Your post (particularly the “transformation” point) was the seed around which I was able to finally grow my reflections on the topic of Young Friends and Meeting structures. Which is very relevant toward Canadian Quakers, as our Young Friends have made a proposal toward Transitional Membership.

    I want to see this happen, but how to address the limitations of infrequent in-person meetings, nurturing spiritual growth on an ongoing basis within widely-spread community? Additional thoughts and prayers welcome.


  2. This was wonderful. I am a recent joinee of the category of YAF, having just started college this year. I have only attended the local meeting once when my parents came up to visit. It felt so foreign and different from my home meeting that I was lost. I never ended up declaring membership even though I had the option in high school because I was uncertain of where I would be in the future.

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