Monday, February 14, 2011

Reflections on Revitalizing the Quaker Message

Yesterday at my monthly meeting's, Columbia Friends Meeting, Meeting for Business, the clerk opened the meeting with queries on outreach from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's Faith and Practice. The positive responses to the queries encouraged me to share my thoughts from a workshop I just attended, entitled Revitalizing the Quaker Message (FYI: PDF File and the workshop changed names), in order to start a longer discussion within the meeting about outreach.

The workshop was presented by Brent Bill at Quaker Hill Conference Center in Richmond, Indiana. Last year, Brent wrote a great piece, A Modest Proposal (PDF File), on the topic of revitalizing the Quaker message and the weekend was based on his proposal. On his blog, Brent gave a good wrap up of the session in a series of posts: First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth. Since he gave a great overview, I don't feel like writing my own overview of the whole weekend.

I attended the workshop, because since moving back to Missouri and reconnecting with Illinois Yearly Meeting, I have been invited by a Friend to start exploring the idea with her of promoting outreach within the yearly meeting.

Here are a couple key points from the weekend that I think are important for liberal unprogrammed Friends to consider:

First, Brent mentioned that revitalizing the Quaker message is as much about in-reach as it is about outreach. How can we deepen the experience within the meeting to nurture our existing members? In the last twenty years, Friends General Conference (FGC) has only added 1,000 members, which is about one and a half new member per meeting affiliated with FGC (I wonder if the numbers could be skewed by the recent addition of Intermountain Yearly Meeting to FGC, which has about 1,000 members). When we grow, how do we also keep members already there in the meeting?

An example of a good program to help with in-reach is Quaker Quest where a meeting meet for four weeks to talk about topics such as Quakers and God and Quakers and Peace. Then they will repeat the series but this time invite the public to the talk. This is a great experience for the meeting members to articulate their beliefs to each other.

Another way to retain members is for the meeting to actively nurture spiritual growth within their members. One point from A Modest Proposal is entitled The End of Quaker Pastorate. From the title, it seems like it has nothing to do with unprogrammed meetings, but oh it does. Brent talks about how the profession of Quaker pastors should end and instead pastors be called released ministers. Instead the discussion that followed brought up several questions for me:

How can unprogrammed meetings improve the process nurturing their members and attenders and renew the tradition of recording ministers?

On the flip side, how can meetings improve eldering and spiritual guidance to their members and attenders?

A church, where the members are engaged and feel nurtured, radiates this feeling and visitors can sense that. Vice versa is true too, churches that are struggling with issues between its members give off a negative vibe to its members

Second, someone mentioned the Belief-o-matic quiz at meeting for business today. This quiz has a well documented bias towards Quakers (1). Here is an outreach tool for meeting that is not related to Quakers. When someone receives Quaker as one of their top results, the person will then search for the nearest meeting to them in Google. What will they find when they search:

Does each meeting have an inviting, engaging website that seem alive? The website doesn't need to be fancy or cost a lot.

Does the homepage say anything about welcoming visitors?

Are there pictures, besides the meetinghouse?

Are all the information current and up-to-date?

Do all the links work?

Currently FGC is looking into helping meetings improve their web presence. Also in a meeting there is a good chance of someone who possess web developing talents. Lastly there is Word Press and it is simple to set up a modest website for free.

Third, when newcomers come, how do meetings welcome them before worship start? How do we inform them about meeting for worship beforehand? Brent related a story about going to meeting for worship while visiting New York City and no one greeted him beforehand. To a visitor, who has no prior experience with meeting for worship, worship can seem very different, maybe even intimidating. Without a proper introduction, they could feel uncomfortable leading to a negative first impression. After meeting for worship, how do meetings engage the guest? Talk to them! But don't engage with them because you just want another person to attend meeting, engage with them to find out who they are. People can sense fake hospitality. Martin Kelley has a great idea: Invite them out for lunch! Make them feel welcome.

I have a lot more thoughts on the workshop and the topic of Quaker outreach, but I think this is a good stopping point for this post. These three points are a good place to start a discussion on outreach and I am looking forward to continuing this conversation with my monthly and yearly meetings.

Apologies to Brent if I misrepresented anything he said.

1. "An issue of Newsweek magazine reported that a "disproportionate number" of respondents to the quiz identified themselves as 'liberal Quakers.'" The article notes that the page on the BeliefNet web site devoted to Quakers has become one of Beliefnet's top 50 links!"


  1. Hi Greg:
    I think the overall numbers of FGC have mostly stayed stable over the decades, the addition of new yearly meetings offsetting the steady decline of the "big four" East Coast yearly meetings. FGC has a higher percentage of small college-style meetings spread out across the U.S. than before. The trend is likely to continue. A South Jersey meeting I like has nine attenders this first day, average age around 65 or 70.

    There have been a lot of outreach programs come and gone but none have made much of a dent in the long run. The big changes have come from our ability to tap into larger societal shifts, like the youth energy of the anti-war movement in the 1970s. The formal structures have rarely been very good at recognizing opportunities ( Jerry Frost's 2000 Gathering talk is essential background reading for this).

    Right now we have a few opportunities: the internet is huge. I can think of at least three "seasoned" Friends who have come in on Beliefnet. That silly quiz has done more for outreach than anything Friends have done. But it's not just Beliefnet. I know people who have come in off of Wikipedia and Google searches bring a lot of people to our websites (a big issue is whether our sites are designed for them or for the very small percentage of insider Quakes who we think more often about).

    I know Wess Daniels put together a Belief-o-Matic page for Camas Friends, trying to appeal to locals who had taken the quiz and wanted to find Quakers. It was tied to an ad I think.

    Because of the internet, more niche Quaker concerns can have a higher profile. Even small projects can reach people. That allows for more diversity, which I think is a good thing.

    The other big opportunity is this growing alt-Christian, emergent church movement that's growing. It's diffuse and diverse but I know some of these churches with stronger Quaker values than some of our meetings. I've been trying to light a fire under Friends for years but I think we're mostly missing this boat. Individuals have been building bridges and it's worth making these connections.

  2. Hi Martin,

    Thanks for your comments!

    At the retreat we talked about worship groups and alternative Christian churches, like the New Monastic movement and house churches. I have been impressed by these movements. When I lived in Greensboro, I attended Hillel Friends Meeting, an emergent Friends meeting. The meeting had a big impact on my spiritual journey.

    Recently in Missouri, since my home meeting is two hours away from the farm, I have attended meeting for worship twice at a nearby community, Possibility Alliance. The community practice radical Christianity, like living without using any kind of petroleum. Not many Friends have heard of this community, but their workshops draw hundreds, maybe a thousand people or more, mostly young adults, from across the country each year to rural Missouri. Every First Day they host meeting for worship, because they have felt drawn to Friends principles. They have told me that several participants have inquired about Quakers and they encouraged interested people to look up meetings near their home.

    Yes Quakers need to start taking Internet outreach seriously and thank you, Martin, for all of your work so far.

  3. Cool, I Googled them. That's pretty hardcore witness but it seems rooted in a whole lot of fun too (I'm looking at the third picture down!). Winning combo. Thanks for sharing, I'm posting it to Other Resources section of the Midwest page on QuakerQuaker.