Saturday, December 25, 2010

On Christmas Day...

It is the evening
of the birth of God.
Singing &
with gold instruments
the angels bear down
upon the barn, their wings
neither white
wax nor marble. So
they have been recorded:
literal in the composed air,
they raise their harps above
the beasts likewise gathering,
the lambs & all the startled
silken chickens ... And Joseph,
off to one side, has touched
his cheek, meaning
he is weeping ---

But how small he is, withdrawn
from the hollow of his mother's life,
the raw flesh bound
in linen as stars yield
light to delight his sense
for who there is no ornament.

-- "A Nativity Poem" by Louise Gluck

Christmas blessings,


Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve Blessings

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a nova lighting the sky to warn
That time runs out and the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour and truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed and pride the sky is torn
Love still takes the risk of birth.

Madeleine L’Engle’s “The Risk of Birth”
copyright 1974 Madeleine L'Engle

I am grateful that Love still takes the risk of birth this Christmas Eve and, indeed, every day in the heart of God and the hearts of women and men everywhere.

Risking Love and sharing God's with you,

Christmas blessings,

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Christmas Story -- Fact or Fiction. Part Duex

Since I have gotten in "trouble" (lumps of coal for me this year, I guess) for my previous post about the Christmas story, I thought I'd try to atone with this little quiz (made especially for the Bible scholars who read this).

Here are twenty multiple choice questions for you to answer. There is at least one correct answer to each question but some have more than one right answer (in all 27). Each correct answer receives five points for a possible total of 135 points. For every wrong answer, five points will be deducted, so be careful! Since Christmas is to be a joyous occasion, you may find reason to laugh at some of the choices, but don't let yourself get fooled by trick questions! You may not use your Bible. DO NOT LOOK AT THE ANSWERS UNTIL FINISHED!!

1. When Joseph discovered that Mary was expecting a child:
a. he was very happy
b. he asked for a divorce
c. he contemplated getting a divorce
d. he brooded over it until he fell asleep

2. Before Jesus was born...
a. Joseph left Mary
b. Mary left Joseph
c. Joseph and Mary led a normal married life
d. Joseph built a crib

3. Why did Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem?
a. King Herod made a decree
b. Joseph and Mary were related to the king
c. A star appeared and led them to Bethlehem
d. An angel appeared and told them to go

4. How did Joseph and Mary get to Bethlehem?
a. They both rode donkeys
b. Mary rode a donkey and Joseph walked
c. They rode camels
d. The Bible doesn't say

5. Which animals were present at the manger when Christ was born?
a. Sheep and cows
b. Donkey and ox
c. The Bible only mentions sheep
d. The Bible doesn't say

6. What did the shepherds in the field see?
a. an army
b. a choir
c. a star
d. three kings

7. Who were the visitors from the East?
a. Relatives
b. Kings
c. Astronomers
d. Farmers

8. How did these visitors find the baby Jesus?
a. They followed the star to Nazareth
b. They followed the star to Bethlehem
c. They followed the star to Jerusalem
d. They followed the instructions of King Herod

9. What did these visitors do when they arrived?
a. They had a snowball fight
b. They found the child in a manger
c. They dreamed of the bad man
d. They sang Christmas carols

10. Which is the most probable time of Christ's birth?
a. December
b. In the year "Zero"
c. In the year "One"
d. Five to seven Anno Domini

11. The innkeeper...
a. ...sent Joseph and Mary away because they were Jews
b. ...was angry because they woke him from a sound sleep
c. ..offered them a place in the stall
d. ..isn't mentioned in the Bible

12. Which book of the Bible has the most to say about Christ's advent?
a. Revelation
b. Matthew
c. Luke
d. Isaiah

13. When Christ was born...
a. ...there was snow in Bethlehem
b. ...there was snow in Jerusalem
c. ...there was snow in Israel
d. ...the Bible doesn't mention snow

14. How many brothers and sisters did Jesus have?
a. Jesus had two brothers
b. There were at least seven children
c. Jesus was an only child
d. The Bible doesn't say

15. Where did Jesus live the shortest length of time?
a. Bethlehem
b. Nazareth
c. Egypt
d. Capernaum

16. Why did Joseph and Mary take Christ to Jerusalem?
a. because Herod wanted to kill him
b. for Christ's baptism
c. for Christ's circumcision
d. for Christ's dedication service

17. When was Jesus baptized?
a. shortly after his birth
b. on his first birthday
c. as a young lad of twelve
d. a few years before his death

18. As a youngster...
a. ...Jesus was a good student
b. ...Jesus stayed back
c. ...Jesus confounded the teachers with his knowledge
d. ...Jesus' parents were not happy about his behavior

19. How did Jesus get his name?
a. An angel gave him his name before he was born
b. Joseph named him
c. He received his name in the temple when 8 days old
d. The prophet Isaiah gave him his name

20. How well do you think you did on this test (Read instructions again!)?

a. I believe I received between 75 and 135 points
b. I think I have 50 to 70 points
c. I probably only have 25 to 45 points
d. I doubt if I got more than 20 points

Answers to Christmas Quiz:
1. The correct answer is "d"
Joseph was not at all happy about Mary's pregnancy. He contemplated "putting her away" (breaking their engagement) but since they were not yet married, he could not have gotten a divorce. According to Matthew 1:18-20, Joseph brooded about the situation until he fell asleep and an angel appeared in a dream.

2. The correct answer is "b"
According to Matthew 1:25, they did not lead a normal married life until after the birth of Christ. Mary left Joseph when she made an extended visit with her cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:39 and 56).

3. The correct answer is "b"
Not King Herod, but Augustus made the decree mentioned in Luke 2:1-4. According to the genealogies of Matthew 1 and Luke 3, both Joseph and Mary were descendants of King David, whose birthplace was Bethlehem.

4. The correct answer is "d"
The Bible doesn't say how Joseph and Mary got to Bethlehem. All other answers are "Christmas card theology"!

5. The correct answer is "b"
This idea is taken from the writings of Isaiah who wrote, "The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner's manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand." Since it is Christmas and we want everyone to live peaceably, "d" may also be considered correct. If you
checked both, you get ten points even though that would be a contradiction - it's Christmas!

6. The correct answer is "a"
The shepherds first saw a solitary angel, who was soon joined by a heavenly host (army), which praised God, saying... Nowhere in the Bible is there a reference to angels singing, although Revelation 8 speaks of them blowing trumpets. The NIV mentions angels singing in
Rev.5:12, but the Greek word is "lego", which means speaking. I still think that they can sing though!

7. The correct answer is "c"
Because there were three gifts, some reason that there were three visitors. The Bible does not say that they were kings. This is an old tradition of the Church, which even gives them names and racial origins. The Bible describes them as Chaldean or Babylonian "magi" which indicates persons who study the stars. One root for this tradition can be found in Isaiah 49:7-12 and 60:3-6. (See comments at end!)

8. The correct answer is "a" (See comments at end!)

9. The correct answer is "c"
According to Matthew 2:9-12, they dreamed of Herod, who was obviously a very bad man. Only the shepherds are reported to have visited the stall. (See comments at end!)

10. The correct answer is "d"
This is the only question that cannot be answered from the Bible, but you should be aware of the fact, that our calendar is not correct.

11. The correct answer is "d"
The Bible mentions an inn, but not the innkeeper (Luke 2:6)!

12. The correct answer is "d"
More is written about the coming of the Christ in the book of Isaiah than in all four gospels together.

13. The correct answer is "c"
Jeremiah wrote "Does the snow of Lebanon ever vanish from its rocky slopes?" (Jer. 18:14) and there is a similar verse in Isaiah 55:10. The peak of Mount Hermon glistens with perpetual snow.

14. The correct answer is "b"
Matthew 13:55-56 mentions four brothers and at least two sisters of Jesus.

15. The correct answer is "a"
Jesus lived longer times in Nazareth and Capernaum. Many believe that Joseph died sometime before the wedding of Cana, after which the family apparently moved to Capernaum. The stay in Bethlehem was less than 40 days (compare Luke 2:22; 39 and Leviticus 12:4 and comments at

16. The correct answer is "d"
It was forbidden to enter the temple while unclean; purification rites lasted 40 days according to Leviticus 12:4.

17. The correct answer is "d"
Jesus was baptized by John about three years before his crucifixion.

18. The correct answers are "a,b,c,d"
Read Luke 2:40-52 and you will see that this is true!

19. The correct answers are again "a,b,c,d"
Read Matthew 1:21-25; Luke 2:21 and Isaiah 7:14!

20. Congratulations if you got these five points!

Here is a bonus question (no points!):

1.) Which modern song is most closely related to the angel's message to
the shepherds?
a. "Silent Night"
b. "Jingle Bells"
c. "Don't Worry, Be Happy!"
d. "O Tannenbaum"

The angels message to the shepherds was "Fear not, for we bring you tidings of great joy!" That is pretty close to "Don't Worry, Be Happy!", don't you think?

How did the wise men know that a king had been born in Israel? We know that they saw a star, but how did they know that this star meant? The wise men were obviously familiar with a yet unfulfilled prophecy of the famous Babylonian prophet, Balaam (or Bileam).

Chaldea or Babylon (now Iran and Iraq) was world-famous for its Chaldean prophets. Bileam or Baalam lived and prophesied about 1400 years before Christ. The Moabite king, Balak called upon him to curse the Israelites (Numbers 22-24), but against his own will and to the
utter chagrin of the Moabite king, Baalam could only bring forth blessing. After several attempts, the king commanded Baalam to cease his prophesies but Baalam was compelled to prophesy one more time. He foretold the appearance of a star which was to announce the coming of a special Jewish king (Numbers 24:17).

But the appearance of a new or different star alone would not have in itself provided sufficient evidence. The wise men were undoubtedly also familiar with the unfulfilled prophecy of yet another famous Chaldean prophet, Belteshazzar, better known to us as Daniel. It was acclaimed of both Baalam and Daniel, that all their prophecies came to pass (Numbers 22:6 and Daniel 6:3). Daniel lived about 800 years after Baalam and foretold the exact time in which that special Jewish monarch would arrive on the scene. He even prophesied that this special prince would be executed without a fair trial. (Daniel 9:24-26).

Six centuries after Daniel and fourteen centuries after Baalam, the Chaldean astronomers or "wise men" of Matthew's gospel saw a special star and concluded that it had an important significance. Perhaps they searched for clues in the gigantic collection of more than 100,000
clay tablets that were stored in Nineveh, at least 30,000 of which still exist. After recognizing that the only unfulfilled prophecies of their two most famous prophets coincided exactly, the wise men set out on their long journey (about 600 miles) to Jerusalem, where they fully
expected to find a new-born prince in the palace of the king.

"And when the fullness of time was come..." Galatians 4:4 The arrival of the Chaldean wise men in Jerusalem did not go unnoticed. Their query about a new-born king of the Jews caused no
small stir in the king's palace and also in the city. You see, the wise men were not the only ones who were familiar with Old Testament prophecy. Jewish leaders and residents of Jerusalem, including the aged Simeon and Hanna, were also expecting the imminent arrival of the
Messiah (Matthew 2:3; Luke 2:25-40). Joseph of Arimithea was also expecting the Messiah (Mark 15:43) and Luke 3:15 declares that the people of Israel were in general expectation of the Christ, wondering if John the Baptist could be the promised Messiah. It is reported that the leading Jews sent Levites and priests to Bethany on the Jordan to investigate this possibility (compare Malechai 4:5; Matthew 11:14; 17:11-13; John 1:19-21). King Herod took this news so seriously ("Even the devils believe and tremble!" - James 2:19) that he called all the leading theologians into his palace for consultation. Gemaliel, Paul's famous teacher, was probably among their number (He was also of the line of David. Could he have been staying in "Bethlehem Hotel"
where there was no room for Joseph and Mary??). The Jewish Theologians told King Herod that according to Micah 5:1, the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, so he sent the visitors to this town with instructions to return and give a detailed report on their findings to the king
(Matthew 2:1-8). Herod was so upset about the failure of the wise men to report back to him, that he ordered the slaughter of all infants in the vicinity of Bethlehem.

The star did not lead the wise men to Jerusalem as some assume. It appeared to them first while they were in their own country. Although the wise men set out for Bethlehem, they wound up in Nazareth instead, for the same star which they saw in the east reappeared and directed
them to the "house" where the young child was living (Matthew 2:11). Their journey must have taken months, yet Joseph and Mary could not have been in Bethlehem much more than a week. Even if Jesus was circumcised in the Synagogue of Bethlehem after 8 days, he was brought
to the temple in Jerusalem for his dedication. This took place after the "purification" which lasted 40 days (Leviticus 12:4), after which the family "returned to Nazareth" (Luke 2:21-22 & 39). The wise men did not obey Herod, but obeyed God instead -- as wise men still do!
(Matthew 2:9-12).

Have a blessed Christmas and may you be resolved to study your Bible more carefully in the New Year!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. The Christmas Story -- Fact or Fiction

Well, according to the picture above from a prominent United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, it's fiction. I'm not surprised they feel that way -- my sainted fundamentalist Friends grandmother often warned me about hanging around with Methodists. "Why," she exclaimed, "the only time you ever hear the name Jesus in a Methodist church is when the pastor falls down the steps."

Me and my peeps, as true believers, hold to the veracity of the Christmas story ... down to the donkey that Mary rode to Bethlehem.

Holiday Blessings on us, one all.

-- Brent

Friday, December 10, 2010

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

What Kind of Christian ARE You?

Emergent. Missional. Post-Christian. Post-modern. Pre-post-missional emergent traditional Orthodox. What canst thou say?

-- Brent

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving -- Again!

As I drove home tonight, I enjoyed the grey clouds dumping rain. It's been a long time since it rained that much in these parts -- and we need it. I also knew those clouds would be harbingers of colder weather (and maybe even the first snow!). The seasons rolling on.

The leaves are pretty well gone, swept into the woods by this week's winds. And so I began to think of people who, like those leaves, have been swept by the Divine wind into the Eternal arms of God's love. I remembered Grandpa and Grandma Bill, Grandma and Grandpa Fortune, Great Uncle Johnny, and a host of other aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, Sunday school teachers, youth group leaders, and pastors. It was quite a parade.

And I also thought, as the wind was really howling through the naked limbs of the trees, that God's love has always blown many new friends to me -- from all sorts of places (New Vienna; Mannheim, Germany; Richmond, New York City, and more) in all sorts of ways (readers of my books, via the Internet, face-to-face meetings). Each new friend has enriched me in wonderful ways.

And I also thought of my old friends and my family -- who stand like those trees. The wind moves around and through them. They change with the seasons but are always holding steady while they are growing. Their steadfastness (especially compared to my flitting around like a leaf ) even as they grow and change and mature, blesses me more than I let them know.

As I thought about all these people in my life, I also remembered my favorite Thanksgiving poem. I discovered it more than ten years ago, and has become a favorite of mine. It’s by Max Coots and says:

Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are.

Let us give thanks;

For generous friends...with hearts...and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends, as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we've had them;

For crotchety friends, sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the others, as plain as potatoes and so good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem artichokes;

And serious friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, but who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter.

For all these we give thanks.


Indeed, for all these I give thanks. Let us all give thanks, this holiday time, for friends no matter their type and God’s graciousness in giving them to us. People who are made in God’s own image, come to bless us. I am grateful for you!


Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Modest Proposal: A Conversation Invitation

As I've said in my series of posts titled "A Modest Proposal for the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States," despite it's widely assumed death, religious life in America is growing. New congregations are starting, old ones are in the midst of renewal, and thousands of new people are coming to worship. And there is a huge uptick of interest in Quakers, as evidenced by such things as the sale of books about Friends and interest generated by Quaker Internet sites.

I also noted that English Quaker Edgar Dunstan once asked -- "What … have we [Friends] to declare to this generation that is of sufficient importance to justify our separate existence as part of the Christian fellowship?"

If you care about the answer to that question, I invited you to join me for a workshop/conversation to be held at Quaker Hill Conference Center (in Richmond, IN) on January 28 & 29, 2011. The conversation will use a combination of worship, social research about religious and congregational life in the U.S., and interactive discussions and activities.

The title is "Worship Groups and Other Alternatives to "Traditional" Church" and the subtitle is "A Conversation about the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in America." It is my hope that a broad range of folks -- pastoral, unprogrammed, Evangelical, Conservative, Liberal (whatever those titles really mean) -- will come together to talk about ways we can revitalize -- not institutions -- but the message of Friends. What have we to say to this generation -- and the next?

The schedule looks like this:

Friday, January 28
5:00-6:00 Arrival and Registration
6:00 Dinner
7:00 Session 1 – ―A Look at the Religious Landscape and Vital Congregations

Saturday, January 29
8:00 Breakfast
9:00 Session 2 – ―Proposals for Revitalization (based on my "A Modest Proposal")
12:00 Lunch
1:00 Session 3 — ―Worship Groups and Other Alternatives to "Traditional" Church
Afternoon Break
Session 4 – ―What is God calling us to do at this time?
4:00 Closing

This is not going to be a lecture. I hope for a deep, engaged, rich conversation and interaction. And, God willing, perhaps we will feel a fresh wind of the Spirit blowing across and through our little society -- imbuing it with a message for this generation and the ones that follow.
-- Brent
PS -- if you'd like a PDF of the conference brochure, drop me an email @
PPS I am working on a PDF booklet of "A Modest Proposal." It will be available for download in the near future.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Read a Sample Chapter of Sacred Compass

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

A Modest Proposal: Part 8 For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States

This is the final installment (I think) in my modest proposal. There are lots of specific proposals that I could make (about outreach, use of new media, and more) but they are really outside the scope of this series, which was to paint some big ideas with fairly broad strokes and to invoke the art critic in people who care about the future of the Friends message and get them to respond.

So, to that end, one more probably improbable proposal. Let's change our name.

YIKES!!! He can't be serious???

Ah, but he is. While I dearly love "Religious Society of Friends" and am even proud to be a humble Quaker, I'm not sure that either really help us share our message.

I'll concede to keeping "Quaker." It has a homey, friendly appeal -- thanks in no small part to a certain breakfast cereal conglomerate and a nostalgic view that folks outside our Society have when they hear that word.

But Religious Society of Friends says ... um... nothing to people outside of our little group. So let's dump it in favor of some simpler, more descriptive phrase.

How about "Friends of Jesus?"

OMG!! Jesus?

Well, as I recall, we took the name Friends because a certain Biblical figure uttered some words that we liked -- "Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you." (John 15:14 & 15, KJV).

And who was the Biblical personage who uttered those words? Hmmm ... Jesus!

Now, before I am accused of being totally ignorant of the breadth of Friends theological thinking and language and some Friends dislike of the name (if not the person) of Jesus, I know that this will stick in some Quaker craws. It does in mine just a bit -- especially during those times that Jesus words bug me. And I'm pretty sure some members of my family won't like it. But, it does get back to the intent behind the early Friends calling themselves Friends. They were -- or at least hoped to be -- the friends of Jesus.

Think of how it would simplify how we identify ourselves to outsiders -- or those we hope to attract? What would it be like to invite someone to visit the Friends of Jesus in Plainfield instead of Plainfield Friends Church? Or Plainville Friends of Jesus instead of Plainville Friends Meeting?

Sounds sort of fresh and new and Biblical and ... um... George Fox-y, doesn't it?

I think it could have a special appeal to those folks who say they like Jesus and his message, but just aren't too sure about the church.

Of course, changing the name will not make any difference if the Friends of Jesus are just the same old church/meeting dressed up in a new moniker. But the name itself is an invitation -- and a challenge. Do we wish to live up to the potential of the original intent of our name? Do we, individually and corporately, want to be the friends of Jesus? To live and move and have our being in the same Spirit that inspired the women and men who founded our movement? To do whatsoever God commands us? To live our faith daily within a community of belief and seeking God, held in a soulful tension of learning and growing?

Ah, it's only a name.
Or is it?

-- Brent

Friday, October 01, 2010

A Modest Proposal: Part 7 For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States

A year or so ago, after an address I was giving to and for Quakers, during the question and answer period a woman asked me if I thought their Yearly Meeting would ever reach agreement on a new version of Faith and Practice. I said, "Tell me more" and she went on to explain that they had been struggling with coming up with a new version for a number of years and were not seemingly able to agree on a new edition.

After hearing that, I said that I doubted that they would reach agreement unless they returned to an older model of Faith and Practice -- one that more resembled the 1967 Christian faith and practice in the experience of the Society of Friends of London Yearly Meeting than it does the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church or the Presbyterian Book of Order.

The "old" Christian Faith and Practice is filled with, as the title implies, the experiences of Friends regarding important faith issues and their practice -- God, the Bible, worship, family life, and more. It is instructional in an illuminating -- not dictatorial -- way.

But many books of Faith and Practice are becoming imitations of other Protestant denominations books of discipline -- which I think indicates that the creeping denominationalism has moved more into many of our Yearly Meetings becoming Protestant judicatories like synods or presbyteries or dioceses. According to one definition, a judicatory "is an administrative structure or organization found in a religious denominations between the local congregation and the ... [body] which is [a] higher court. ... the judicatory can have decisive authority over a local church, can offer standing for clergy members, ..."

I think this court language is especially dangerous -- especially in light of some things going on in certain largely programmed Yearly Meetings. I think it's dangerous because it shifts the emphasis from a focus on serving local congregations to the local congregations being subservient to and under the direction of the Yearly Meeting. And plays into the potential for power plays and an increasing disconnect between the Yearly Meetings and the local meetings.

I am not advocating anarchy -- we Friends say we are about Gospel order. I agree. And there is much written in the Bible and other places about what that means and how to follow it. What I am against is a institutionalism that is dedicated to keeping institutions alive -- and to get rid of anyone (or meeting or group) that disagrees with the institutional hierarchy.

So part 7 of my modest proposal is that Yearly Meetings and other Friends bodies (whether they are centuries old, decades old or relatively new) stop and do serious examination of their purpose and programs. By that, Friends (and the institutions) need to ask things such as

  • Why do we have Yearly Meetings or other institutions?
  • What is their role?
  • What is their purpose?
  • Why were they created?
  • Does that need still exist?
  • What are they doing that needs to continue to be done?
  • Is there a better way of doing these things?
  • Is the institution serving the needs of the local Meetings or are the Meetings serving the needs of the institution

Further, I think these larger institutions and their staff and constituencies need to look at every program and staff position and ask the question "How does this fit with our mission -- our raison d'ĂȘtre?" We shouldnt' be asking "Is it good or worthy?" Many programs and staff people may be good and worthy, but they may also detract from the institution's primary purposes. In which case the organization then does not do the ministry for which it was created.

I fear we spend too much time staffing boards and committees that may no longer be needed -- simply because Faith and Practice tells us that we need X number of representatives from each Meeting, Quarterly Meeting or whatever to serve on such and such a board. And we hear reports and do some business and rarely ask, "Is this what God is calling us to at this time?"

It is my contention that the primary purpose of these larger institutions at this particular time should be

  • to serve the local meetings and their needs (which means asking them how best to do that!)
  • asking God where we should be taking the Quaker message and supporting folks ala the Valiant 60 to do that
  • nurturing groups of Young Adult Friends (at colleges or in cities where there are no organized Friends Meetings) by supplying leaders at those places

Of course, there are many nuances to the three things above. They can be parsed a number of ways depending upon the institution's answer to some queries

  • Who are we?
  • Why do we exist -- what's our mission?
  • What is God calling us to be and do?
  • How do we relate to our constituency?
  • How do we adapt to change?
  • Are we willing to adapt to change?

These questions seem vital to me -- especially if our larger institutions want to become or remain vital. The questions need to be asked regularly. They can't be answered once and for all time. If the organizations don't ask these questions -- and engage the people served by them in a discussion of the questions -- the organizations, no matter how worthy or long-lived up until now, will become increasingly anachronistic. They will then either die or be replaced by new organizations that spring up to meet the needs they are not fulfilling. Organizations that are mission driven, leaner, think faster on their feet, and adapt to the needs of the people and organizations that created them.

That's one way to look at how early Quakerism came into being. As a fresh way to communicate a Gospel that had been boxed in by institutionalism, rites, rituals, clergy, and books. Fox and the early Friends sprung up in reaction to and against that. What would they think of us today?

-- Brent

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Modest Proposal: Part 6B For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States

Before I get to my proposed name change, let me say just a bit more about why I think it's time for a change. I'll make it explicit -- and that is the idea in the minds of many (primarily programmed Friends) that minster is synonymous with pastor. And that tain't necessarily so -- or at least it shouldn't be. We Quakers have long recognized various gifts of ministry. But this creeping clergyism is too quickly leading to the inevitable (I think) conclusion that the only ministry that is recognized is that of pastor.

That's already happening in some places. I live within the geographical confines of one yearly meeting and am a member of the yearly meeting "next door." I am a congregational consultant, which I consider very much a ministry. Yet, because I am not a pastor, I am not included in any mailings for ministers -- other than the yearly report I am asked to complete to demonstrate that I am using my ministry gifts. I am not invited to Pastor Short Courses, luncheons, retreats, information/training sessions, etc. It is as if, even though I have been a recorded minister for 30 years now, that I am not considered a minister by these yearly meetings since I am not a pastor.

I know I'm not the only recorded minister who has experienced this.

Another thing I worry about is, if we start using the title "Pastor" can there be a "Bishop" (in name or action) far behind? I fear we are closing in on the attitude, if not the title, already. And this goes against our call to present the Gospel of direct communication with God without a need for rite, ritual, or clergy.

So what do I propose? I have thought a long time about this and here's my ungainly name -- "released minister."

I think it's a good name for a number of reasons -- two of which I'll address here. One is that it gets us back to the idea of what we name all Friends. We are all ministers, are we not? Or at least we're supposed to be. Let's start by calling our paid staff person by the same name we all need to be going by.

Another is that this name will have to be explained. If, upon meeting somebody for the first time and they inquire about how I spend my days and I say that I am the pastor of Podunk Friends Church, they immediately know what that means based on their experience of what a pastor does. But if I say, "I'm the released minister at Podunk Friends" then I have, as Desi Arnaz used to say, some 'splaining to do. I then get to tell how we Friends believe that we are each ministers and that I am fortunate enough to have been released from seeking full time secular employment to use my ministry gifts in the service of the other ministers. I think that can be a powerful witness.

I think it also gives other Friends a chance to witness -- and relearn -- the amazing fact that we are all ministers. If we aren't allowed to say "She's our pastor" anymore and say "She's our released minister," then it is, like above, an opportunity to say what we believe about ministry and why. Which means, of course, that Friends need to be educated enough in our Gospel message that they can articulate it.

Another thing I think this title could help us do is to focus on what are we calling a staff person to come do for and with us as a local congregation. We could then move from some boiler-plate job description of pastor handed down by a committee from the Yearly Meeting to developing a position that meets our needs. We would then have to ask, what are we releasing someone to do? To preach? To visit the sick and dying? To teach us? What do we need done by a paid staff person that we cannot (not will not) do ourselves?

This then allows us to match the person and her or his gifts with the Meeting and its expressed needs. It is not about developing a professional quasi-clergy profession where congregations advertise for a pastor and everyone's resume looks the same because the job has been the same from location to location. What a joy to match gifts and strengths to a people and place that can make use of them in unique ways.

It also allows us to recover the Friendly idea that there are many types of ministry. A large Meeting might have released ministers serving as pastors, youth ministers, pastoral counselors, chaplains in local institutions and more. No one is senior pastor versus junior pastor -- all gifts and people are equally respected.

I think the title "released minister" is one that could be used for paid staff in unprogrammed meetings, too. It is no less arcane, and certainly more descriptive, than titles such as Meeting secretary.

Notice in this idea of the name change, I have nowhere advocated for an end to paid and/or trained ministers. While Friend George did say that "being bred at Oxford and Cambridge did not qualify or fit a man to be a minister of Christ," it doesn't necessarily hurt, either. I think we Friends can be well served by women and men who are trained in congregation administration, religious education, preaching, counseling, and the like. And if a woman or man feels called to serve Friends full time and her or his gifts in ministry are confirmed by the Meeting or Yearly Meeting or whatever, then she or he should be compensated.

Yes, this may all seem to be a bit idealistic. If so, I plead guilty. And yet, it seems to me, that the Quaker message is an idealistic one -- a Gospel that calls us -- and expects us -- to experience God individually in community. Our paid staff people should be empowered to help us keep to that ideal through various ministry roles. To be a released minister -- instead of pastor -- would be, I think, immensely freeing. If, that is, one truly cares about being a Friend of Jesus and not about being in a position of power or titular authority.

-- Brent

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Modest Proposal: Part 6A For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the Quaker pastors." Brently VI, part II, Act 4, scene 2 (with apologies to William Shakespeare -- and all the Quaker pastors.)

Okay, now that I have your attention, I do not mean that literally. Any more than Shakespeare did when he had Dick the Butcher utter that now famous line from Henry VI -- "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." As one scholarly analysis of those words says, "... the famous remark by the plotter of treachery in Shakespeare's King Henry VI shows [that] the surest way to chaos and tyranny even then was to remove the guardians of independent thinking."

So, with tongue firmly in cheek, I propose we kill off the Quaker pastorate. Well, with tongue out of cheek, at least the way it is currently constituted.

Since our earliest days, Friends have railed against the hireling ministry. As George Fox himself said, "Christ saith to his ministers, 'freely you have received, freely give,' and they laboured 'to keep the gospel without charge.'"

And yet, in the late 19th century many Quaker adopted what Fox would have seen as a hireling ministry -- the pastoral system.

Now I am not going to rant against the pastoral system per se. I find it it gauche to bite the hand that fed me, so to speak. Nor do I think that the Quaker paid ministry is necessarily a bad thing -- as an idea.

The way that it is practiced today, by and large, though, I think is not helpful to a revitalization of the Quaker message in the United States.

These are just my thoughts, but the issue is something I've wrestled with for a long time (since before I was recorded in 1980) -- how does my role differ from the Presbyterian pastor next door -- and how, or can, the idea of Quaker pastor be reconciled with the Friendly testimony against hireling ministers?

This is a pretty involved topic, though I do think it's high time, especially given the number of seminaries preparing women and men for Friends pastoral work, that someone write a relevant guidebook or apology (or both) for the nature and work of the Quaker paid ministry.

Having said all that -- here goes (again these are my thoughts! I'm very open to disagreements or rebuttals):Elton Trueblood asserts that men in the clerical profession in the times of the early Friends were considered “hirelings’ because “they seemed to make the ministry more of a job than a calling.”

This whole idea of calling and following a leading is central to the nature of Friends pastoral work. It has to be a call, not just to general service, but to particular places of service at particular times. I see this differing from many other, especially mainline traditions, where women and men prepare for the ministry in general and that it becomes their career path.

I saw this most clearly in the semester I studied at a Lutheran seminary and various folks talked about their path into ministry. I was one of very few who used the concept of call as I delineated it above.

A concern about Quaker pastoral ministry has always been that it will evolve into "profession."

Richard John Neuhaus (certainly no left leaning type), in Freedom for Ministry: A Critical Affirmation of the Church and Its Mission, points to the increasing consideration of the pastoral ministry as a “profession”.

This sounds to me a lot like what is going on at times among Friends in pastoral ministry. This move toward profession, Neuhaus says, “is a poignant confession of vocational bankruptcy.”

Sounds like he and Fox and some other early Friends might agree.

Another difference (besides calling) is, I think, the question of authority. Many pastors in many denominations have authority by virtue of their ordination. A Catholic priest and Presbyterian pastor are both, in effect, the c.e.o's of their congregation. That is not true for the Quaker paid minister (no matter how some might wish it was).

The Clerk is the authority in our Meetings. That's a significant difference that we need to ensure is not blurred.

I do think there are a number of Biblical models for a Quaker paid ministry.

One is Ephesians 4:11&12 “It was he [Jesus] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…”

My understanding of what the Friendly model should be is reflective of the passage in Ephesians. Throughout the history of Friends, we have had folks in these various services. Evangelists – the Valiant Sixty, John Camm and John Audland to Bristol. Pastors – “Second Day Morning Meeting” which supervised the “nourishing of various flocks” (Elton Trueblood) and supporting various ministerial/pastoral types (not with salaries, but in support of their families).

Robert Barclay says, “We do believe and affirm that some are more particularly called to the work of the ministry ….”

The paradox for Quaker paid ministry today is to find a third way where the paid minister is not the c.e.o. of the local Meeting nor slave. The role of the Quaker paid minister must be to prepare God’s people for works of service. I see the Quaker paid minister as a fellow spiritual pilgrim -- moving toward God with the rest of the congregation, set apart only because he or she was called to serve the members (even -- or maybe even especially -- the annoying ones).

If authority or weight is granted, it comes not from the title, but because the congregation recognizes the spiritual depth of the paid minister in the same way it recognizes other weighty Friends. For Friends today, I believe that involves both the specialized ministry of a trained and called pastor and the universal ministry of a called and equipped congregation.

To facilitate that, Lorton Huesel says four things are essential

  • The meeting for worship must be free from rigidity which prevents the workings of the Spirit

  • Preaching in our meetings for worship must be under the leadership of the Spirit.

  • We must adhere to Friends’ business methods and never let power and authority be centralized in the pastor.

  • Paid ministers and the other members of the meeting must be trained in the art of silence.

Seth Hinshaw, in The Spoken Ministry Among Friends, said, “The pastor’s role in a Friend’s meeting is exacting and difficult. The pastor is not hired to preach, but liberated to serve.” The italics are mine. We need to recover, I think, that sense that the Quaker paid ministry is an exacting and difficult liberation to serve.

Notice that I have quit using the phrase Quaker pastor and moved to Quaker paid minister. I did that because I am concerned about the use of the title "pastor" and its implications. One of which is that the Quaker "pastor" functions exactly the same as a pastor in any other faith group.

When I served as pastor of Friends Memorial Church in Muncie, I had sign on my door that said, “His Eminence’s Study.” Everyone knew it was a joke, because we Quaker pastoral types don’t use titles.

Or do we?

I’ve noticed, to my dismay, a creeping “title-ism,” lately. Like in a few of the newsletters I read from when the pastor signs her name “Pastor Betty Joy” or some such thing. I even read a piece by a Quaker pastor type who signed it "The Reverend Doctor." This bothers me, even if these are folks whose ministry and friendship I respect and cherish.

It bothers me because I worry that by doing so we blur one of the distinguishing differences between being a Friends pastor and one in any other denomination.

Scott Russell Sanders, an unprogrammed Friend from Bloomington, Indiana and professor at Indiana University, writes in Falling Toward Grace: Images of Religion and Culture in the Heartland, about how in the 19 century many Friends congregations began hiring ministers. The result, he says, is that they began behaving “for all the world like other low-temperature Protestant churches.”

That may sound harsh, but Elton Trueblood, in the 1960 Quaker Lecture at Indiana Yearly Meeting (and later in Quaker Religious Thought) said something similar when he noted that “our pastoral system in … some areas…of Friends is merely a poor reflection of … stronger Christian bodies.”

“The mistake,” Elton says, “was that a fundamentally alien system was taken over, almost intact, from other Christian bodies.”

One of the ways he said he knew that to be true was the preponderance of Friends pastors who allowed themselves to be referred to as Rev. So and So at community and other gatherings.

Scott and Elton, though poles apart on other issues, are in agreement on this one. And I’m with them. The role of the paid minister among Friends is like that in no other denomination. To be sure, there are similarities. But we need to keep the distinctives in mind, too.

We need to remember that we are neither CEO nor doormat. We are called to be co-laborers with Christ and congregation. That understanding of the unique relationship between the one called to pastor and the other Friends who are members of the Meeting begins to erode the moment I begin referring to myself as Pastor Brent or Rev. Bill.

I read this piece the other day and wondered: Does this describe us?

At the core of this dilemma is the role of the Pastor as a spiritual leader. The late Erich Fromm noted that most people fear freedom, and seek to escape it by turning to a leader who can relieve them of any responsibility for their identity, character, and future. Many people treat their pastors as such shields against accountability. But that is not the Quaker way. Ultimately, a pastor who agrees to serve in that capacity is an accomplice in stunting someone’s spiritual maturation, depriving them (and God) of the distinct rewards of an adult faith.

Rather than imposing a dictatorial control on the seeker or believer, the pastor is, above all, a teacher. ... Teaching happens only in an environment of freedom and curiosity, of commitment freely entered and community voluntarily joined. ... Robots are not told to “choose life that you may live,” nor are computers informed of the consequences of their choices. But the people called Quakers are, because God cherishes our voluntary service and our obedience freely offered.

In that journey, no Quaker is under the compulsion of another. We have not given up an Egyptian Pharaoh to take on a pastoral one. Instead, God has liberated us from the very model of despotism, of ever abdicating our souls to another human being.

Pastors traditionally do not seek to deaden the mind or to stifle the heart. We provide authoritative information about what the Bible teaches and what the Lord requires of us. We embody (or seek to) the best of what Quaker living and Quaker values can attain. As teachers and as role models, pastors are essential to Quaker survival. But when acting as vicarious Quakers (living a Quaker life and thinking Quaker thoughts so the rest of us don’t have to) or as externalized authorities (making all the tough choices), some pastors and their followers subvert the very tradition they claim to love.

Instead, as partners, by meeting our congregants and students in the sea of the Bible, we navigate together those ancient words and powerful insights. Pastors ... offer the shimmering wares of faith. But the Quaker, each Quaker, must decide for him or herself: do I buy it? Do I cherish it? Do I care for it so I can transmit it to my children?

Actually that's a piece by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson about the role of the Rabbi. I just cut out Rabbi and inserted Pastor (and Bible for Torah, Jew for Quaker, etc). Those who serve as paid ministers among Friends live in a dynamic tension of serving as spiritual guides while remaining fellow spiritual travelers of a local congregation. It's very much like the role -- not of other Christian pastors -- but of a rabbi.

I am not proposing that we paid ministers in the Society of Friends begin to call ourselves rabbis. Instead, the sixth part of my modest proposal is to drop the term pastor in favor of a new name that I think gets back to the original intent of the pastoral system among Friends (and indeed, back to ministry among Friends). The new name and how I see it working will be in the next post -- Part 6B For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States.

-- Brent

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Modest Proposal: Part 5 For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States

From our beginnings, we Friends have held that one place is not more sacred than another -- all places are fit for the worship of God. And early on we established a sort of generic Meetinghouse look -- free from the ornamentation and classic cross arrangement of most Christian churches.

This architecture stayed consistent among Friends (regardless of persuasion) until the rise of the pastoral movement. Then the buildings of Friends churches (primarily) began to resemble other church buildings of the time they were constructed. For example, I've been in Friends churches constructed in the late 19th and early 20th century and they look a lot like the Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, et al churches built in that era -- often following the Akron plan (the name came from the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Akron, Ohio) which was based on increasing Sunday school attendance. Some even have a modified bell tower -- sans the bell, of course!

This trend continued. The congregation I grew up in (Highland Avenue Friends) moved from a building that was a modified Akron plan building into a modern, straight lined building with Sunday school wings growing off each side of the sanctuary. Yes, we used the the word sanctuary. About the only thing that differentiated the Westgate Friends Church building from the Lutheran, Wesleyan, Nazarene, Evangelical United Brethren and other church buildings of the 50s and 60s was the lack of a cross hanging in the front above the pulpit.

Even old Friends buildings were modified to fit the pastoral system. Benches were removed and pews brought in. Organs and pianos and pulpits were installed on a raised platform at one end. So now many, if not most, Friends church buildings (speaking primarily of programmed meetings) look something like this:

Which is fine, I think, for most preaching-centric or rite-centric faith groups. If the proclamation of the Word is the primary purpose of a faith group, then naturally the congregation should face the place where that Word is going to be preached. Also, if the acts of taking communion or baptism were central expressions of the faith, then it makes sense to be looking at the altar where the Host was consecrated or the font or pool where baptisms would take place.

But it really doesn't fit what Quaker worship should be about -- welcoming the presence of Christ in our midst. The very nature of this seating arrangement puts the focus on people and performance -- not on God. We, who worship in such a setting, then look through our fellow worshippers (or the back of their heads) to a preacher, a worship leader, a choir to take us through the parts of worship in the same we we would sit in an auditorium to watch a play. We, except for congregational singing, mostly observe. We participate mostly in singing -- which is preplanned. But mostly we sit and watch others.

So part five of my modest proposal is that we scrap this seating arrangement in favor of something like this --

There are three reasons for doing this. One is so that our view changes from looking at a particular place where ministry will come from to one where our view is that ministry could come from anywhere in the room. Which would also imply "from anyone" in the room. It moves us from an expectation that others will do worship while we watch to watching for where the Spirit is moving (both externally -- in the room -- and internally -- in our souls).

The second reason is that it acoustically makes sense for Quakers. Sitting in pews that all face one direction does not make it easy to hear vocal ministry that arises from the people seated in those pews. Yes, some congregations have ushers who rush a microphone to a person who stands to minister, but that seems to me to be almost an act of sabotage to the holiness of that moment. It breaks the holy stillness to have someone hurrying to bring a microphone to the speaker. Sitting facing each other means we can hear each other. We will not be scattered all around the room looking away from each other.

The third reason is that we actually will behold our fellow worshippers and not just gaze at the backs of their heads. We will see the faces of those God has gathered that day. We will see the joy, the sorrow, the expectation, and all the other emotions that are writ large on our visages. As we see the gathered community we can be moved to pray for them, care for them, love them.

As with ditching bulletins and programming, this part of my modest proposal is fraught with difficulty, I suppose. We have huge investments, emotionally and financially, in our buildings. Our parents were married there or our grandfather was on the trustees who bought the pews or it would just be too expensive to move everything.


But maybe, if we want to revitalize the Quaker message for this time, it is worth the investment emotionally and financially. For some congregations it may mean, like the video above, rearranging the pews in the sanctuary and making it a Meetingroom. (I would advise speaking with an architect about that and not just unscrewing the benches and moving them around -- but that's my congregational consultant side kicking in).

For other congregations it could mean moving out of the Meetingroom to some other location in the building. Leave the Meetingroom configured as it is for things such as weddings or public events and use another space for worship. It would be no difficult task to put chairs in a circle or square. Indeed, setting up just a few more chairs that the number of folks who usually comes to worship can help us feel as if we are "full" rather than worshipping in a big mostly empty space. And have chairs ready to add if the Spirit moves new people to join.

So that's part five of my modest proposal. Obviously, it applies mostly to programmed Friends. I think unprogrammed Friends have their own architecture issues -- among which could be replacing the benches that have been there since 1766 to something a week bit more comfortable. But unprogrammed Quakers have largely kept to the original Quaker architectural ethos.

Let's rearrange our worship space so that we look to Jesus and look at each other.

-- Brent

Two resources I recommend are:
Quaker Aesthetics: Reflections on a Quaker Ethic in American Design and Consumption, 1720-1920 by Emma Jones Lapsansky and Anne A. Verplanck
Holy Places: Matching Sacred Space with Mission and Message by Nancy DeMott, Tim Shapiro, and J. Brent Bill

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Modest Proposal: Part 4 For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States

"'Have you anything to declare?' is a vital challenge to which every one of us is personally called to respond and is also a challenge that every meeting should consider of primary importance. it should lead us to define, with such clarity as we can reach, precisely what it is the Friends of this generation have to say that is not, as we believe, being said effectively by others. What, indeed, have we to declare to this generation that is of sufficient importance to justify our separate existence as part of the Christian fellowship?" -- Edgar Dunstan

"What, indeed, have we to declare...?"

I believe that what we have to declare begins with worship. Indeed, as Britain Yearly Meeting's Faith and Practice says, "Worship is at the heart of Quaker experience. For God is met in the gathered meeting and through the Spirit leads us into ways of life and understandings of truth ..." -- (Quaker faith & practice: The book of Christian discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain)

Okay, so far you may be thinking, all Christian groups say that worship is central. So what's different enough to justify our separate existence (in Dunstan's words)?

Hmmm. Perhaps it's not what is different enough just now -- but what should be.

I think Quakerism has one of the most winsome invitations ever to offer to people. The heart of Quaker worship is gathering to meet God. The distinctive of the Quaker message of worship is that we are not inviting you to come hear a specialist speak about God, another person read a book about God, others sing some songs about God, but rather to come and experience God. We come to meet God. To encounter the Divine. Not just to be told about the Divine through story, sermon, song, and silence, but to actually gaze into the face of our loving God and listen for God's words to our souls. Could there be a better invitation than that?

At least, in my opinion, that's what worship should be -- about participatory listening to/for God. That would be distinctive from the Catholic tradition or the Methodists or the mega-church.

Instead, I fear(and confess to having participated in), we are maintaining a Quaker worship pattern among programmed traditions (I will speak about unprogrammed later)that leads to a worship service (I use that word intentionally) that is a pale imitation of other Protestant traditions. The service is outlined in a bulletin and is centered, like a Protestant service, primarily on the sermon -- the proclamation of the Word.

Now this is fine, I suppose, but is it enough, in Dunstan's words to "...justify our separate existence..."? Drop the name Friends from the front of the building and maybe it is.

But I don't think so. I think all this bulletin making and worship planning takes us away from the central call of Friends to invite others to come and hear that Voice that will say to them "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition..." When they hear that, their hearts and souls will leap for joy.

So, part four of my modest proposal, is to scrap the bulletin and the worship planning. Ditch them completely. And trust the Spirit to lead worship. If George Fox was right (and all us various branches of the Quaker tree claim him) then Christ is our present teacher. Let's let Him teach. "Let us let go and let God" as my Evangelical Friends pastor J. Earl Geil often said in many of the sermons I heard as a teen (about the only thing I remember specifically, him saying).

Let Jesus lead worship.

Dare we?

Now, for the programmed folk who (like me often) enjoy singing, hearing a choir, a sermon, etc, I have not said to scrap those things. Necessarily. I am saying scrap the programming part. Instead of fitting holy silence in, use it as the basis for worship. Then trust God to lead the choir to stand and share musically. And move the pastor to give a prepared sermon. And for someone (even a kid!) to suggest singing a hymn. And for a time of prayer for those in need. And times of vocal ministry from the various folks whom God has gathered that particular day.

Have hymn or song books in the pews/benches -- along with Bibles. And, instead of a bulletin with an outlined program, have one that contains a brief description of what Quaker worship is and how it will be planned by God, which may make it look unplanned to us. Until the Spirit brings it together.

That would be the kind of Meeting for Worship that would justify our separate existence! It would be experiential, spiritually experimental, and Spirit-led.

That would mean we would serve as a place where we can invite people encounter God and other like-hearted people. People searching for the sacred. Some having found more than others, some of us just learning the way or beginning to think about the Divine seriously.

I say like-hearted, notice, and not like-minded. We don't all have to think alike -- which is a good thing, since few of us do. Sometimes I'm of two minds about things all on my own!

That is the fourth part of my modest proposal -- as it relates to programmed and semi-programmed Friends. Quit planning a worship service and eliminate the play-by-play bulletin. Trust God

To unprogrammed Friends, I would say, "Don't gloat." Yes, you may not have to discard some of the obvious trappings that we programmed folks do, but there are some that, while perhaps more subtle, can be just as inhibiting.

One thing that can be inhibiting is the idea that the silence is sacrosanct to the point where we worship silence not worship in the silence. Unprogrammed Friends need to create a sense of hospitality in the silence and a feeling that "anything, God willing, can happen." Including -- gasp -- congregational singing in worship. Yes, that's theoretically possible, but how often does it happen? And are there items there to encourage it -- songbooks on the benches instead of a table in the corner? Bibles on the benches? Encouragement from the clerk that all -- young and old -- are invited to speak the words God brings to them.

Indeed, I would maintain, based on my experience of unprogrammed worship (which is not a slim as some folks might think for a fellow who grew up a "pastorized" Friend) is that it can be, in its worst form, as rigidly programmed as a programmed meeting. The order of service is just implied and/or understood by the insiders. And any outsiders or visitors keep to their benches because they are afraid of making any kind of Friendly faux pas -- like kneeling or standing at the wrong time in a Catholic mass.

Friend Thomas Green said, "Worship is essentially an act of adoration, adoration of the one true God in whom we live and move and have our being. Forgetting our little selves, our petty ambitions, our puny triumphs, our foolish cares and fretful anxieties, we reach out towards the beauty and majesty of God. The religious life is not a dull, grim drive towards moral virtues, but a response to a vision of greatness."

Our worship must facilitate this response to a vision of greatness and invite people into experiencing the presence of God. So, humbly (and I mean that sincerely) let's let go and let God lead worship. Bye-bye bulletin. So long planned worship service. Hello fresh movements of the Spirit.

That's part four of my "Modest Proposal for the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States."

Tomorrow, part five.

-- Brent

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Modest Proposal: Part 3 For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States

This is the last of the research oriented pieces of my "modest proposal." Tomorrow I will move into my proposed action steps related directly to the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States. But first, a bit more from the various congregational studies -- both to inform and dispel a few more myths.

One of the things I hear posited as "conventional wisdom" is that only Evangelical and theologically conservative churches are growing. So what role does theology play in numerical growth?

  • There is very little relationship between growth and theological orientation
  • Highest growth is predominantly conservative congregations (38%) and liberal congregations (39%)
  • Among Evangelical denominations it is the less conservative churches that are most likely to grow (30%)
  • Growth is lowest among congregations in the middle (27%)

That's not to say theology is irrelevant. Of course, it's not. But a congregation's theology does not seem to be the prime indicator of whether it will grow or not. So if theology (conservative vs liberal vs whatever) isn't the factor, what is? The answer is -- a clear sense of mission.

  • More important than theological orientation is the religious character of the congregation and clarity of mission and purpose
  • Growing congregations are clear about why they exist
  • They grow because they understand their reason for being and they make sure they do the things that are essential to their life as a religious organization

That last point leads to an obvious further question -- what is essential? The research says:

  • Essential to the mission is to create a community where people encounter God
  • Congregations that involved children in worship were more likely to experience significant growth -- congregations that did not were much more likely to experience decline

There is a strong relationship between growth and the sense that the congregation is “spiritually vital and alive. And that it is welcoming and hospitable.

Congregations that grow do more than say they are welcoming and hospitable. They live those things out in very intentional ways.

  • They engage in a variety of recruitment-related activities (special events, community gatherings, bring a friend Sundays, etc)
  • Attendees tell others about their congregation
  • They make themselves more visible through various forms of advertising

There is one programmatic activity that is most strongly related to growth -- establishing or maintaining a web site for the congregation Congregations that have started or maintained a web site in the past year are most likely to grow.

This last piece, and moving beyond it into using social networking, is crucial. It is not a fad (or only for the young -- the fastest growing segment on facebook is 55-65 year old females).

So the third part of this modest proposal is to learn to be more mission-centric and people oriented. Why are we here and how do we let know others that we'd be happy to have them join with us? In a word, we need to think like a missional church.

Below is a list of some of the resources I've used in helping me prepare these thoughts. And some sites about the missional church movement.

Tomorrow is the first of my Friendly specifics.

-- Brent


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Modest Proposal: Part 2 For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States

While it may seem that I am being a bit research heavy in these early posts, it does all have point. The point is to make decisions and/or proposals from a basis more solid than hunches or impressions. It does seem, to me, to be statistically significant to see what 350,000 congregation members (Christian and n0n-Christian) have to say about their congregations' strengths and weaknesses (US Congregations). And that's just one example.

The research shows that vital congregations share (across denominational/faith lines) certain characteristics.

  • Vital congregations help people grow spiritually. - -They focus on the long-term development of the ministry of the entire congregation (spiritual development and providing ministry opportunities).
  • Vital congregations encourage participation. -- They move people into meaningful ministry roles. They ask attendees what they feel passionate about and what they see as their ministry. They identify what types of new people the congregation attracts (e.g., returnees, switchers). They ask new people what made the congregation attractive to them. They create small group experiences, such as prayer or study groups.
  • Vital congregations offer meaningful worship experiences. -- They evaluate current worship service for vitality and involvement (by all age groups).
  • Vital congregations welcome new people. -- They increase the visibility of the congregation in the community (e.g., Web site, Twitter, paid newspaper and telephone book ads, good outdoor signage, participation in community events). They encourage members to invite others and give them the tools to invite effectively (e.g. Bring a Friend Sundays, special events). They identify and make personal and telephone follow-up contact with all visitors, especially first time worship visitors. They offer a group for new attendees.
  • Vital congregations commit to a positive future. --They identify congregational strengths and ask how the congregation can optimize and leverage these strengths? They evaluate current congregation organization and committee structure and then minimize the number of maintenance committees. They create ministry teams (worship, education, outreach) instead of standing committees.

The second part of my modest proposal is for our congregations to look at these characteristics and actions and ask "Which of these is an accurate representation of our congregation?" "Are we doing things that commit to a positive future, provide meaningful worship for all ages, welcome new people, etc?

Or do we behave more like the people in this video parable?

So again some congregational queries, as part of Part 2 of a modest proposal.

  • Who are we?
  • Why do we exist -- what's our mission?
  • What is God calling us to be and do?
  • Do we welcome others?
  • How do we relate to our community?
  • How do we adapt to change?

These are queries the entire congregation should work on -- not just a committee or some named congregational leaders (i.e., a pastor. And please note, I think this is the first time I've used the word/role in any of my posts on this topic). There are a variety of ways that you can do this. I recommend "World Cafe'" -- it is very participational and fits well with Friends.

-- Brent

A Modest Proposal: Part 1 For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States

Religious life in America is in decline. That's a statement I've heard over and over. And yet research seems to tell another tale. According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, in the past 20 years

  • there are 32,000+ new congregations dotting the US landscape
  • there are almost 29 million new worship attendees
  • identified affliation with a recognized religious body or faith group is up 26+%

These statistics do not, so far as I can tell, take into account the emergent church plants, house churches, or the new monastic communities.

Then there are the Quakers. In the past 20 years:
  • we've added 311 new congregations
  • have lost 17,000 members
  • and dropped recognized affiliation by -14%
  • Friends United Meeting has dropped 15,000 members
  • Evangelical Friends International has dropped 3,000 members
  • Friends General Conference has grown 1,000 members

Hmmm. All of this at a time when there is renewed interest in Quaker life and spirituality. This is shown by the number of Quaker titles on and their strong sales and through other things, such as's "Belief-O-Matic." 30 thousand people a day try Belief-O-Matic. An issue of Newsweek magazine reported that a "disproportionate number" of respondents to the quiz identified themselves as 'liberal Quakers.'" The article notes that the page on the BeliefNet web site devoted to Quakers has become one of Beliefnet's top 50 links!

So why aren't our Meetinghouses bursting with newcomers?

One reason, in my opinion, is that many Quaker congregations (especially pastoral ones) have bought into what U.S. Congregations (Friends congregations were a part of this amazing study) researchers call "10 Myths" --

  1. “Nothing ever changes here” is an accurate statement about congregational life
  2. Congregations grow by attracting new people who are not attending religious services anywhere
  3. Worshipers who regularly attend are almost always members of the congregation
  4. Because worshipers are highly involved in their congregations, they spend little time being involved in their community
  5. A typical worshiper is over 65 years of age and retired
  6. Worship is boring.
  7. Most worshipers attend services in small congregations
  8. Congregations have difficulty adapting to the changing world around them because the majority of worshipers are not open to change
  9. People under 30 do not participate in religious activities
  10. All of today's worshipers prefer traditional hymns
    (you can find out more about these myths by going to the US Congregations website or reading their "A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations: Who's Going Where and Why")
Living these myths leads to a reality of lack (instead of abundance ) and scrambling to "fix" what's wrong and to find "best practices" to remedy the the deficiencies identified by the myths. Our congregations fail to see the obvious lacks (the need for hospitality, vital worship, appealling buildings, signage, community outreach) and accept the myths and then wonder why nobody "likes us." Just like the congregation below.

Instead, the first part of my modest proposal is that our congregations need to look at what flourishing congregations nationally are doing well and see where their strengths converge. The research (US Congregations, National Congregations Study, Faith Communities Today, and more) tell us that congregations that are growing (and not just numerically -- that is just one measurement) have certain characteristics. A flourishing congregation:

  • Provides a sense of community
  • Seeks to educate attendees about the faith
  • Shares their faith with others
  • Serves others (outside the congregation)
  • Conveys the sense that life has meaning

These all may seem obvious. But we (as Friends) often do not do any sort of self-examination that looks at what we're doing well. One of the things to notice about these signs of vitality is that they have very little to do with specific "programs." They are about attitudes and how faith is lived out. They move a congregation from saying (or doing) such things as "If we just had someone to minister to youth and bring them in" or "Let's make worship more contemporary" to asking which of these strengths do we already have and how can we build on them? To make them queries for study.

  • How can we provide a deeper sense of community?
  • How can we educate attendees (no matter their age) about Quaker faith and life?
  • How can we share faith with those who do not currently attend but are looking for what we have to offer?
  • How can we serve others (i.e., our community) in addition to ourselves and Friends institutions?
  • How do we show that life and faith have intertwined meaning?

I would also propose that our Meetings stop and take time to answer the following query:

What is God calling us to do with these people in this place at this time?

  • These People!
  • This place!
  • This time!

That's the first part of my modest proposal.

-- Brent

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Modest Proposal: For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United Staes

The only things that this post (and many of the ones that follow over the next few days or weeks) and Swift's book share are the title and the satire behind the title. The thoughts that follow are not satirical ala' Swift. The title certainly is satirical as what I am going to propose is far from modest.

I have been thinking about this topic for many years, beginning with when I was a 20-something college student who reengaged with the Religious Society of Friends after having grown up up among Quakers and then sojourning away from them for a brief period.

The most recent impetus to address this topic came, though, not from years of thought, but from my being asked to participate in Friends United Meeting's "Transforming Lives: A Conference for Emerging Leaders" held September 17-19 in Richmond, Indiana. The topic assigned to me was "Ministry in North America."

Toward the end of my presentation, I admitted that I had some interest in the future of the Friends message in North America. Particularly, I said, I was not so much interested in the institutional survival of the Religious Society of Friends (and it's various structures) as I was a recapturing of the vitality of the Quaker understanding of the Gospel -- a Good News that combines the story and work of Christ Jesus with the amazing power of the testimonies as an understanding of how the Gospel is to be lived. I then showed some statistics that appear to indicate there is widespread interest in the general public in the Quaker understanding of the Gospel and yet we, as the Friends "church," are failing to reach out to people who seek places to connect with this message.

One of the workshop participants, Stephen Dotson, engaged me with several questions. And I admitted that while I have had lots of thoughts on this issue, I have kept them mostly to myself, trying to stay out of the way of the primarily Young Adult Friends and others in the Convergent Friends movement who are working in very practical ways, I my opinion, on just this issue. I also admitted that I was a geezer (I will be 60 next year and wonder how I became one of the oldsters instead of one of young Turks of my college/seminary days) and so may be a bit out of touch.

Still, I make my living as a congregational consultant and a fair amount of research and information about American religious life passes over my desk and computer. And I do have a heart for the Quaker message -- a message that I would like to see more broadly lived out. I do not have the desire to have it lived out, as I said, because of any desire to keep institutions alive (indeed I think most Quaker institutions have to change radically or they will become increasingly anachronistic -- more about that later), but rather because I think it is a life/soul changing message that can bring hope and life to many who are hungering for it.

At the workshop, Stephen, while playfully agreeing with me that I was a geezer, asked how he and his compatriots in the emerging leader (or whatever you want to call it) movement could tap the wisdom of geezers such as me. I admit to having had no answer that day. I'm not sure I have a very complete one now. But that challenge has stayed with me and so, I have decided, that for my part, the best way for me to share any wisdom/ideas/hopes was through doing this series of blog posts that I'm calling "A Modest Proposal."

In it, I am going to share some of the presentation I made to the workshop the other day -- based on research I've read and things I've learned in working with congregations -- and thoughts about how the revitalization of the Quaker message in the United States might be achieved. I'm going to try to do this in short, narrowly focused posts that hopefully will build on each other and may just engender some thinking or discussion.

I have no illusion that anybody will read this. Nor do I have any particular desire that "my program" be adopted by anybody. I just feel led to share it and hope that it might be of some benefit to those who are thinking about the Quaker message and life in the 21st century.
I have often found a challenge -- and an inspiration -- in the words of Friend Edgar G. Dunstan -

The early Friends were fully assured that they had a message for all men -- not merely that one or other of their testimonies was specially relevant to their own time, but that message in its totality, in its wholeness, was god's good news for all sorts and conditions of men .... "Have you anything to declare?" is a vital challenge to which every one of us is personally called to respond and is also a challenge that every meeting should consider of primary importance. it should lead us to define, with such clarity as we can reach, precisely what it is the Friends of this generation have to say that is not, as we believe, being said effectively by others. What, indeed, have we to declare to this generation that is of sufficient importance to justify our separate existences as part of the Christian fellowship? If we regard the Society of Friends merely as an ethical society we have no message for a world that is bursting with sin and sorrow and suffering. It is insufficient to merely offer palliatives to physical suffering, important and necessary as they are. there are those whose needs are on a different level and we should covet to have these others at least an equal concern. Have we "good news" for them?

Indeed, I believe, we do. Hence my starting this "Modest Proposal."
-- Brent

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Salt and Light" Comes to Indiana

Over the next two years, Friends, globally, will be connected through exploring a common theme: ‘Being Salt and Light,’ in preparation for the 2012 Sixth World Conference of Friends. You are invited to be part of this conversation. “Being Salt and Light: Friends living the kingdom of God in a broken world” will be held November 5-7 at Indianapolis First Friends Meeting (3030 Kessler Blvd East Dr.).

The speakers for the event are Anne Bennett of Britain Yearly Meeting and Rachel Stacy of Baltimore. Anne is an author, peacemaker and former staff at Quaker House Belfast. She has supported peace making efforts in Africa, Europe and the Middle East during times of civil war. Rachel was a planner of the 2005 World Gathering of Young Friends and is coordinator of Pendle Hill’s Young Adult Leadership Development Program. She is a graduate student at Earlham School of Religion.

The event will have

  • Keynote Presentations
  • Worship & singing
  • Small group discussion
  • Fellowship
  • Meals Together

It costs $65 for the weekend ($45 Saturday only). Financial assistance is available. Preregistration is requested. Register online at or contact Beth Henricks at or 317-335-2701

“Salt and Light” is sponsored by Friends World Committee for Consultation. “Answering God's call to universal love, FWCC brings Friends of varying traditions and cultural experiences together in worship, communications and consultation, to express our common heritage and our Quaker message to the world.” Learn more about the 2012 Sixth World Conference of Friends at