Can Quakers Become A Mass Movement?

I was talking recently with a friend about the possibilities for growth and outreach at Capitol Hill Friends, and he made a comment that struck me. He said that he did not view Quakerism as having much potential for being a mass movement, since it can be such a demanding, austere path. It was his opinion that many of the core disciplines of the Quaker path – such as silence, waiting, and group discernment – are simply not accessible to most people in our culture.

Is this true?

Without a doubt, the simple commitment to follow Jesus runs counter to many of the assumptions of mainstream society. In many ways, it is a hard thing to be a follower of Jesus and a citizen in Empire. Yet, many churches are growing today; a community of 150 people is not generally considered to be extravagantly large. Being a Christian is deeply challenging, but I know that there are many people in our city who would prefer a purposeful life of challenge to the meaningless rat race of consumer society.

All that being said, there is a certain reality to the claim that the Quaker path is simply not appealing to most people. The truth is, Quakerism has not been a mass movement for centuries. Based in my own personal experience, I would say that most North American Quaker congregations today have fewer than 50 active participants, and many – probably a majority – have far fewer than that.

In the Yearly Meeting (regional association) where I first became a Quaker, there was one church with a regular attendance of about 120. Every other congregation had fewer than 15 people on a Sunday morning. In another Yearly Meeting that I have been a part of, the largest congregation numbered perhaps several dozen on a Sunday morning. This made it abnormally large, since every other group in the Yearly Meeting had fewer than 10 people present at their worship! These are, perhaps, extreme cases, but they are my experience of the Quaker community at this point in time.

When I reflect on the demographic status of many parts of the Quaker community, it is understandable why my friend would conclude that Capitol Hill Friends could not reasonably expect to draw great numbers. It is demonstrably true that most Quaker communities do not attract many people. But why?

Is it because our tradition asks so much that only a sturdy few can take up the challenge? I cannot believe that. Though the gospel message can seem daunting, it is also good news for those who are suffering. Most of us struggle in so many ways, and there must be millions of Americans whose hearts would leap for joy if they received the good news of Jesus in a way that made sense to them. 

Are there aspects of our religious tradition that actually bar the way for those who are seeking God? Are there unquestioned habits and assumptions in our life as a community that keep others out? Has preserving a set of cultural distinctives become more important than inviting our friends, neighbors and co-workers into the life of God’s kingdom?

What would happen if we defied the assumption that our communities are only for a special few? How might our ways of engaging with the world change if we came to believe that the gospel is good news for the whole world? What traditions are we being called on to discard, modify or re-mix so that we become once again a mass movement that blesses the world?

  • http://blog.billsamuel.net/ BillSamuel

    Another way to look at it is that we are a part of a mass movement that blesses the world – Christianity – but we are only a very small part of it numerically (although I think Quakers have influence beyond what the proportions might lead one to expect). What is Quakerism’s part in the bigger picture? I’m not sure.

    We need to be somewhere between the extremes of viewing Quakerism as the place for a spiritual elite which will naturally always be very small and adopting an approach which latches onto any technique and approach which will enable us to attract the masses. Just where that is requires a lot of listening to the Holy Spirit.

    At the recent Barnesville gathering, one participant noted that she has been attending a large mega-church which holds all night prayer sessions in which the bulk of the time is spent in silence. And the demographic this church is reaching is one which many Quakers assume is not responsive to silence. I also note that the charismatic/pentecostal wing of Christianity is quite large and implements (at least at its best) the idea that God might speak through any attender at worship (and some of the early leaders of this wing saw early Friends as their forebears). Neither of these operates quite like a traditional Quaker gathering for waiting worship, but it shows that some of the keys to the way Quakers have operated do in fact have a much broader appeal.

    I can’t answer whether Quakerism should be a mass movement today (at an earlier stage, it certainly was in certain parts of the world and perhaps is in some other parts of the world today). I think Friends should be willing to learn from others, particularly those with worship or prayer elements which incorporate some of the genius of early Quakers, but try not to just copy from others in order to attract numbers.

    I believe we are meant to struggle with the questions, and seek to be faithful step by step as we listen to God’s guidance. If we do that sincerely, it is enough and we can leave the rest to God. Thanks, Micah, for asking important questions.

    • http://valiantforthetruth.blogspot.com Micah Bales

      Thanks, Bill. I think you’re right that the Quaker tradition does have a particular charism and may not be ideally suited for every spiritual style. That being said, I wonder whether a new movement of the Holy Spirit needs to transcend the sometimes narrow confines of the “Quakerly.”

      I hope that we will all pray for this kind of mass movement that could break down barriers and draw us together in Christ’s love, mercy and justice.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jar08034 Joseph Rogers

    I not sure about a movement of millions but I think Quakers offer a strong alternative for folks. I know for me being with Friends has been a place were I can come to the Lord in my own time and way. I think this is something powerful that folks need.

    • Marc Kivel

      Amen, Joseph!

    • http://valiantforthetruth.blogspot.com Micah Bales

      Agreed, Joseph!

  • http://www.martinkelley.com/ Martin Kelley

    There’s much that can be said on the topic. I suspect that one of the greatest block for many Friends would be a resistance to scaling up. If even one percent of the people in the small farm town I live in joined Friends and built a meeting, we’d be one of the largest in the yearly meeting. Our urban meetings would need to grow into the thousands.

    Space and finances aside, I suspect a lot of Friends have been drawn to the intimate scale of our small meetings. They provide communities at a more human scale than often found in modern US society. Dunbar’s Number proposes that human networks tend to maximize at around 150 individuals. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Quaker meetings seem to be top off there. There’s certainly ways to build larger communities with intimacy (both Micah and Bill have experiences with evangelical cell models) but I don’t see Quakers doing that.

    How many active meeting members would be truly comfortable changing the scale of the community? Everything from business meetings to arranging child care and after-worship coffee would have to be much more organized and probably bureaucratized. We wouldn’t all know each other.

    I once tried to get a meeting interested in outreach. We were clearly not anywhere even vaguely near our potential in size (even our space could have handled more). Verbally I was encouraged but after some time I realized some of the roadblocks I found myself experiencing were probably related to the group being more or less comfortable as they were and didn’t really want to be three or ten (much less twenty or fifty) times the current size.

    • Marc Kivel

      As I recall, the Advice of the Elders of Balby recommends that for convenience sake meetings should be roughly within a mile of all Friends for convenience and ability to draw together regularly. While that might be a somewhat overly convenient here and now (smile) I do think the idea of more small meetings preferable to large meetings if one seeks to have the gathered meeting experience and sense of community…

      • http://www.martinkelley.com/ Martin Kelley

        Yes, it is an extremely different relationship to live within a mile of a meeting and to live further out. For awhile I was attending a meeting an hour away and I just couldn’t participate in most of the mid-week events because of the extra time of the commute.

        • Marc Kivel

          Thanks for the note, Martin…I suspect many folks would feel differently about attending meeting that was 15 or 20 minutes walk for the average attender and would also have a neighborly concerns and focus…absent other alternatives, perhaps meetings at a neighborhood school, another church, or other neighborhood institution would be appropriate?

      • barbara.hrrsn@gmail.com

        If we were to try to set all Meetings within walking distance of the members, Meetings would be even smaller. Locally we have tried to start a miniMeeting in the local retirement community and even Members of the local Meeting who live there cannot agree on a time to Meet.

        • Marc Kivel

          Greetings, Barbara! I’m finding that when you let people know where you’re gonna be at a particular day, date and time and simply start showing up and do what you intend to do with or without participation the Holy Spirit will also show up! And capping it with some coffee, cookies and conversation is a plus! grin

          • barbara.hrrsn@gmail.com

            Well, I have done so in the past, but find I now have other commitments and do not feel Led to drop the current commitments to take up a commitment on someone else’s turf when it has had so little participation from them in the past.

    • http://valiantforthetruth.blogspot.com Micah Bales

      This is a good point, Martin. I think that at least part of the answer is that we have to learn how to scale while maintaining a healthy small-ness. “Always growing, always multiplying, always human-sized,” might be a good motto.

      Capitol Hill Friends and the Friends of Jesus Fellowship are exploring what it means to operate as a network of interconnected small communities that add up to something a lot larger. Small groups of 6-12 can make up congregations of 60-120, which can make up city-wide networks that range into the thousands.

      The cell church movement has shown us that the personal experience of small group, the social scene of a medium-sized congregation, and the organization and power of a mass organization are not mutually exclusive. By working together to develop functional structures and healthy leadership, scaling up is a real possibility.

  • Howard Brod

    Insightful post Micah. A subject I have also been wrestling with. I am beginning to wonder if other faith traditions perhaps use guilt or fear to encourage regular participation in church. Such tactics are especially distasteful in the liberal Quaker tradition that I am part of. And without that pressure, perhaps the grind of everyday existence is just too much for most people to make time for God.

    My meeting has hundreds of people on our directory; all of whom do not want to be removed. Yet, on a given Sunday we are thrilled to see a dozen at worship. I recently posted a question in QuakerQuaker trying to discover why this seems to be so prevalent. There is just no particular reason that jumps out.

    • http://valiantforthetruth.blogspot.com Micah Bales

      I definitely don’t think that guilt/fear is the answer – and certainly not to maintaining participation in the life of the Church! Growing, healthy communities are those that can tap into our shared desire for meaning, purpose and belonging, and provide a mission that is worth living – and dying – for. Jesus offers us such a mission, and the Holy Spirit gathers us into such a community.

  • Paul Ricketts

    “Without a doubt, the simple commitment to follow Jesus runs counter to many of the assumptions of mainstream society.” If I can rephrase this statement. Without a doubt, the simple commitment to follow Jesus runs counter to many of the assumptions of mainstream liberal Quakerism. Also you said Micah “In many ways, it is a hard thing to be a follower of Jesus and a citizen in Empire” Again to rephrase this statement a hard thing to be a follower of Jesus and a citizen in the liberal silent tradition of unprogrammed Friends.
    Christianity is a mass movement. Rooted in a mass message. The historic and living presence of Jesus. Who is at work in the life of his church today. For those of us would-be Christians on peripheral of liberal Quakerism this is a different reality in many of our Meetings today. There is no mass movement or message except for religious pluralism. For all practical purposes liberal Quakerism today is basically a theistic version of contemporary Unitarian Universalism. Liberal Quakerism espouses a pluralist approach to religious belief, base on one’s experience with the Spirit. I guess you can say that’s a mass message for potential mass movement?? This isn’t good or bad. It’s just the way of things. That being said, the challenge is for us on the peripheral of liberal Quakerism for me as a person color and one who is embracing my faith tradition heritage, is to continue to find new ways with the help our beloved teacher to extend our boundaries. It is a challenge to find those walls and push and push and push them out until perhaps they even fall down under the weight of a passion for genuine community. That’s how we build a mass movement from within that would eventually grow outwardly. Being a part, however small,community helps me to feel that there are others out there who are searching for a way to follow Jesus.

    • Marc Kivel

      I offer the thought that perhaps as much as Friends like to talk about released ministry among the meetings, there is a call and a need for Teachers to verbally share the Gospel and its Hebrew antecedents among the Communities in their own words, not just the fixed texts? Convincement is the flowering of the Holy Spirit within a soul prepared in part by the Tradition and watered with the Stories of the Community…thoughts?

  • James Breiling

    Can any church that seeks to follow the instructions of Jesus, brought together most extensively in the Sermon on the Mount, and the conduct of Jesus, especially forgiveness and compassion, become a mass movement?

    How does Capital Hill Friends focus on the instructions in the Sermon on the Mount and their implementation in the daily life of members?

    • http://valiantforthetruth.blogspot.com Micah Bales

      Good questions, James. It seems that Jesus did intend for his message and living presence to guide a mass movement (see Matthew 28:18-20). Filled with the Holy Spirit, the early Church grew very quickly and spread across the entire Roman Empire, and beyond. The gospel is good news for those who are struggling and oppressed by the weight of Empire.

      I hope that we at Capitol Hill Friends are a community that creates space for that good news to be shared, and lived out in the context of the New Rome. We fall short, no doubt – but we are trying to be a light in the darkness.

  • http://ubuntulinuxtipstricks.blogspot.com maco

    “Yet, many churches are growing today; a community of 150 people is not generally considered to be extravagantly large.”

    And I’m sure we could play “no true Scotsman” on a lot of those congregations just like Liberal Friends and Evangelical Friends get no-true-Scotsman’d by each other, with the Conservative ones sitting in the middle side-eyeing them both like “yeah, I’ll just be mending my bonnet if you need me.”

    Perhaps it’s Friends’ _reputation_ for sticking to the old ways (despite the presence of Liberal Friends) that makes folks disinterested. Most people do seem to think we’re Amish. Either that or they think we’re the no-sex Shakers and died out a hundred years ago. (Note: there are still 3 Shakers left)

    I don’t think we’ll see a mass movement toward Friends in our lifetime. You can allay fears about clothing requirements, sex bans, electricity bans, female submissiveness, etc. with talk. There is one specific thing in the “core discipline” that a lot of people can’t see past though: the Peace Testimony. War and violence as necessary means to ends is so embedded in people’s minds, that when you tell them we don’t do those things and don’t believe them necessary, they shut down and start arguing. Maybe we can _show_ a better way to live, but war-averted doesn’t get headlines! “Yet Another Day Goes By With Diplomacy Keeping US and UK on Friendly Terms” …not a headline you’re gonna see on the front page of the Washington Post. So the challenge is making [successful!] peace work more visible and avoiding “well but that’s a special case” as the response. There’s a high level of optimism required to be a Friend, to believe there is that Light in everyone, to try to see it, and to believe non-violence is possible, but that’s seen as unrealistic–only cynicism is realistic.

    Now, I do have my fair share of cynicism. Frequently, I have it _about_ Friends, and I see what I’m about to say as being a urban-Friends-cultural thing that makes us unpalatable to a lot of people. Micah, I haven’t been to FMW since December. My understanding of the the history around Plain dress includes that it was always something more common among rural Friends than among wealthy urban Friends. That division between wealthy urban Friends and rural Friends has been with us a long time. I notice it when I see the budget. It’s a Meeting that has about 70 people on any given Sunday and has fulltime staff. There’s someone there to answer the phone every day 9-5, a property manager, a bookkeeper. A lot of work is contracted out. The budget looks bad. So they rent space to outside organizations and ask for more money, while never considering shrinking the budget to fit the income. How many Friends Meetings have fulltime staff or the money to spend on them? Something broke? Pay someone to fix the problem. I have been given the impression by pastors I know who’ve worked in rural congregations of various denominations that when something breaks, the congregation fixes it. One added on “oh but there were a lot of retired folks.” Ok, this Meeting has a lot of retired folks too. The difference as I see it, is they’re retired from being lawyers not plumbers, so the concept of working with their hands is foreign. Classism is a problem at least among urban Friends. Don’t-wanna-get-your-hands-dirty. (from a different Meeting) Oh, we need a building caretaker and someone to work with Young Friends… what’s that, Only Tradesman In The Meeting? You want to help? Well, clearly you only have work-with-hands gifts, not spiritual gifts, so go be caretaker! I’m pretty sure that person doesn’t attend his meeting anymore either.

    • Marc Kivel

      maco: you make valid points, more than valid. And maybe THAT is one “distinctive” that Friends in 21st Century North America might consider: that EVERY Friend seek out ways to honor God and share burdens and blessings in the Meeting by the work of their hands – even if it’s getting up on a ladder and replacing light bulbs, carpentry or painting, mowing a neighbors yard, making food for a potluck, knitting blankets for babies and the elderly, tending a community garden…and if there are specialized needs (bookkeeping or legal) that we make every effort to obtain services from a member of the Community FIRST – and pay them only insofar as their labor for the Meeting prevents them from earning their keep otherwise…for that matter, in meetings where there are released ministers, perhaps they should release folks who are bi-vocational and give preference to those who labor with their bodies?
      As for the urban/rural, wealth/poverty dichotomies? Bi-vocational teachers and evangelists (sorry if the “e” word offends) should be commissioned and sent out to every county in every state and partially supported by the more established meetings even if it is nothing more than a grant = to a livable wage in the missioners locale for three years – and again, the missioner ought to be someone who can teach and evangelize and work with good heart and faith, not necessarily someone who has an academic degree in religion or theology….
      As for the matter of the Peace Testimony? As with convincement in anything, one must be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, seek clearness, and trust God’s grace…I know folk who would never lift a finger to anyone, save if someone threatened their families or themselves….and others who talk about war and violence but would give up their life in a moment rather than kill. The first Friends were not always pacifist, and I feel we need to have faith in God to do what is right in this matter…thoughts?

    • http://valiantforthetruth.blogspot.com Micah Bales

      Maco, my observation is that most folks don’t really know *anything* about Quakers, and that much of the baggage that might push people away is stuff that we (Quakers) ourselves perpetuate. What if we were willing to give up some of our distinctiveness in order to make newcomers feel welcome?

      Don’t get me wrong, some things are worth keeping, like our commitment to gospel nonviolence, for example, and our testimony of Jesus Christ within. But there are many things we hold to that are not really necessary – they’re just “Quakerly.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/ReneeAxtell Renee Axtell

    Maybe not mass appeal, but certainly a larger appeal than we have currently. I attend an Evangelical Quaker meeting that is virtually indistinguishable from any other Evangelical Protestant church. That is unfortunate. Maybe if we actually practiced Quakerism, then there would be a reason for people to come.

  • Marc Kivel

    I appreciate the posting, Micah, and offer a thought or two, and would appreciate the thoughts of all posting here…I believe that Quakers can justly claim to be Sermon on the Mount Christians: folks who have come to convincement in the Way taught by Jesus the Christ as the righteous and compassionate realization of God’s kingdom presently. But that Way didn’t come new born with the Christ: the priests, and prophets, and scribes, and even the Torah has a great deal to say that makes the Sermon on the Mount and Christ understandable and worthy of discipleship. And all of it rests on faith and hope in the God of Israel, whether we choose to acknowledge Him (or for some, Her or it) or not. Look at the Gospels, shot through with the convincement of individuals, family, and communities…telling the Story, supporting Convincement, living out the Sermon on the Mount as individuals, families, and in communities, embracing old ways and making new ways: seems this is neither new nor beyond Friends…

    • http://valiantforthetruth.blogspot.com Micah Bales

      Thanks for this, Marc. Our lives and communities would definitely look very different if we did a better job of living out the teachings of Jesus. The reason I have hope is that I know that Jesus himself will be our leader, shining his light within us and walking among us, if we will invite him in!

  • Shasta4737

    Where I live, I’m a little put off by the way my Quaker meeting seems to value higher education at elite colleges and universities and all the trappings of a liberal/progressive lifestyle that are difficult for poorer people to follow. I wish it were not this way. I’ve lived in both the hardscrabble working class and the highly educated, urbane, “sophisticated” class worlds and can see why many poorer people are not attracted to the Friends. I pray about this.

    • http://valiantforthetruth.blogspot.com Micah Bales

      That’s hard, Shasta. I know that the Holy Spirit can break down class barriers, but it definitely seems out of reach as long as we are operating under our own strength. Definitely something to hold in prayer.

      • Shasta4737

        Hello Micah, I agree with you. I’m holding this in prayer.

    • Marc Kivel

      Important points, Shasta…maybe we need to put some feet and hands in the service of our silly, poor gospel to our neighbors…and maybe we need to learn from the hardscrabble working class how to survive when everything’s not wonderful? So from your experiences, what would be attractive about Friends to poor folk and what do Friends have to offer and learn from these neighbors?

      • Shasta4737

        Dear Marc, I’ve been praying about this and see that it is much easier for me to complain than it is to suggest solutions. One thought that comes to my mind is to go back and study how George Fox preached the Friends’ message. I’m continuing to pray!

  • James Tower

    I do think
    Quakers could become a mass movement once again, but certain things would need
    to change. The evangelistic fireball that was early Quakerism has long cooled
    through an age of quietism. We are children of the Quietistic period. Part of
    me wonders what friends today would do with people like George fox, or William
    Penn! Would we quench these firebrands in the name of civility? Would we strain
    their actions through the filter of legalism? Would we make them take a
    psychological examination? The fact is, early Friends would be considered rude.
    If I started preaching the gospel in the streets I would be disavowed by our
    movement. If I stood up on a pew and preached over the local baptist’s sermon,
    I would lose a lot of friends. Early Quakers had made a discovery they wanted
    desperately to share with the world, modern Quakers want to quietly follow
    Jesus into the suburbs. Early Quakers sent out a valiant 60 preaching in the
    streets, modern friends generally send their missionaries to other countries.
    These words from Eternal Promise spring to mind:

    I believe that a band of kindled and dedicated preachers can
    arise who can shake the countryside for ten miles around, and in this day
    become a second band of Publishers of Truth and release the hopes of thousands
    for the church of the Spirit. But they must be blinded souls–blinded by the
    splendor of God so that discouragement and apathy and mediocrity and
    selfishness in our meetings and in our churches and in our world will not
    dismay them. And they must be utterly dedicated souls who have, so far as they
    know how, completely committed themselves, their powers and their future, to
    the Inner Keeper. Their dedication must be as complete and irrevocable as that
    of monks who take life-vows. They live in no outward cells, but within them is
    the Shekinah, the Holy of Holies, where they listen in wonder and joy to the
    breathings of the Inner Voice. Such preaching bands will call other men to
    listen to the same Inner Teacher, until the church and the Society of Friends
    become a listening body of heavenly instructed souls. (107-108)

    I long for more Quakers to recapture the heart
    of the early days as Kelly did, but when I speak like this I find myself eyed
    with suspicion. We would rather be though of as nice than preach in the
    streets. We would rather have quiet lives than let our passion for God be
    boldly declared in the public spheres of our world. When people look at Quakers
    and think of their greatest moments, it is always more a look back through
    history than a look around at how we are embodying Jesus now. I for one do not
    want to be a part of a dying legacy nostalgically looking back, but a part of a
    dynamic community looking forward!

    As a side
    note, during westward expansion, there was exponential church growth among
    Friends. Out of it, the church had to adapt to better fit the discipleship
    needs of a growing community. What rose out of this was the pastoral system and
    programming. Even to this day I feel a sense of
    judgment from unprogrammed Quakers who question my call, and think I
    aspire to be a “hireling minister,” a phrase Fox used of false
    teachers! I do not see this system as a
    bad thing. If Friends theology has taught us anything it is that form matters a
    lot less than whether the Spirit is moving. But there are serious structural
    changes that Friends would likely need to make if growth actually came, changes
    that I fear some Friends would not be willing to make. Corporate discernment
    still works in large settings, but it does not look the same as it does with 50
    people. I would be willing to bet, we would not be willing to lose the control
    that must die with exponential growth. I do think we should look at how best we
    can be who we are and who God has called our communities to be, rather than
    hold numerical growth as the gold standard for whether or not we are being
    faithful. Small groups can do many things better than large ones!

    Thank you
    for making me think Micah!

    • http://valiantforthetruth.blogspot.com Micah Bales

      Thanks for this, James. I agree with you completely that we are still recovering in many ways from the Quietist Period – especially those of us from the unprogrammed branches, but probably all groups in North America! Having spent quite a bit of time with Ohio Yearly Meeting Friends in the last few years, I’ve gotten a real dose of Quietism, and I feel ready for some exuberance. :)

      I think you’re right that it’s time to take some risks. If we really want to follow Jesus, we’re going to be forced to become a lot less respectable!

      I share your discomfort when some Friends refer to pastors and other financially released ministers as “hirelings.” I want to believe that most of them don’t really understand how deeply offensive that word is.