- 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 amazon.com and their strong sales and through other things, such as Beliefnet.com'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" --
- “Nothing ever changes here” is an accurate statement about congregational life
- Congregations grow by attracting new people who are not attending religious services anywhere
- Worshipers who regularly attend are almost always members of the congregation
- Because worshipers are highly involved in their congregations, they spend little time being involved in their community
- A typical worshiper is over 65 years of age and retired
- Worship is boring.
- Most worshipers attend services in small congregations
- Congregations have difficulty adapting to the changing world around them because the majority of worshipers are not open to change
- People under 30 do not participate in religious activities
- 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")
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.