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Sharing Our Faith with the Nones

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I am a Friend primarily because I am deeply drawn to the grace and power of the spiritual practices and insights of the Quaker movement expressed in worship as well as in service. Looking around me though, I cannot help but notice that relatively few have been drawn into Quakerism in recent decades; in fact, the number of newcomers is less than the number who have left or passed on in recent years. This fact poses questions that are central to the life and future of Quakerism.

I see the Quaker movement, at least in the United States, sliding slowly—or maybe not so slowly—toward extinction. I see this decline happening, ironically, in a time when many people in this country seem to have a deep hunger for authentic spiritual nurture and genuine community. Quakerism is a spiritual movement with a rich history of both, offering an entryway into transformative spiritual experience and, at its best, a deeply nurturing community. How can we better make visible and available and accessible to others—to those who are hungry for these things—the spiritual gifts and faith‐filled life that our history and practice makes available to us?

When we are done lauding our good works of long ago, and we observe that it has been a very long time since we saw an increase in our numbers in the United States or in the United Kingdom, we have to wonder: What does Quaker faith and practice still have to offer twenty‐first‐century participants in post‐industrial societies? And what is the likelihood of continuing vitality (or even survival) for this spiritual movement if we do not find ways to more effectively share its richness with others?

As we look at these questions, I want to suggest there is some good news hidden within the generally bad news that has emerged from recent studies about religion in the United States. To make this case quickly, let me turn to some recent survey findings about religion in the United States, and to the analysis and synthesis of that data offered by a few leading scholars.

There are a few overarching trends in the several sources of survey data about American religion that are discouraging for “traditional” religion. All these sources describe a landscape where:

The number of people who now claim they have no religious affiliation—a group newly titled “the nones”—is rising, dramatically so in the last decade. This number has, in fact, increased by a third between 2007 and 2012, reaching 20 percent of all U.S. adults.

Attendance at religious services for the last 50 years was actually lower than previously recognized; and it has declined significantly since the 1960s. Now, only about 25 percent of adults in the United States attend weekly or near‐weekly; this rate is probably less than half what it was at its zenith in the 1960s.

  • The number of people in the United States who say they do not believe in God is at an all‐time high—reaching 8 percent, and more than doubling in the last decade.
  • Public confidence in religious institutions and their leaders (which used to get among the highest ratings in such polls) is at an all‐time low.

These trends are bad news, especially for those who wish to see religious congregations thriving as entities that offer supportive community, compassion, caring action, and moral vision to our larger society.

However, what we also see in the data is an intriguing shift in how people understand themselves religiously (or spiritually) speaking. In 1999 and 2009, a poll asked Americans whether they consider themselves to be spiritual, religious, both, or neither. In that decade, there was a dramatic rise in the number of people who identified as both spiritual and religious. When the question was asked in 1999, 54 percent of the respondents said they were religious only, and 6 percent answered as both spiritual and religious. Ten years later, only 9 percent identified as religious only, and 48 percent said both.

Combine these numbers with the 30 percent that identified as spiritual only in both polls, and we find that in 1999, only about one‐third of respondents described themselves as spiritual, but by 2009 more than three‐quarters described themselves using that term. It is difficult to know how an individual who claims to be “spiritual” understands that term, but there seems to be a significant shift occurring.

How are we to interpret this shift? There are multiple possibilities. I would suggest that there is a rising interest in genuine spiritual experience, as opposed to religions that focus primarily on belief as intellectual assent to a creed, or megachurches that offer dozens of programs to improve one’s life but lack an intimate, experiential spiritual center. (I don’t want to overanalyze a single set of data points, but still I’d argue this interpretation for several reasons.)

If my interpretation is even partially correct, then there is an amazing opportunity for the birth of a new Quaker movement, one that is rooted firmly in our core experiences and traditional principles, but adapted for the twenty‐first century. If we Quakers can reclaim and live out afresh our central insights about how we connect with the living Christ or Holy Spirit, and if we can allow our lives (individually and collectively) to be transformed by the experience of that connection, and if we can make ourselves more visible and accessible, then I believe we will be in a better position to bring more people into our fellowship and share this good news about the Divine Presence with them. In other words, I’m proposing that we have the ability to fulfill the needs of those people who are spiritually hungry and that the current climate suggests there is a growing number of these spiritual seekers out there.

If I have this right, we face two challenges. The first is creating and nurturing Friends meetings and churches that are the kinds of communities and organizations that do offer deep spiritual experience in worship and genuine spiritual community expressed through pastoral care and prophetic action. The second is making others, especially those people who are seeking real spiritual nurture and genuine community, aware that Quakers exist, and that our faith and practice as embodied in our lives and meetings can offer what they seek.

The first challenge is about living our faith together. The second is about meetings being willing to promote themselves. Currently, it seems that many meetings have a promotional strategy of play “hard to get.” I cannot remember how often, while serving as the general secretary of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, I set out with good directions to visit a meeting for the first time and drove by it several times because the meetinghouse was virtually invisible from the street.

In a strange way, this common characteristic of meetings points to potential good news: We don’t have to do much to better promote our meetings or churches, thus creating new opportunities to share our faith. Moreover, in the age of the Internet, we have new means and resources that can make our efforts easier and more effective. So what might be the basic elements of a fruitful promotional strategy?

In terms of old technology, a strategy could consider the following: (1) Good signs are really not that expensive, and figuring out where to place them to help people find our congregations is not that tricky. (2) Many local newspapers still run notices of worship services for very modest costs, and—better yet—many run stories about the events or services a congregation undertakes (if you provide an interesting text) for free. (3) Communities often have events (fairs, festivals, markets) where a booth or kiosk could be set up for people to meet face‐to‐face, making a congregation more accessible. (4) Our congregations could regularly plan for Sundays when people are encouraged to bring a friend to worship. There are certainly more opportunities we could take advantage of relatively easily, if we really want to be found.

In terms of new technology (which, as a matter of full disclosure, I should admit I am not very adept with), we have new means for promotion which have great promise. I haven’t found any studies that confirm this thought, but I have to believe that in this day and age, when people go looking for a new community of worship, many start with the Internet. (It is how most of us search for almost anything else, right?)

Why shouldn’t every meeting or church have a website? Even if it is the simplest of sites, with only basic information (such as when worship occurs, directions, and phone numbers), it is still a valuable resource. For the meetings or churches that cannot handle starting a new site, why can’t their yearly meeting provide that resource? Friends General Conference has done Quakers a true service by creating a great website that makes it easy to find a Quaker meeting or church by location (and the database is not limited to unprogrammed meetings).

Social media is another area with the potential to reach a lot of people. Online networks like Facebook (does your meeting have a page?) and Twitter can easily make a congregation more visible. My point is that developing a promotional strategy to make our meetings or churches known as places and communities that offer a genuine, enriching, and possibly transformative, spiritual experience might not be as hard as we think.

Perhaps there are marketing professionals amongst us who would be willing to offer advice. Maybe we could form some kind of bureau or council of Quakers in marketing, its members offering pro bono support to meetings that want help making themselves more visible and accessible. I think many meetings today are capable of managing this kind of basic marketing, especially once the group has identified its minimal capacity and its members have decided they really want to share the spiritual treasures of Quaker faith and practice.

But this desire to share brings us back to critical questions about the other challenge of this work. Once new people start showing up at the door, then how do we go about welcoming and engaging them? How do we share our faith? At this point, we have to ask again (in marketing terms): How are we going to align the experiences we have to offer with our promises?

No Quaker congregation can deliver the experience of a covered meeting for worship every Sunday. And it’s unrealistic to expect every one of our members to be a joyous, warm, and welcoming soul ready to greet newcomers every Sunday. It is not always easy to explain Quaker faith and practices simply and effectively to visitors, but we can plan for this process, too.

We can prepare ourselves for worship—and in programed meetings, plan the experience of worship—with as much care as possible. A query in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Faith & Practice asks: “Do I faithfully attend meeting with heart and mind prepared for worship?” This kind of intentional presence in worship should be viewed as a basic duty of every member of every meeting and church, especially if we want to create the deepest worship possible for all to share.

We can ask people who have a gift for hospitality to take a lead role in welcoming newcomers. We can make sure seasoned Friends, who have some spiritual depth and a talent for listening and explaining Quaker practice, are identified for and available to newcomers to answer questions. We can all try to be genuinely hospitable to the strangers in our midst.

If we can engage interested visitors with true, warm hospitality; offer them an experience of worship that reflects a body gathered with hearts and minds prepared to welcome the Holy Presence; and be ready to share stories of our own experiences of faith; then there’s a better chance that those who do visit will come back to continue sharing the journey of faith with us.

George Fox left behind a really eloquent outline of a promotional strategy for Quakerism. Indeed, he left us with an admonition to share our faith and clear instructions about how to do so. The approach he suggested might be the same one that caught our attention when we were seekers (that is, if we were not raised as Friends, but rather drawn into this community later). I think this approach is more appropriate and useful now than in the past, and will be essential to any future vitality of the Quaker movement.

Fox encouraged us to:

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you go, so that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one. Thereby you can be a blessing in them and make the witness of God in them bless you. Then you will be a sweet savor and a blessing to the Lord God.

This is “walking in the Light.” This is discipleship. It is being as faithful as possible to whatever measure of the Light we are given by the Inward Teacher, the living Christ. This is living in the fullness of the Divine Spirit, insofar as we know that Spirit and are capable of being led by and obedient to it.

I’m willing to guess that most of us have encountered people who live like this, and the example of their authentic spirituality, grace, and faithfulness has inspired us to find and live more deeply into our own faith. I suspect most of us have encountered individuals who share their faith simply and deeply just by the way they live their lives; and so their lives and faith become a gift to us, leading us to seek a community of practice that can help us sustain and give expression to our faith on our journey. I also suspect that the future of the Quaker movement rests on our developing these kinds of relationships, rooted in our shared hunger for and experience of the Divine.

Furthermore, the future of this spiritual movement rests on our willingness and ability to talk about our faith cogently and thoughtfully. Fox modeled and encouraged this kind of behavior as well. We must, as the writer of First Peter puts it, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give a reason for the hope that we have. And do this with gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15).

I hope we will seek to learn what marketers can teach us about how to make our congregations more visible and accessible, and about how to attract those who are hungry for authentic spirituality. And I hope we will pursue some of these strategies to draw in more people with whom we should share our faith because it would be a gift to them—and perhaps as well to us.

Thomas H. Jeavons is a scholar-in-residence at the Earlham School of Religion. He was general secretary of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting from 1996 to 2006 and executive secretary of Baltimore Yearly Meeting from 1978 to 1988. He remains a member of Swarthmore (Pa.) Meeting though he currently lives in Indiana. The original speech on which this article is based can be found at Esr.earlham.edu.


Posted in: December 2013: Outside the Quaker Bubble, Features

9 Responses to Sharing Our Faith with the Nones

  1. Tim December 3, 2013 at 6:44 pm #

    As a former FGC Friend and a current None, I can share my perspective.

    I found my belief in the Christian mythology waning, I desire spiritual community but not one based on an over‐translated bronze age text. The testimonies are an expression of living spirituality to me, but the bible is a shackle of blind faith. At the end of my tenure as a Friend, was the beginning of a “back to scripture” movement which was ultimately too Jesus‐y to be comfortable with. Growing up as a liberal in the south, most people talking about Jesus weren’t people I’d want to associate with.

    I found that my Universalist beliefs that everyone has a unique spiritual experience came into conflict with a single flavor of theology. Holding a belief, and holding others to that belief, are too often confused already. Centuries of dogma are hard to shed, even with intention. In the end, the morality of tradition was too conservative and slow‐moving for me, even in a liberal meeting.

    The catalyst for this was my experiences with Young Friends at yearly meeting and Gathering. As a younger group, our views on ethics were more radical and driven by the concerns of our peers. This fearless and irreverent exploration of our worldview is something I failed to find back home at my monthly meeting, and eventually led me away entirely.

    • Agnikan December 7, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

      Are you now communing with the Unitarian‐Universalists?

    • Cindy January 4, 2014 at 2:30 am #

      Let me share a different perspective. I find the Christian myth very important. It provides us with the wisdom of ages within to locate our own stories and to find meaning beyond ourselves. I’ve no doubt other myths provide the same thing for other spiritual communities, but the Christian one is the meaning tradition I’ve been given and in which I seek a community of transformation. My meeting has largely abandoned Christianity, and I fear this leaves us centered only in our own limited experiences and desires. And getting smaller and turned in on ourselves. We still have a high bar of orthodoxy but it is one of shared background, interests and tastes rather than transforming Love.

  2. Kevin Plunkett December 31, 2013 at 9:12 pm #

    This is a wonderfully eloquent and insightful essay by Mr. Jeavons. Though never a Quaker and a lapsed Catholic for much of my adult life, I am one of the nones described here–what I self‐define as a spiritual junkie, and an earnest student of mystical literature, particularly the Christian mystics from Eckhart to Boehme (whose writings bring me as close to Quaker‐like thought as I shall ever attain). Yet it seems, and I say this with as much respect as possible, that Quakers along with most major religious institutions stumble in trying to account for the decline in membership, particularly among the young, and seeks resolution in the very element that provokes the alienation, the privileging of the theological and congregationall over the individual experience of the divine. Some eras in history this might seem the appropriate response, but not this era, when more and more people perceive religious structures as exactly that, a certain way of framing the individual relationship with God– and who more and more share the need of moving beyond religion, while nurturing the spiritual drive for authentic experience of an immaterial sublime. Or perhaps Robert Lowell expressed this best in his brilliant poem on the Quaker graveyard in Nantucket–The Lord survives the rainbow of his will.

  3. Hank Fay January 1, 2014 at 8:53 pm #

    City & State
    Berea, KY
    Berea Friends Meetings has a website, has a facebook page, has members that are active in peace and social justice and environmental groups outside Quakderdom, has an active youth program that draws in both “nones” and “others,” and still we struggle with declining membership. We are welcoming to, and have, buddhists, wiccans/pagans, agnostics, scientific athiests (“not providen”) and Christian Quakers: we are a welcoming community. And still our membership declines.

    I have been a member of both BFM’s Outreach Committee, and Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association’s Outreach Committee, for the past 4 or 3 years respectively (we re‐established the latter’s committee). We have studied Quaker Quest, and several Meetings (including BFM) have engaged FGC for formal training. It made our Meeting stronger, but the decline continues.

    What I have noticed is that we have “nones” coming in the door, but our retention rate stinks, to put it bluntly. Our Meetings, to those who attend regularly, are filled with spirit: but the newcomers clearly are not experiencing what we are experiencing. I have read two accounts in Friends Journal in the last two years where the authors went to Quaker Meeting, did Quaker work or wrote admiringly about Quakers, and left after 3 meetings of staring out the window wondering what was supposed to happen. That is what is happening to our “nones.”

    In early Quakerism, Meetings continued until it was clear spirit had been present, in a way that was noticeable to anyone present. There was no way to miss the quaking, and the Quaker thunder. In our meeting, there are two who have personally witnessed Quaker thunder, over the course of their years of Quaker experience. A “none” newcomer who walked into a meeting with quaking and thunder might leave for other reasons, but it would not be because they experienced nothing happening.

    As Thom has noted (I attended the Prophetic Voice workshop at Pendle Hill, back when), we need to regain that voice. I left that workshop concluding that yes, we do, but we have a challenge in how this is to happen.

    There may be a way: what if we could teach people how to consciously engage spirit, by whatever name, using whatever symbology, and through whatever method (think: Sufi dancing as one way) reaches them, as a core practice in their lives? What if we could help them see the patterns in their lives where they already engage spirit, that which is in self but is not self? However expressed in individual lives, the process of continuing revelation, on matters large and small, is the real core of Quakerism: it is the foundation from which the rest (Quaker process, leadings on social justice, peace, equality, environment, and so on) emerges. We needn’t have a theistic name for what Merton called “the inner spirit infused with God” — one point theologians generally agree on is that any naming or conceptualization of the divine is a a private experience. Name it what you will, conceptualize it as you want, the important ability is recognizing the effect of spirit in one’s life, and learning to use it for guidance. All the rest follows.

    We are engaging this theme at SAYMA this year, June 19–22 at Warren Wilson College (outside Asheville, NC). Please hold us in the light: it’s a challenging theme, but our leading (the Yearly Meeting Planning Committee’s) was and is strong.

    Peace and love, always,

    Hank Fay

  4. Bob Fisher January 1, 2014 at 10:20 pm #

    City & State
    Barre
    Thomas Jeavons very much speaks my mind. In fact, he does this so thoroughly and eloquently that I am both excited and humbled. I heartily encourage all Friends to read and consider this article.

  5. Linda Pastor January 7, 2014 at 12:22 am #

    City & State
    Wilmington de
    I was led to the center meeting house and experienced a profound gathering of peace and comfort in the worship. How did I pass this place and why did I go? I am convinced it was Spirit led and I am very grateful to have found a spiritually alive and welcoming community with the Quakers

  6. Hank Fay January 7, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

    City & State
    Berea
    Hi Mark,

    I don’t think anyone worships pieces of clay, anymore than Christians worship pieces of wood, plastic and metal with a Northern Italian male figure nailed to a cross made by a master craftsman. We, human beings of many different cultures and makeups, reach the inner spirit in many different ways. I have seen that in both meetings to which I have belonged, and belong, respectively.

    Fox was neither the first or the last to note that the spirit is in every person. Having a spiritual life means having one based on leadings of the inner spirit. How one accomplishes that, how one thinks about it, is varied, as is easily observable over centuries and cultures. Whether we do it or not, whether we lead our lives on the basis of leadings of spirit, is a matter of critical importance. How we do it is important to us as individuals, because not every way will fit every person. As Pope Francis has noted, God is universal, and the way he and his Church worship happens to be Catholic. Even there, he is speaking to his flock: he echoes Merton over and over again in his public pronouncements: he knows (being a well‐trained Jesuit) that as Merton states, the divine is unknowable, unable to be contained in our construct systems of words, thoughts, and senses, and yet able to be experienced.

    The Meetings I have experienced in any depth are filled with spirit — as well as being filled with individuals with varied conceptualizations of spirit. So, in that sense, we are comforting places, where we are consciously with others who are working at leading spiritual lives. That is our sameness. The rest, based on the observations of each others’ lives, has proven to be irrelevant. As Fox also noted, we are an experiential (he used the word “experimental” to stand for what we now call “able to be experienced”) religion, not one based on theology.

    And that, the sameness of listening to spirit however experienced in our lives, and what we get from doing so, is a great gift we have to offer to our communities.

    peace and love, always,

    Hank

  7. Howard Brod January 12, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

    City & State
    Midlothian, Virginia
    Our meeting has been experimenting with more outreach with good results. However, more than doing the typical outreach mentioned in this article, I think we need to get back to our very early Quaker roots so we can return to the “realness” modern seekers are looking for; reinterpreted for modern people.

    I offer the following article I posted on QuakerQuaker​.org that addresses some of our core issues as a religious society struggling to stay alive: http://​www​.quakerquaker​.org/​g​r​o​u​p​/​l​i​b​e​r​a​l​/​f​o​r​u​m​/​t​o​p​i​c​s​/​l​e​t​-​s​-​g​e​t​-​r​eal

    If nothing else, the article should give Friends something to think about!

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