fellowship, Quakers, Spirituality, Witness
Comments 17

Autopsy of a Deceased Church: Quaker Edition

To the angel of the church in Sardis write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.

– Revelation 3:1-3, NIV

For the last several years, I’ve been talking up the book Autopsy of a Deceased Church by Thom Rainer to anyone who seems remotely concerned about the future of the Church in America or the future of their congregation or the future of Friends. Given the depressing state of faith in our country since I read the book on Mackenzie Morgan’s recommendation, I’ve been talking about the the book a lot.

So why am I writing about the book instead of just advising you to read it? After all, it’s an extremely quick read, a few hours at most. Even better, it’s a steal at well under ten dollars!

I’m writing about it for two reasons.

First off, a friend of mine, a pastor of a Quaker church – a man with an obvious interest in maintaining his congregation’s “non-deceased” status – attempted to read the book and said he just couldn’t get through the layers of cultural specificity. It was, in his words, “too Baptist.” Whether because I am gifted in cross-cultural communication or because I was raised Baptist, that wasn’t an issue for me. I would hate to have Friends miss out on Rainer’s insights because they can’t relate to his context, so if I can effectively “translate” for a Quaker audience, I’d like to do so.

But I’m doing a series about it now – in the midst of a busy and challenging season in my ministry, in my professional life and in my personal life – because Friends are out of time. In the last ten years, Friends in the United States have lost 12% of our members and 24% of our meetings.

Think about that: since 2010, nearly one in four American Quaker meetings or churches has closed its doors. The topic of dying congregations, and how to save them, feels urgent to me, and I’ve been unable to write much of anything since I read these devastating numbers.

Friends have a great reputation – for courage, for justice, for faithfulness. In other words, we have a reputation for being alive.

But like the church in Sardis, if we don’t change – by strengthening what remains of our communities, by recommitting to the beauty and richness of our spiritual heritage as Friends, by waking up to the need for change – our final hour will come like a thief in the night.

And the deeds of faith to which we are called will remain undone in the sight of our God.

Now is the hour of our visitation. Now is the hour of our decision. Please, please, please – let’s be real with each other as we explore topics like these, inspired by Thom Rainer’s book.

I have only ever been a member of liberal Quaker meetings, and I am sure I have blind spots, but I’m hoping this series can engage Friends from across the theological spectrum. We need each other so desperately.

And let’s take heart. Even in Sardis, as bad as things were, there were a few people “who [had] not soiled their clothes.” They received a promise: they would walk with the angels, dressed in white, for they were worthy.

Will we be worthy to walk with them?


  1. I just ordered two copies of the book, Adria, one to read and one to give away. And I’ve taken this urgent posting of yours as a sign to apply with no further delay for a transfer of membership to the Wilburites, whose institutional longevity I’m most concerned to preserve. Readers pondering this issue may be interested in http://www.brethrenlifeandthought.org/2020/11/22/what-do-we-want-from-our-faith-community-a-sermon-by-john-jeremiah-edminster/


  2. I think it should be pointed out that the statistics on decline are just for the U.S., which is only a fraction of the worldwide Quaker population. The source says, “The Friends World Committee for Consultation collects membership data from yearly meetings around the world. Initial research from the most recent 2021 census suggests a decline of 24% in the number of Friends meetings and churches in the United States between 2010 and 2020. In addition, in that 10 year period there was a 12% decline in individual members and attenders, and an undocumented rise in Meetings that have no physical location and are held virtually. “


    • Thanks, Bill! I couldn’t quite figure that out when I was reading. I’ll update the text to reflect that it’s *US* Quakerism that’s in such dire straits.


  3. Sally A Melcher-McKeagney says

    My UCC faced a difficult decision a few years ago, and ended up selling our church building. But we didn’t “close.” We rented a space that more suited our size and needs. We sold a lot of the trappings of our church–pews, our bell choir bells. We gave our gigantic organ away to another UCC church in Rhode Island (we’re in Maine.) Some people chose to leave us. But others stayed. We now are much more focused on our ministries–an Essentials Closet, our Starfish Ministry, which helps people find housing and helps them navigate through the system of benefits and paying warrants and finding jobs. Today I just read of another UCC near me that is “closing” in a few months. I’m not sure what that will mean for them, perhaps they will attend another UCC church nearby.
    I don’t know what will happen next for our church. Our membership will continue to dwindle, but I hope we can find a way to continue helping people.


    • I think it’s wonderful that your church is “traveling light” – divesting itself of energy intensive assets and orienting its focus on serving others. Why do you say your membership will continue to dwindle?


      • Sally Ann Melcher-McKeagney says

        Maybe I was being too pessimistic about our church. But we are an elderly church. I am 68, and I am one of the younger members. We have a very few members in their 30s and 40s, and they are outnumbered by the 90 year olds. I don’t know how many people want to gather to sing and listen to a sermon and then drink coffee afterwards. We do have support from the community–volunteers from the local college, and an Episcopal church who want to be “the diaper church.” They supply us with thousands of diapers for our Essentials Closet. Perhaps we will not dwindle, but how we do church may be different.


  4. Anne & I knew our Meeting was on the way out when they met to discuss: ~Now that we’ve got our new meeting house built and open, how would we like to see the Meeting develop from here?

    She said, “I’d really like to belong to a group of people in love with God and each other.”

    Her comment was met with one of the deadest silences I’ve ever heard.


      • Well, Anne has gone back to her Episcopalian roots, in a down-home church nearby (where they at least have a food distribution where she volunteers.) One of the two local Meetings (mine) has continued to drag on in the same standardized chairs in that same rather sterile building. Has gotten some new people, but they don’t get Messages.

        The other still has some people who make it back either physically or via Zoom. Some occasional messages; it’s been awhile since any have felt like Messages to me. (Maybe that’s more about me than them, I don’t know. But one was from a guy willing to actually use ‘the G-word’, saying that God loves us. & that struck me as hopeful!)

        I don’t know that we need to use a particular name or have a particular concept of God to keep attuned… but we don’t function well with concepts that deny God or that unduly limit what power over us and the world we can expect to find in ‘Him’.


  5. Pamela Harter says

    Hi everyone, I discovered recently due to my passionate curiosity and research in genealogy that I come from some very long lines of Quakers back to the earliest times here in the colonies. I learned that a number of the people were banished by Mass. Bay Colony and ended up moving to Rhode Island. I have also found a lot of Quakers in New Jersey and other colonies. I have some books about some famous Quakers and I am interested in doing more research. The Quakers began confronting slavery and it became a powerful movement in the United States. I learned that there were Quakers who owned slaves and profited from slavery. I am curently documentating any wills that mention slaves and hope to turn this over to groups who are researching the roots of African Americans. I am intriqued about the passionate early days and how a group of Chrisitans who decided that they would embrace the Quaker faith. in the US there were apparently many evolutions of the original Quaker belief system. From what I gather Quakerism was pretty strict in the early days .the persecution in the colonies was brutal. Ears could be cut off, placed in the stocks naked and whipped, food could be confiscated, fines levied thrown in jail with little food and without heat and more. Even dragging a person from town to town behind a horse. The Quakers were considered radicals by the Puritans and the religious leaders and government of Mass. I also learned , while on the subject, that one of my ancestors, was notoriours and controversial. Her name was Herodias Long Hicks Gardiner Porter, my 9th great grandmother. Now she stood up in defense of the Quakers and she was whipped and throw in jail. more than once. I will put a link so that you can read about her if you are interested. People debate whether she was a Quaker or just standing up for Quakers who were being persecuted. For the time, she was a remarkable woman who was independent and way outside of normal behavior for women at that time.
    Biography: Like Mary Dyer, she became a follower of George Fox and the Quaker faith. In 1658 she walked for sixty miles from Aquidneck Island to Weymouth to protest the treatment of Quakers. With babe at the breast and another child by her side, Herodias received ten lashes by order of Governor Endicott. She was then imprisoned for fourteen days for supporting the Quaker faith. She was never listed as a member of the Quaker faith and didn’t continue her protests after this incident. https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2017/06/27/founding-mothers-herodias-long-hicks-gardiner-porter-so-scandalous-a-life/


  6. Don McCormick says

    I am also concerned about whether Quakerism will survive. If we continue to shrink at our present rate, Quakerism will disappear in North America in the next few decades. I’ve written about this in a couple of articles in Friends Journal: “Can Quakerism Survive” https://www.friendsjournal.org/can-quakerism-survive/ and “What People Really Want from Church and Quaker Meeting” https://www.friendsjournal.org/what-people-really-want-from-church-and-quaker-meeting/


    • The Quaker movement over the centuries has produced many valuable insights, moral advances, and people. But I can’t consider these the product of something called “Quakerism”, so much as a practice of turning to God together in search of inspiration, compassion, guidance towards embodying God’s intention for the world and ourselves.


  7. Unfortunately many Quaker Meetings tend to be rooted in a particular class and race, but, especially back east, they can be rooted in the same families that have comprised the meeting community since the 1600s and 1700s. In the worse case scenarios, the community can then become centered as much on heritage as on a living faith.

    Both tiny Friends meetings and tiny mainstream churches (that have not reached critical mass) may find it too easy to focus on maintaining the status quo when they could be living the Gospel. Some old Friends meetings in the Philadelphia area go back to the 1600s. While some rest on their laurels, and are almost living museums, some make sincere attempts to go beyond.

    I believe until a group reaches critical mass (and I don’t know how many people that is) it can be very, very hard for the community to get or stay healthy. The smaller the group, the more likely it is to fall into accommodation, bad habits of one sort or another, inertia, or some other thing that inhibits growth into mature faith.


  8. Gerard Guiton says

    The follow article appeared in the Dec. issue of “The Australian Friend”: I hope it helps. Pls note, the ‘Kingdom’ (which I call “The Way” to avoid excluding language and behaviour) can be found in various religious traditions under different names. So I’m not arguing for an exclusively Christian interpretation of The Way. here it is:

    “Candle, Kingdom and Consciousness”

    IMAGINE A CANDLE nearing its end. The flame is about to go out but it continues to flicker nevertheless. However, you need light so you get another candle. You light it from the flickering flame. You now have two candles for a very short time before the first one finally dies. This is repeated until it becomes a kind of cycle of renewal—something dies only to be replaced. But the night remains.

    This is Quakerism today. It’s flickering to its end. Should we let it die? Should we try to renew it? We opt for renewal but the old practices, the old cycles, are not working. Decline continues. We try harder. New ideas come up. For a time the flame gets strong. But we know the candles themselves are old. The cycle itself is repetitive and ageing. So where is the true and constant light in this dark night? Does it exist? William Penn in his Reply to a Pretended Answer (1695) conflates Light with consciousness:

    this word consciousness supposes a knowledge, together with something else that gives us that knowledge . . . And what is that but that Divine Light which gives light to the candle for a candle cannot light itself.

    The candle cannot light itself. All organisations flicker. Sometimes they die. But sometimes they can be renewed and continue to give light. Their life is thus extended, and it’s OK that it is. However, they need outside help. Better still, they can get help from the inside—help that is new though it appears old. Help that is already tested. Help that is waiting to get going. What is this ‘help’? Back to Penn.

    The idea of ‘consciousness’ was going the rounds in the 1690s. His friend, John Locke, had published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689/90). It was instantly influential and, among other things, dealt with consciousness. He was not the first to do this in England. The Cambridge Platonists (they were mostly Anglican clergy) and their friend, Quaker Anne Conway, were also keen on the subject. But it was Penn who saw consciousness as equalling the Inward Light.

    Another name the early Friends gave to the Inward Light was the ‘Kingdom of God’. An enormously high proportion of their tracts (90%+) mention the ‘Kingdom’ at least once, some many times over. It was their central focus largely because it was also Jesus’. It was pivotal to their daily life. The outward manifestation of the ‘Kingdom’ or Inward Light was their ‘Lamb’s War’.

    The Inward Light or Divine Consciousness is an ancient idea—the Rg Veda sang its praises 3,500 years ago!—but it is forever fresh. Here is the help that is definitely old but new. Why is this? One reason is that in God/Consciousness there’s no time. Hence the Light is always in the present (where there’s no time); the present immediately disappears into the past. So the Light is always in the now. And thus always new (as well as old). This Light resides in all of us. It is old and young which means we can give our Light, the Light which is always new, to the flickering light of Quakerism because the candle of Quakerism cannot light itself. It needs us.

    So what kind of Light do we bring? Answer: Kingdom = Consciousness. Study this oneness and you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find. You’ll light your own candle and then that of our ailing Society. Together, our Light will be bright indeed and will shine its peace, justice and compassion even more gloriously in the world. It’ll be 1652 Pendle Hill in the present, now. Thus a newly and greatly gathered Quakerism will have old and new Light, a common purpose and language that speaks to the times. It will be alive and well, and attractive to new generations. And it will grow. Imagine that!

    Gerard Guiton, Australia Yearly Meeting


  9. This is golden, Friend Gerard! — to be reminded that the Light is timeless, that one candle can always be lit from another, and that from an old, dying Quakerism a new one can be ignited. As the Lord God assured Francis Howgill in 1662, God will never break [His] covenant with [His] people the Quakers, so we can look forward in hope to new life, even while meeting houses and Friends’ churches are emptying out and closing their doors.
    Yet I’m concerned that there’s urgent work to be done, for example the massive calling-to-repentance necessary to motivate humans to retard the now life-threatening global warming, or to keep billions of heedless evildoers from damning their own souls; and Quakers who no longer believe in a good and almighty theistic God (who has a will!) have made themselves deaf to the Divine Voice that would tell them what to do, and so content themselves with doing what *they* think, in their own creaturely wisdom, they should do. “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest” (Matt 9:37-38 = Luke 10:2).


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