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.
If, then, there is any comfort in Christ, any consolation from love, any partnership in the Spirit, any tender affection and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.
– Philippians 2:1-4
When a congregation loses connection with its surrounding community, death becomes inevitable.
When meetings or churches start, they naturally spring up in areas where their members have connections – they live and work and play nearby. But if members don’t reach out to their neighbors through active service and conscious outreach, slowly those connections will fade. Younger generations – the people who don’t have deep emotional connections to the meeting or memories of it as a vital community hub – will not see the benefit in driving long distances to worship in a community with no connection to them or their faith community. And as families move away in the natural course of their lives, there will be no one to replace them. If there is some effort at outreach within the community, it usually looks like asking community residents to come to the church; there is almost never an effort by members to carry ministry into the community. And the idea of sharing leadership with “outsiders” from the community is anathema.
Instead of being a wedding feast to which all are invited, the church becomes a fortress, whose goal is to keep people and possessions on the inside safe and to keep people and influences on the outside out.
The Secret Society of Friends
Does this sound familiar? To me, it sounds a little bit like a description of the “hedge” of Friends’ Quietist period, when our way was to keep ourselves separate from, and undefiled by, the world by either intermarriage or evangelism. The hedge – plain dress, plain speech and other Quaker distinctives – has been precious for preserving our society. Our conscious pursuit of holiness is essential in a world that often discourages us from seeking the things of the Spirit. But I fear that sometimes we make an idol of “being Quakerly” in a way that impairs our ability to share the love of God and that closes us off from the voice of the Spirit. We are more motivated by fear of risking what we have than we are by love of our God and his creation.
One thing I often hear is that “Friends don’t proselytize.” Though I think this is ofen grossly misleading, there are at least two senses in which it is accurate. First, Friends have traditionally acknowledged that nobody can truly “convert” anyone else. Only the Spirit can reorient the heart away from the self and towards God, a proces known among Friends as “convincement.” Second, the empirical reality is that, since the Quietist period, many unprogrammed Friends have made non-evangelism a mark of Quaker virtue, adding a veneer of sanctity with phrases like “God will make sure the right people find their way to meeting” and a subtle attitude of superiority toward Evangelical Christians of the “Do you know Christ as your Lord and Savior?” variety.
Unlike Evangelicals, the thinking goes, Friends respect others by not bringing up uncomfortable topics like faith in polite company. We aren’t so indiscreet as to talk openly about our experience of God, even in our own meetings. How much more guarded are we with non-Quaker acquaintances? We may find the idea of sharing our faith intrusive, vulgar or even coercive, so we make a point of not advertising our presence or inviting our friends and co-workers to join us at Meeting for Worship. I do this as much as anyone – and I love talking about, thinking about, and exploring our faith. But I’m pretty sure that my silence – our silence – doesn’t represent faithful cooperation with God, who pursues each of us with relentless love.
Is More Going On?
And is excessive respect for boundaries and internalized bourgeois norms all that is at play? Or is more going on?
My mother was with me at a meeting for worship a few years ago when someone was lamenting the lack of racial diversity in our meeting. (I was the only Black member at the time.) At the time, a Black college student was occasionally providing childcare during our worship time or during business meeting. My mom asked if she had ever been invited to join us in worship. The bemused silence she received in response spoke for itself.
Was she never invited because she was Black? Young? The “help”? I don’t know.
But I suspect that, on the rare occasions when we do invite people to our meetings, we probably focus on inviting people who will fit in comfortably with the the people who are already there – generally White, well-educated, financially comfortable, politically liberal and mature in years.
Are these the only people who need to hear that God loves them tremendously and unconditionally? That they can know freedom from dysfunctional and harmful patterns of behavior? That they can participate in the high call of service and find riches in a simple way of living? That a loving community gathered in the Holy Spirit is possible? I don’t think so.
But somehow we seem to only seek out the people who remind us the most of ourselves.
Releasing Control, Embracing Love
I learned in Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship, Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye’s wonderfully thorough and probing look at Quakers’ complicated history in the fight for racial justice, that Quakers were often dedicated collaborators with Black churches, but were deeply ambivalent and even openly hostile to Black people seeking membership in Friends’ meetings.
You see, helping Black people – or immigrants or the poor – is basic Christian charity. But inviting “others” into membership isn’t charity: it’s solidarity, which is much more challenging.
Solidarity means encountering people as equally worthy, equally gifted, equally capable. It means trusting, really trusting, that there is that of God in every person and that the Spirit will speak to and through all who seek to listen, regardless of their ethnicity, political preferences, class, education or physical or mental ability. It means relinquishing control over how we follow the Light and embracing the inevitable change that occurs when new influences enter the community.
Are we ready to relax our fists, too often clenched around the levers of power, and instead extend the tender hand of love and friendship?
Are we ready to lay down the conviction that we alone know best and instead lean into the wild and reckless faith that God will bring forth new light from unexpected sources?
Are we ready to welcome people whose education, political beliefs, sexual orientation, race, age or mental or physical ability might be different from the norm in our community? What would need to change in our meetings and churches to truly embrace such precious, beloved image-bearers of God?
And even more than welcoming, are we ready to go into our communities and serve our neighbors – all of our neighbors – on their turf and on their terms?
How is God calling us to share his extravagant and inclusive love in this moment?
There is so much wisdom in this entry that I’ll need time for it to soak in. Bravo, Adria! I’m going to share this with others — hoping we can allow the Living Christ to surprise and convict us through it.
As you take it in, I would love to hear what spoke to you or what wisdom you hope others will take from it!
Having pondered your words, I find myself longing for a fuller sense of the faith-testimony that both you and Ellis Hein have to offer. I’m looking for the heart that is overflowing with God — the clear mark of intimacy with that utterly unpredictable “one-and-only” who (as you put it) “pursues each of us with relentless love.” I want to taste and see the generous humility. Your points make logical sense, but I’m looking for the substance beneath the logic — the inward dimension. In short, I’m frustrated by the limitations of this mode of communication.
Would you like to join the small number of people who gather (zoom) twice a month for the purpose of reading and discussing the Works of George Fox? If so, go to nffquaker.com and leave your email in the “subscribe to our newsletter” box at the bottom of that opening page. You won’t really be receiving a newsletter, as such, but you will get notifications of our zoom meetings and our monthly meetings for worship in the name of Jesus.
As I have read, reread, and have pondered your post, there are several statements in your report of the state of Christianity that cause alarm bells to start ringing in my head.
“When a congregation loses connection with its surrounding community, death becomes inevitable.”
“…the church becomes a fortress.”
“…we make an idol of “being Quakerly”…”
“Friends don’t proselytize.”
“Are we ready to relax our fists, too often clenched around the levers of power, and instead extend the tender hand of love and friendship?”
Why do these statements start alarms going off? Because they paint a picture of a “church” that is built on a very different foundation than that which supported the early Quaker explosion. Fox wrote in Epistle CCCXVI (316) “So in his [Christ’s] name keep your meetings, in whom you have salvation; and these are the true meetings, and true gatherings, who feel Jesus Christ in the midst of them, their prophet, their counsellor, their leader, their light and life, their way and their truth, their shepherd, that laid down his life for them, that has bought you, his sheep, who feeds you in his pastures of life; and your heavenly bishop, to oversee you, that you do not go astray again from God. And so it is through him you overcome, and he that overcomes shall go no more forth out of his fold, out of his pastures, who shall sit down in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, who is your priest, that offered up himself for you, and sacrifices for you, and makes you holy and clean, that he may present you blameless up to the holy and pure God; and here you come to witness and know him in his offices, by his light, spirit, and power;” (See Works of Fox, Vol. VIII, pp 77-78)
There is not a Christian body that claims to meet in some name other than the name of Christ, but look at what Fox has to say as he fleshes out the meaning of that meeting in Christ’s name. It is the experience of Christ Jesus in and among us in all these various functions that makes us into the Church–his body.
When Christ is head, his love to all is manifest by the actions of those who hear and follow his voice.
When Christ is head, the inward experience of his life is our fortress which shields us from the effects of all evils thrown at us.
When Christ is head, “Being Quakerly” will mean personal experience of “there is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition” and “what you speak [and do] do you have it inwardly from God?”
The oft heard statement, “Friends don’t proselytize” makes me ask, “Just what gospel do you have to give to the world?” When Christ is head, the church has the everlasting gospel to proclaim to the world. To the people who walk in darkness [that Hebrew word means obscurity, misery, destruction, death, ignorance, sorrow, and wickedness] and to those who dwell in a dark land, what can the church point to that alleviates these seven layers of darkness? Can we declare, by experience and by commission, that Christ is come to teach us by his light that enlightens everyone? This light will lead all who follow it to that life that was breathed into man that made them living beings.
“Unto us a child is given, unto us a son is born. The government will rest on his shoulders. And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” When Christ is head, the government rests on his shoulders, not in our hands.
These are the things that, in brief, rise within me in response to your very apt description of the state of Christianity. The cure for what you describe lies in hearing the call of God, “If you will hear/obey my voice, I will be your God and you shall be my people. The cure is for the “church” to return to the foundation of walking in obedience to that inward, unmediated voice of Christ. Then it will be the body of which Christ is the head.