Problem:  Many unprogrammed meetings seem to be dying, at least in the eastern part of the country.  I know that many people react to this by arguing that saving meetings from extinction is NOT what we are called to do.  I guess I must be old-fashioned.  When I see an abandoned meetinghouse or a meeting with a few faithful old timers trying to hang on, I feel very strongly that we shouldn't look the other way and do nothing to help to rebuild these meetings!

A few years ago a power company lineman came to the farm on business.  He told me that he is a native of the deep South, and that his family had moved several times as he was growing up.  His father, a Southern
Baptist minister, was a "turn around specialist."  When a local church was losing out, his father would be called in to provide leadership, to get the church rehabilitated and healthy again.

I have heard of cases of turn around specialists working in pastoral meetings, sometimes successfully and other times rejected by the locals who did not want to change because they were contented with the status quo, even if it meant gradually dying as a meeting.

I don't see similar efforts among unprogrammed Friends. I have discovered that there are several books, some probably rather enlightening, on how to reorient dying churches.  One book addresses 50 ways that local churches turn off newcomers.  See *Unwelcome: 50 Ways Churches drive Away First-time Visitors*:

Other books attempt to speak to the condition of dying churches.   *Autopsy of a Dying Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive*

*Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around, and Yours Can Too*

Where are the turn around specialists, or at least the turn around mentality, among unprogrammed Friends?

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Meetings can go both ways.  South Berkshire Meeting sprang up from nothing because one couple was both faithful to Spirit and friendly to people. 

I suspect that people inherit some of the trappings of Quakerism and are happy with that.  A good silence heals people.  I gently chide that the cookies are nice.  However, that's not remembered as the religious society's history.

Quakerism took off like crazy in the 17th century because it dealt effectively with issues that burned for many people.  Quakerism died away in relatively silly factionalism whenever it became a quietist rich person's club.  Unprogrammed Quakerism grew slowly in the 20th century when it again dealt with issues that burned for many people. 

So, Quakerism is by and large built on the Truth that burns for people.  In practical terms, this sometimes means liberation of spirits from the horrors of personal participation in war.  Many meetings have conscientious objectors among their members, some with memories of prisons.  I name jobs and unemployment as a real concern today, as real today as in Moses Brown's day when it moved him to hire Samuel Slater and build a spinning mill, which is said to be the start of the American Industrial Revolution.  Bayard Rustin of 15th Street Meeting was the Friend in the mid-20th century American civil rights movement.  Mohandas Gandhi was befriended by London, England Meeting early in his life, and they helped inform his opinions about nonviolence.  Consensus process passed from the AFSC into the Clamshell Alliance and was still reverbrating in the Occupy movement 30 years later.

If Friends live only a small corner of the faith of their parents or grandparents, that's still better than nothing.  But I don't know if it will, in the long term, attract younger people with rock-hard faith who will carry on a particular meeting.

Hello, Paul Klinkman!

Thanks for sharing your perspective.  The Quaker enterprise you describe reminds me of Geoffrey Kaiser's "Society of Trends."  If the fate of the Quaker faith is tied to a convergence of Quaker notions with social trends, I think we are talking about a bumpy ride, mostly downhill!

As I see Quaker faith, it should address deep and enduring questions of meaning and the inevitable life crises that plague the human condition.  For me, Quakerism must be rooted in Christ and the Bible if it is to answer our most fundamental needs.  A Quaker faith that operates on this level will not ride the rocky seas of changing trends and fads.

None of the foregoing deals with meeting oligarchies, entrenched Quaker bureaucracies and unfriendly Friends.  These are also very real issues, and they impede Friends' effectiveness in outreach and nurture of the beloved community.

For meetings to move forward spiritually, they must get in touch with their spiritual heritage and re-vision what their faith is about.  And they will need to be sure newcomers receive a sincere welcome  and warm hospitality.  "Friends" should be more than a name!  It should be a posture toward a lost world.

To rouse any ongoing interest whatsoever in "deep and enduring questions of meaning," let alone in "Christ and the Bible," you would need to see a very much different situation in US society as a whole.

That is, religious movements are far more than 'sociological phenomena' -- but they happen, in fact, when people are really stirred up about some aspect of their lives they can hope to change. That is, they need suitable soil to grow, need to satisfy some felt need of a significant number of people before their life can be embodied in a recognizable movement.

'Deep and enduring questions of meaning' may set in here, as worldly hopes and ambitions fall increasingly into a chilling eclipse, as the health effects of ubiquitous pollutants become more shattering, as the Earth continues to be pushed closer to uninhabitability -- or as any number of looming crises impact human lives.

For now, however, people seem to be mainly individually scrambling to avoid personal economic hardship and shame. That doesn't leave much energy or interest for deeper matters -- while our own constituents seem to be overwhelmingly prosperous and smug, another condition that works to render the spiritual depths non-urgent to their minds.

My concern is that the whole of American Christianity claims to be rooted in Christ and the Bible, and the whole of American Christianity has been statistically sinking.  Currently, only 1 out of 5 regularly shows up at a church in the U.S.

If any difference exists between "claims to be rooted" and "is rooted", that difference needs to be carefully specified and well-reasoned.

William F Rushby said:

For me, Quakerism must be rooted in Christ and the Bible if it is to answer our most fundamental needs. 

Natural Church Development, which I highly recommend you all check out (I've only read one book in their library but it was very thought-provoking), would say that the reason we have different diagnoses about what is wrong is because there really are different problems. The thing  that sets NCD's approach apart is that it is deliberately and consciously Trinitarian, suggesting that every church in every denomination needs the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, the commitment and sacrificial love embodied in Christ's crucifixion and the wisdom and creativity expressed in the creative energy and care of the Father we share.  So some meetings may really just need to pray for revival and prophetic insight, others may need to be more committed and steadfast in acts of mercy and service, while others need to be more strategic in their programming and organization.

None of these aspects is less "biblical" than the others. Prophets and anointed kings have often needed to be thoughtful and shrewd; careful plans have been upended by the outpouring the Spirit of God. It is worth thinking for all meetings, fellowships and individuals about how we can better reflect all parts of God's nature rather than just the ones that come most easily to us.

Most congregations of any (or no) affiliation which are dying are set in their ways. A turnaround involves change. Unless the congregation is genuinely willing to undergo significant change, they should probably be left to die. It would be helpful if those which are willing to change significantly had resources available - publications, workshops, people who can come in and help the meeting discern how it needs to move forward, etc. - to help it do this. Some of these things are available, but meetings may not know how to access them.

Hello, Bill!

It's not simply discomfort with change, but unwillingness to let go of control over the meeting.

I believe that, in earlier times, the traveling ministry was heavily involved in "turn around" activities in meetings that were visited.

Nowadays, meetings seem to be more nearly islands, without much input or genuine accountability to a larger body.  This fosters an "We are in charge here; mind your own business" attitude.


Bill (Rushby),

I think you've hit the nail on the head!  It really does come simply down to 'death of a meeting' due to wanting to control things to keep them within our own personal, ego-driven comfort zone.

This was the case with my meeting.  The "control" factor kept popping up as a roadblock to discerning and accepting the will of the Spirit.  And after a bit of in-fighting as egos clashed due to the crisis of a dying meeting, we all cried, "uncle!" and just made a decision to give up our own ego-driven need to control.  We started letting the Holy Spirit lead us, and as one or another said "I am led that we should try this", we began to say as a spiritual group, "Let's give it a try", and we supported new ideas and efforts, and welcomed the changes and joy that a new idea/effort brought to our community.

One of many examples we have had of LISTENING and pursuing as a community the leadings among us:  When someone at our meeting said, "I think we should simplify our closing of worship in order to remove a bureaucratic tradition of having the clerk of meeting or the ministry committee always close it", we said as a group after discernment on this leading, "OK, let's give it a try by just putting a clock on the fireplace mantle in the meetinghouse worship room, and then let anyone moved to close worship do so".  That sounded so spirit-led; but then, the control monster in all of us reared its ugly head with negativity such as:  "But we're liberal Quakers and we keep our worship room barren - no curtains, no trappings, no wall-hangings, and certainly no clock!",  and "What if no one is moved to close worship - what would we do?", and "How will the person closing know what to say?".

In just one Meeting for Business we addressed all of these concerns with open minds and hearts, as follows:

  • One 87 year-old birth-right Quaker who still uses the plain speech said out of our discerning silence,
    "I've never worshipped with a clock in the meeting room, but I say if we need one so those moved by the Spirit feel comfortable ending worship - we should go for it".
  • Another Friend said, "So if no one is moved to close worship around noon, we'll sit there a bit longer until someone is moved - what's the big deal?".
  • And yet another Friend said, "Let's just put a small card in front of the clock on the mantel that suggests the closer asks: "who should be held in the Light by Friends?", "are there any new ones who would like to introduce themselves?", and "are there any announcements?"

So, we decided to give this new arrangement a try because what would be the harm. 

This simple change has contributed to a complete change in the atmosphere and interest in our meeting.  Friends who never have taken the lead before have been moved to close worship; even teens have closed worship.  And they ALL have done so with as much love and Spirit as any clerk of meeting ever did.  It has sent a quiet, but strong message to all in our meeting that we ALL are ministers to each other, and it is even exciting to see who the Spirit will pick each Sunday to close worship.  The personal experience of being led to close worship has also inspired Friends to volunteer to do all sorts of things to help our meeting grow (Friends who previously may have waited for someone else to do it).  They have seen that it is easy at our meeting to lead others when you are led by the Spirit to do so, because leadings are eagerly accepted by Friends, appreciated, and supported without a lot of bureaucracy.

I give this example because it is a simple one to show that if Friends at our meetings would just open themselves up to new possibilities, the Holy Spirit will flood in and guide you to new pastures.  We all just need to get out of the way, so it can be in charge.

"So, we decided to give this new arrangement a try because what would be the harm."

Friends have no shorthand way of saying, "This alternative causes little harm.  Meh!  However, the current discussion seems to be spending too much of our valuable collective time.  I wish we could take it off the floor of the business meeting."

Hello, Paul Klinkman!  I think the present discussion has just about run its course.  But I am curious; why are you so anxious to close it down???

I wasn't speaking of the present discussion.  I was using quotes so that the need to shorten business meetings in general would be considered.

Out here in West Region I'd say Mary Klein, editor of Western Friend, is a turnaround specialist.  Even though Yearly Meetings may be neglectful in posting slates, even for positions at the yearly level, WF has put Drupal to good use (Open Source) and is wading into cyber-space ("Cyberia") more concertedly, aiming to help us network amongst ourselves more assiduously. 

Actually at NPYM we're pretty good about keeping our website current (also using Drupal), but we're but one among many (unprogrammed Yearly Meetings -- not FGC in our case, though some of our member meetings are, at least Olympia MM).

That's a "turning around" at least in the sense of no longer running away from technology, which I think the unprogrammed were doing until quite recently.  We had confused ourselves with Luddites whereas our heritage is as galvanizers of England's turnaround in the late 1700s, to become an industrialized miracle (I'm echoing that new book Quakernomics here).  We're a business-oriented sect, not something to work around.

Mary has organized a multi-timezone meetup for tomorrow in fact.  I'm looking forward to seeing if we have a smooth real time connection (I champion asynchronous media as a rule). Thanks to CenturyLink finally getting fiber optic to my neighborhood, I know the bottleneck won't be on my end. :-D  I've invited Joe Snyder, also of Multnomah Meeting, to join me as we patch in to Mary's meetup (not a conference call, something Adobe).

Kirby Urner

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