What People Really Want from Church and Quaker Meeting

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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, [email protected], 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.”

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