This post is part of a series based on Thom Rainer’s Autopsy of a Deceased Church. Please see the introductory post, Autopsy of a Deceased Church: Quaker Edition, for an overview of the series.
Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
– Ecclesiastes 7:10
When congregations die, it’s usually after a slow erosion rather than a cataclysmic event. During that process, there are several points when they could change directions. The decline is seldom irreversible. But instead of facing reality and responding accordingly, people use some high point in their past to justify why they should not change now. And so they die.
Of course, what they are saying may or may not be relevant. It may or may not be true. But it has meaning for them. “In 1978, we had a hundred members – and no website! So why do we need one now?” It sounds ridiculous, right? But I’m sure you have heard variations on this yourself.
The most common thread in Rainer’s 14 “autopsies” will be familiar to many Friends: dying churches live with the past as their hero. As Rainer writes, “[W]hen any internal or external force tried to change the past, they responded wih anger and resolution. ‘We will die before we change.’ And they did.”
How often do Friends dismiss uncomfortable suggestions by referring to “how we do things” ? Or by appointing ourselves as the sole authority on what is or is not “Quakerly”?
“We can’t focus on outreach. Quakers don’t proselytize!” What about the Valiant Sixty? These men and women – Spirit-filled ministers like Elizabeth Hooten, Mary Fisher and James Nayler – crossed oceans to spread the Good News.
“Liberal Friends don’t recognize gifts in ministry. We’re all ministers!” Elias Hicks himself was a recorded minister – as were many, many Hicksite Friends in the decades following him. More significantly, there is very good reason to think that Liberal Friends’ century-long experiment in DIY spiritual nurture hasn’t increased our gifts but diminished them, hasn’t multiplied the impact of the Spirit but reduced it.
“Why should we focus on religious education? Quakerism is great because you can believe whatever you want!” What about the many works on Quaker faith that have nourished us through the centuries – from William Penn’s No Cross, No Crown to Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion? As I have written before, “Every individual determining truth for themselves is not Quakerism, it is Ranterism, a deception stamped out by early Friends because of how easily the individual is misled by pride and passion. Instead of leaving Friends to their own devices, we traditionally have come together to listen to the Light with the full conviction that God will make His will known if we earnestly seek it as a gathered body.” No, our discernment isn’t set in stone – we must always be open to new revelation by the Spirit – but neither is it endlessly malleable by the individual.
So we see that the statements we use to justify continuing to do things our own way are often misleading, even flat-out false. But – and this is key – even when they are true, the illustrious deeds of Friends from days gone by are irrelevant to our faithfulness in this moment. We still have to do the work of listening to the Inward Christ today, minding the Light today, seeking God’s will today.
However, it gets worse than that – because sometimes we don’t just refuse change because of misguided convictions and doctrinal confusion. More chillingly, we often refuse change simply for the sake of our own preferences and convenience.
When, for example, questions arise about adjusting the worship calendar to accommodate families or young adults, how often do we hear that they should just get up earlier, or later, or that “the time was never a problem before.” When meetings are advised that their failure to provide childcare for business sessions or meeting workshops leaves parents feeling excluded and marginalized, how often is the response left at, “That isn’t our meeting’s practice.” In other words: Go pound sand, mama!
Whether the issue is the handling of post-meeting announcements, the possibility of a monthly hymn-sing, initiating a weekly potluck, starting a group for teens or young adults or something else entirely, too often the response is as simple as it is devastating. “We’ve always done it this way,” we say. “And we won’t change. Not for you, not for anyone.”
Friends call the buildings in which we gather “meetinghouses” rather than “churches” because the “Church” is the living Body of Christ, and I have heard it said that the Church is the only organization that exists primarily for the good of people who are not yet members.
Does this describe us? Do we prioritize the needs of people who are on the peripheries of our community – children, parents, and others who are hungry for Spirit-grounded community? Do we look for opportunities to welcome people who are struggling and desperately need a warm heart and a helping hand? Or do we put ourselves – our needs, our preferences – first? Do we listen to how the Spirit is calling us to live today and tomorrow? Or do we make an idol of “how we’ve always done things,” using our traditions to prevent discernment, instead of encourage it?
Are we faithfully living as the Church? What reflections inform your conclusion?
First, I would direct attention to Quaker Religious Thought Volume II, Number 1, 1960, which takes up the topic of The Early Quaker Vision of the Church. Lewis Benson is the lead author with comments by Henry J. Cadbury, T. Canby Jones, and D. Elton Trueblood. This whole issue is worth reading (or re-reading), main article, comments, and replies to comments; it has direct bearing on the issue raised in this post. It is too long for me to quote in a comment and beyond my ability to provide relevant excerpts. You can find this at https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1902&context=qrt
To have a meaningful discussion on the topic Deceased Churches, we will first have to define what a church is. The Greek word we translate as “Church” has the meaning of “The people called out of the world to God.” That is a two part definition and I want to focus on the second part. What does it mean to be called to God, to be the people of God? The foundation of the people of God is and always has been the conditional statement, “If you will hear/obey my voice, then I will be your God and you shall be My people; and you will walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.” (See Exodus 19:5-6 and Jeremiah 7:23) Neglect the first condition and you nullify the outcome. This is exemplified in Jesus’ discourse with the Jewish leaders in John 5 wherein he tells them, “You have not heard the Father’s voice…” and as a consequence you are not God’s people who can know/recognize the work of the Father or the work of the Son.
A deceased church is a church against which the gates of Hell have prevailed–those gates being death and darkness. A deceased church has lost touch with the voice of God–the Word who became flesh and dwells among us. This Word brings in light and life that prevails over and eradicates death, and shines into the darkest corners and recesses. Where the Word is heard and received with rejoicing, the gates of Hell lie shattered on the ground. Where the Word is heard and received inwardly by those called out of the world, there is a living church for the head, Christ, rules in and among them.
George Fox wrote: “And therefore, they that have the Son of God they have life, they see it, they hear it, they handle it, they look upon it, that life that was in the beginning, and can say, the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, and we know him that is true, and are in him that is true, and so are faithful witnesses, succeeders of the apostles and the true church, and can declare what their eyes have seen, and their hands have handled, and what they have heard, and what they have looked upon, and bear witness and show to others that eternal life, which was with the Father, and manifest unto us and in us, and can both witness and declare this to others freely, as they have received freely from God, that others may have fellowship with them, and can say truly, our fellowship is with the Father and with the Son,’ and this we declare and witness to: I say, all that succeed the apostles and the true church, it must be in this hearing, sight, handling, witnessing and declaring of this possession, of this life, Christ that was in the apostles and the true church, else they are no succeeders to them, nor in their possession: for all the false witnesses against the prophets, Christ and the apostles, they might profess the scriptures, and the beast, whore, antichrist, Satan’s messengers and false apostles, they might profess Christ in words; but they that have him not, have not life, and so are no true hearers, seers, witnesses nor succeeders, neither can they call Jesus Lord, except they be in the Holy Ghost the apostles were in, neither can they witness as they did without the Holy Ghost, neither can they build up one another, except they be in the same Holy Ghost the apostles and true church were in, praying in the Holy Ghost, building up one another in the most holy faith.” (Works of Fox, Vol. 5, p. 195)
Thank you! This is very timely. Our Meeting is experiencing a new vibrancy after restarting potlucks and holding a number of community gatherings to share our experiences and leadings with each other on a number of issues last year and this will continue. Many of us are sharing with each other about how we are building our sense of community again and are beginning to look at the adverse effect that individualism is having in our meeting culture. We are looking for ways to put listening for what Spirit calls us to as a group in the forefront of everything.
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I’m so glad that what I wrote is resonating! And it’s awesome that your meeting is coming together around sharing stories. I’d love to see Friends cultivate the intentionality of our forebears in sharing our spiritual experiences with each other.
If it’s not betraying confidences, think it could be helpful to hear what themes have emerged from the conversation about individualism in the meeting. How does individualism look in community? What’s the impact?
One of the ways individualism appears is in the attitude that Friends pursue what ‘feeds their spirit’ or where they are ‘led’ in a way that doesn’t consider the impact their choice will have on the group. Or Friends announce that they are unavailable to fulfill a commitment in a way that doesn’t acknowledge that this presents a problem for the community and they might have a role in helping solve the problem, even if they do need to step back for a good reason. When we speak honestly and lovingly about how we are impacted by these choices, and we look for solutions together to minimize the impact, our community ties are strengthened.
Thank you Adria. Well used as usual.
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Thank you so much for that affirmation, Joe, and your ongoing encouragement. You asked in a previous post (A Plea for Spirit-Led Discernment, I think) about how we can have a conversation about being faithful in our life together as Friends.
I think we’re doing it, here and elsewhere. Spirit-led discernment, loving outreach and community-focused ministry, support for spiritual gifts, safeguards to prevent abuse – these are all aspects of our calling as Friends, to live into the Kingdom of Heaven today, called out of the world as a colony of heaven, but always inviting, loving and serving our neighbors.
Concretely, I hope ESR’s Quaker Leadership Center will be a place for such conversations, and our monthly and yearly meetings’ M&O committees would be natural starting places. But that assumes a certain amount of pre-existing unity. I recently heard of a Friend in England who left his meeting because they could not come to unity that the purpose of their weekly gathering was to worship God.
Obviously, a meeting like that would not be interested at this point in the type of revival I believe many of us are praying and hoping for.
Sadly, I belong to a Meeting not unlike that one in England. However, we are building a smaller community within the Meeting and including other Meetings and Churches who are, in our halting ways, trying to do all those things you enumerate. Hmm, maybe I should not say sadly. It was clear when we moved back to this city that I could have chosen an easier Meeting or Church to attend, but was told inwardly I need to be here. So I am sad for the Meeting not having deeper roots, but not sad that it has been given to me to be part of it.