What People Really Want from Church and Quaker Meeting

© spinyant

I deeply love Quakerism and don’t want it to die out, but the number of North American Quakers has been steadily decreasing for three decades. According to statistics from Friends World Committee for Consultation, Quaker membership in the United States and Canada grew modestly over the middle part of the twentieth century to peak at 139,200 in 1987. The latest Quaker census in 2017 counted 81,392 U.S. and Canadian Friends, a loss of over 40 percent. A report published by Earlham School of Religion in 2005 concluded, “If these downward trends in the Society’s membership were to continue unchecked, American Quakers would become extinct sometime late in the twenty-first century.”

We can reverse this downward trend, and this is likely to involve learning from the experience of other churches. A good tool for doing this is the Reveal for Church survey: an extremely large survey of over 2,000 churches and 500,000 congregants. (To find out more about this survey, go to revealforchurch.com or listen to their podcast.)

What do people want from church?

At the core of the survey is an important question: What do people want from church? The answer to this is key to understanding why people join a church. The respondents’ answers are inspiring. Fifty-four percent said that the thing they most want is spiritual guidance, and over 30 percent said they want fellowship.

The survey defined a church that offers spiritual guidance as one that does the following:

  • provides a clear pathway that helps guide congregants’ spiritual growth
  • challenges congregants to grow and take next steps
  • has church leaders who model and consistently reinforce how to grow spiritually
  • helps congregants to understand the Bible in depth
  • helps congregants to develop a personal relationship with Christ

Churches that provided this were generally vibrant and had high levels of congregant satisfaction.

When I read this, I asked myself if we Quakers are providing the equivalent of this type of spiritual guidance. Do newcomers and others see us as meeting their spiritual needs? If they do, do they see this right away, or does it take a while? To answer these questions, I had to learn more about the “clear pathway” that the Reveal literature described. Although Quakerism has great wisdom in the area of spiritual guidance, at first it seemed that it was inconsistent with the spiritual guidance described in the survey. I thought of how listening to and heeding the Spirit may lead one Quaker to refuse to pay any taxes that contribute to war and another to become an army chaplain. It didn’t seem like we Quakers were following one clear pathway. Also, my initial understanding of the Reveal survey model of spiritual guidance didn’t fit with the kind of models of lifelong spiritual growth and maturity that I used to cover when I was a professor teaching courses in psychology of religion.

Then I looked more closely at what the Reveal researchers meant by a “clear pathway” and I realized that their idea of it isn’t so much a nuanced model of lifelong spiritual growth as it is something much more basic and doable. It’s the kind of thing that would get you off the runway of the spiritual path and into the air. It isn’t intended to guide your spiritual plane all the way to its destination. Understanding this, I began to see how a Quaker version of this could be crafted.

Classes that challenge you to take the next steps along a clear spiritual pathway

In the survey, churches that provide spiritual guidance communicate the path, the next steps, and the challenges in different ways. The most common model is a set of four afternoon classes that make up what is probably the most popular adult education curriculum in churches today. It comes from a church known for phenomenal growth: Saddleback Church, headquartered in southern California. In 1980, 40 people attended their first worship service; today over 22,000 people attend weekly services.

The first class covers the church, membership, how to live in accordance with God’s purpose, and the church’s plans for the future. At the end of the class, you are challenged to be baptized and to apply for membership.

The second class is about the path of spiritual maturity and techniques for developing four habits needed for spiritual growth (prayer, Bible reading, tithing, and fellowship). After this class, you are challenged to practice these habits.

The third class is about finding your spiritual gifts and choosing how you will use those in ministry, that is, in serving the church and others. At the end, you are challenged to put these into practice.

The fourth class is about evangelism. At the end you are challenged to begin sharing your faith.

The classes constitute a clear pathway that starts with membership and leads to spiritual maturity, ministry, and evangelism. Each time you finish taking a class, you are asked to accept the challenge at the end of it. The next steps involve putting into practice what you just learned and taking the next class.

Fellowship is the other major thing that people want from church. In the churches from the Reveal survey, it is primarily experienced in small groups of eight to ten people who meet weekly to learn about spiritual matters and to get to know fellow parishioners. These groups are places where people know you, know what’s going on in your life, and know what matters to you. If you wind up in the hospital, it’s the members of your small group that come over and visit, that take care of your kids when you’re in there, and that bring you meals while you are still getting back on your feet after having been discharged. And you are glad to do the same for all of them.

The classes described in the Reveal literature get people moving on their spiritual journey quickly. These churches make their expectations clear right away. They let you know that you are expected to embrace Christ (if you haven’t already); join a small group; and to take the classes that show the path, provide you with next steps, and challenge you to grow spiritually

When you do this, you begin to experience the two main things that people want out of church—spiritual guidance and fellowship. This makes people want to keep coming back.

Can Quaker meetings provide this kind of fellowship and spiritual guidance?

How can newcomers to Quakerism experience a similar kind of fellowship and spiritual guidance without watering down the Quaker experience?

One way would be to encourage newcomers to join a small group and take a comparable set of courses. This would involve reorganizing the way that we introduce people to Quakerism, not changing what Quakerism is.

Newcomers could be encouraged to participate in a small group early on. People want a spiritual home where they experience a sense of belonging, where people care about them and they feel like they fit in. In other words, they want real spiritual community. It can be difficult to feel included in a meeting that has long-term social bonds; small groups can help with this. I should point out that in many meetings, we are already providing the kind of fellowship described in the Reveal survey through the excellent Friends General Conference (FGC) Spiritual Deepening program.

Classes that offer a clear pathway, next steps, and challenges

In addition to fellowship, a meeting could offer classes that form a path, that provide next steps, and that offer regular challenges. Below is one possible way of doing that. (I don’t mean this suggestion to be definitive; there are many other ways that these kinds of classes can be organized.)

The first class could provide a short overview of Quakerism as a whole, but spend most of the time on the meaning of meeting for worship and what to do when you’re in it. At the end, participants could be challenged to take the next steps: regular participation in meeting for worship and enrollment in the next class.

The second class could focus on personal spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, and discernment of leadings. Since the process of discernment can be both individual and corporate, group processes like clearness committees, spiritual accountability groups, and meeting for worship on the occasion of business would also be included. At the end, participants could be challenged to take the next steps: regular engagement in personal spiritual practice, participation in business meeting, and enrollment in the next class.

The third class could be about learning about Quakerism in more depth. It could present some information about Quakerism and offer ways to continue learning about it (e.g., reading Faith and Practice on a regular basis, or participating in quarterly meetings, yearly meetings, the FGC annual gathering, Pendle Hill programs, etc.). At the end, participants could be challenged to commit to some ongoing form of study.

The fourth class could focus on service: serving the meeting (e.g., serving on a committee), directly serving those in need (e.g., feeding the homeless), or activism (e.g., creating systemic change by working for peace, justice, or sustainability). At the end, participants could be challenged to commit to some form of service.

At the end of the four classes that make up this beginner’s path, participants would have most of the tools they need to start living the Quaker life. These are also tools that they can continue to use for the rest of their lives.

Meeting spiritual needs

There is a thirst for greater spirituality in Quaker meetings. I say this for two reasons. The first is because of dissatisfaction with Quaker meetings that have shied away from their spiritual and religious center; this was a common theme in the over 100 online comments about my February Friends Journal article, “Can Quakerism Survive?”

The second reason is that in recent moving and influential speeches, both Parker Palmer and Ben Pink Dandelion called for embracing and communicating the spiritual and religious core of Quakerism.

The model presented here shows one way to help satisfy the spiritual thirst of newcomers by introducing them to the spiritual core and spiritual guidance that they want from a meeting.

People in Quaker meetings and those interested in Quakerism aren’t that different from the people who took the Reveal survey. We Quakers have something to learn from the survey about what people want from church and how to provide it. People may show up at our doors because of various outreach activities, and they may like their initial encounter with Quakerism because various methods from FGC’s Welcoming Meetings program are being used. These are both important, but people won’t keep coming back to meeting if they don’t see how it addresses their needs for spiritual guidance and fellowship. All three activities—outreach, welcoming, and meeting people’s spiritual needs—are essential. If one is missing, the other two won’t get very far. But together, these three activities can defeat the trend of declining membership. Quakerism can grow, and meetings can become more vibrant.

Donald W. McCormick

Donald W. McCormick, donmccormick2@gmail.com, is a member of Grass Valley Meeting in Nevada City, Calif. He is director of education for Unified Mindfulness, a company that trains mindfulness teachers. The senior editor of Friends Journal described his February article, “Can Quakerism Survive?,” as “the most talked about article in recent history.”

10 thoughts on “What People Really Want from Church and Quaker Meeting

  1. I just want to plug a book I read on this topic. It’s called “Simple Church,” by Eric Geiger and Thom Rainer. They studied a whole bunch (maybe 1000?) of churches and found that churches that align their programs with the goal of making disciples grow, and ones that don’t, don’t. Even in declining rural towns, churches that do that grow! I read it a while ago, so it’s not super fresh in my mind, but I think there were even case studies of churches that changed what they were doing and started growing again, after having been stagnant or in decline.

  2. I greatly enjoyed reading your Friends Journal article, “What People Really Want From Church and Quaker Meeting”. You mention a number of points which I have been trying to get Friends to see for a long time, and some of your conclusions parallel my own research.

    A few years ago, I looked at the membership numbers across all yearly meetings belonging to Friends United Meeting from 1906 up until the turn of the century. There are a few dips and surges, but basically I found a straight-line decline over that time period. Over the last 40+ years, it’s been running about 1% per year, which is roughly in line with your figures.

    The straight-line nature of the graph says to me that it’s not the fault of any particular yearly meeting, or any individual yearly meeting leadership, but probably something more to do with larger demographics. My best guess is that Quakers have simply failed to reproduce in adequate numbers to offset deaths and departures. This is a well-documented trend affecting many other denominations as well.

    One of the other things which came out in my research was that while membership numbers were dropping, actual attendance at meeting for worship has been much more stable. Where membership went down by roughly 40% over 40 years, worship attendance only went down by about 15%.

    This says to me that our membership numbers were probably somewhat inflated to begin with. Meetings kept people on the rolls long after they left. I’ve seen this in many local meetings, both pastoral and unprogrammed, in several different yearly meetings where I’ve served, and I expect it’s pretty universal among Friends. We don’t want to drop people who might come back. We don’t want to hurt the feelings of parents and grandparents by dropping their kids who left after high school or college. Ministry and Counsel committees go for 5 or 10 years without housecleaning the membership list.

    I’m a little leery of the general population survey done by Reveal for Church which you mention in your article. To some extent, I think that these surveys tend to force the taker into a somewhat predetermined outcome – the questions channel you into a fairly limited number of possible answers. I could be doing them a disservice, but the answers seem a little canned to me. They sound like the kind of results that most evangelical Christians want to hear.

    I don’t think that the four points you list are altogether wrong, but I’m not sure they really cover the depth of what either existing members of Friends want, or what potential new members want. I agree that people want something more than what most Quaker meetings offer, and this almost certainly has an impact on our declining numbers.

    In many meetings, the losses are gradual, and the additions are also gradual. It’s easy not to notice the change until you look at 4 or 5 years. I always try to get the meetings I serve to look at the net loss or gain in attendance – not always easy, because Quakers tend to view keeping track of attendance as somehow unspiritual. A net loss of 5 members in a single year may not seem like much in a meeting with 100 members, but over 5 years it’s a 25% decline in membership.

    Another important trend, and it’s common to many churches (not just Friends) is a decline in the average number of times people attend worship each month. Gone are the days when everyone came every Sunday. At Springfield Friends, we have about 130 members. Out of that group, about 40-45 people are here every week without fail, about 50 come once or twice a month, and another 40 come 2 or 3 times a year, mainly at Christmas and Easter. We also have a large pool of inactive and semi-active members who show up at random, sometimes coming for 5 or 6 weeks and then disappearing for 4 or 5 years.

    Quakers used to take membership very seriously indeed, and there were a lot of outward signs that you were a member. Plain dress, plain speech, and a long list of disciplinary items, all added up to being a Quaker. Perhaps most important, Quakers expected to marry other Quakers, and you could be disowned for marrying outside the Society of Friends. I’m glad that period faded away several generations before I joined. But Friends no longer set a very high bar to joining, and there is no particular penalty for drifting away.

    I heartily agree that Quakers need to offer more in the way of guidance, challenge, leadership modeling and Bible study. Most meetings fail miserably at all of these. But I doubt that we will succeed in gaining and maintaining members by adopting a generic evangelical agenda.

    In many contemporary evangelical churches, they consider you a member after coming to worship 3 or 4 times. Mega-churches in particular have tend to have a very large turnover in membership, often 20% or more every year. Before taking Saddleback as a model for Friends, we need to look at the life of churches like this, and ask how it relates to the life that Friends want to offer.

    Years ago, a Quaker researcher told me that the “natural” size for most Quaker meetings is about 35 members. Growth above this level takes a tremendous amount of work and organization, which most Quaker meetings are ill-prepared and ill-inclined to do. Many meetings of my acquaintance have a kind of snobbery about their small size. Quakers also value the family feeling of a smaller group, and when the meeting grows we complain that we don’t know everyone in the meeting. There’s a kind of suspicion that meetings which are larger are using tricks to grow, or that they are somehow less spiritual than the small, devoted remnant meetings with 25 or 30 members.

    I’ve worked with meetings of different sizes, and I appreciate this criticism. On the other hand, there are simply a lot of really great things you can do with a larger group. You can have a much more effective youth program, and more adult discussion groups catering to different interests. With a larger meeting, you can more easily find kindred Friends who are deeply interested in peace activism, or singing together, or serious study of the Bible or Quaker history. Smaller meetings have a lot of trouble reaching “critical mass” for different groups like these.

    Monthly meeting for business is much more intimate in a small meeting, and most business is undertaken by everyone. In a larger meeting, committees do more of the work, and a much smaller proportion of people usually come for monthly meeting. Larger meetings have to spend a lot more time on communication and coordination – as the newsletter editor and web site manager for Springfield Friends, this is one of my main concerns.

    Most small meetings simply don’t have the resources for the kind of membership training which you recommend in your article. Even larger meetings can struggle with this. It’s one of the reasons why the week-long workshops at FGC are so popular. FUM and many yearly meetings used to do this, but financial pressures and the limited number of people who can take a week off for a conference have cut into this type of ministry.

    I have long advocated that quarterly meeting is a better sponsor for serious educational ministry. I’ve been involved several times as a teacher and organizer of quarter-sponsored adult groups, usually modeled on a program developed many years ago by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, which meets once a week for a 2-hour session. With 6-10 meetings in a quarter, we usually drew about 20-25 participants. The program ran during the school year, and we had three 10-week sessions, one focused on the Bible, one on church history, and one on Quaker theology.

    You mention fellowship as an important need. Again, in small meetings this tends to be a fellowship of the whole group, though many meetings have small interest groups and formal or informal social groups. In larger meetings, fellowship needs to be more organized, and most meetings have a host of smaller groups of different kinds. When I came to Springfield, I found 4 or 5 adult Sunday School classes which have been going for decades, mainly organized in age cohorts. Group members have supported each other through having children, seeing them through school, middle age, and the death of spouses. These groups have survived for anywhere from 10 to 50 years and are deeply valued, and they form the backbone of the active membership of the meeting.

    Your article is focused on spiritual growth and getting new people involved, but I would also like to mention another issue which can send membership numbers into a death spiral. In the local meeting, any kind of scandal involving money, sex or power can destroy a meeting within weeks. We don’t like to talk about this, but I have personally seen this happen in Quaker meetings, and several times my first 3-4 years of work with a new meeting has centered on healing after this type of problem.

    Long before the #MeToo movement, I worked with meetings where many of the members had been damaged by sexual abuse of one kind or another. Quakers are not immune to this, and I’ve been involved with a couple of very painful interventions. At West Richmond Friends, following the discovery that one of our most respected elders had been making unwanted advances to several women, we had an intensive 8-week discussion and planning group to work on healing. Most congregations – even Quaker meetings – don’t do this kind of work, and suffer major losses in attendance and membership after something ugly comes to light. At West Richmond, because of the way we handled it, we actually gained a number of new members!

    One of the other things which I have seen at very close range, is the tremendous destruction and loss of membership and resources which take place when a yearly meeting divides. Quakers used to know about this – the memory of the Orthodox/Hicksite separation stayed very clear in Quaker memories for several generations. In the last 40 years there has been a lot of pressure to separate from Friends for theological reasons, mainly over LGBT issues. At least 5 large yearly meetings have been torn apart over this, and the results have been catastrophic. In most cases, the total number of Friends left on both sides after the fight has been substantially lower than the total before. Missions and service projects which served for generations have been gutted. I know that this is outside the scope of your article, but one major reason for recent membership losses has been these divisions. I’ve documented a lot of the fallout in my blog, https://arewefriends.wordpress.com/

    Anyway, thanks again for your very thoughtful article. I hope you will keep Friends’ feet to the fire on this!

    Best wishes,

    – Josh Brown

  3. I have been a member of a Friends Meeting for several years and at the same time I have also been a member of a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. My UU membership goes back decades. I love Quaker worship, the silence, the Light within, and also the commitment to God and social justice. Both denominations, however, are struggling to find their voice, to grow, and to survive. At least that’s how I experience it. Both of the fellowships I attend are right down the street from each other. One week I go to the Quakers and the next to the UU. I make jokes about both fellowships merging and meeting in the middle at an abandoned building that used to be a car repair shop. I need both because both provide me with good fellowship and peace. Both fellowships suffer because they spend so much of their time and money worrying about property, buildings, and stuff. They get bogged down in politics and doing things like they’ve always done. Sometimes I want to run away from both! Looks like I’ll just have to create my own spirituality and just pulsate between the two bodies.

  4. Your article and the comments added here were very interesting and are important discussions. As a non-quaker, you might ask why I’m reading your website and newsfeed. It is my attempt to get a better understanding of your way of life and cultural norms. To see if I might fit in. I have only heard good & wise things from Quakers.

    You might ask – why haven’t I joined. Well, first of all, I’m not sure I measure up. Not sure of what is expected of me. One thing every person who is contemplating a new direction is looking for – and that’s certainty. Certainty that they will fit in, that they won’t offend anyone; that they are following the structure expected. Especially when it comes to exploring new churches and spirituality.

    Without asking your membership to change their worship style and meetings, maybe you could add an activity that is available at all the Quaker meetings – one that is more geared to fellowship. A place & time to connect with strangers, and a place to be safe. Folks like me, might be willing to travel a little further, if we really knew we might be welcomed. Your non-structured services won’t fit the cookie -mold of other evangelist churches. And that’s okay. But we really do need more encouragement to observe and ask questions, where as interested individuals, we don’t disrupt the meditative side of your gatherings.

    Glad you’re all sharing such interesting discussions.

    The Quakers seem to have a vibrant young adult membership, even if small. They should be included in this quest to share what you offer in spirituality.

  5. For years, before I was on FGC staff, I worked for the Center for Congregations in Indianapolis. There I served on a some working groups on effective outreach and welcome based on research from the US Congregational Life Survey (you can check out the 10 strengths of vital congregations here — http://www.uscongregations.org/…/beyond-the-ordinary-10-st…/) Faith Communities Today (FACT) also has some downloadable leaders resource you might find helpful/interesting (if we can get beyond “Quaker exceptionalism” and learn from others — in particular small congregations) — http://faithcommunitiestoday.org/publications… as well as other resources.

    In addition, the Center for Congregations (www.centerforcongregations.org) has a wealth of free downloadable resources — just search through workshop resource guides and resources. Their information is based on work with thousands of congregations (including small ones — like many Friends congregations are).

    I think these are more helpful to the majority of Friends than is the REVEAL survey mentioned this article since REVEAL is a product developed by the megachurch Willow Creek for a specific set of reasons that don’t fit most Quaker congregations..

  6. In the areas I am familiar with, Minneapolis-St Paul, Houston and Austin, growth has been mostly geographical (drive time), membership preferences (read cliques) and to a lesser extent worship style. In all three cities the Meetings are viable and stable or growing. Our Meeting in Georgetown Tx has became a Worship Group sponsored by Austin Society of Friends after being an informal meeting of Friends for several years. Our immediate goal is survival, growth would be a blessing.

    Unfortunately I can find little help online or from Yearly Meetings and the General Friends Conference. PDFs, one size fits all, articles are seldom very helpful. What would help our Quaker growth would be better outreach by the Yearly Meetings, especially online interactive availability.There seems t be a shortage of computer literate talent among Quaker. SCYM is a small Yealy Meeting covering five states of progressive Meetings with limited resources. I believe strongly that growing small “seed” Meetings like ours are the future of our Quaker faith.

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