Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Revitalization of the Quaker Message for Today: A Report on the Recent Retreat

On Friday and Saturday January 27-28, around forty Friends (and others) gathered at Quaker Hill Conference Center in Richmond, Indiana to talk about how to revitalize the Friends message. Friends came from a variety of states (mostly Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois), represented unprogrammed Friends (FGC and Conservative) and pastoral Friends (FUM). The following is a summary of the weekend. More detailed reports on each session will follow.

The retreat's titles was "Worship Groups and Other Alternatives to “Traditional” Church: A conversation about the revitalization of the Quaker message for Today." On Friday night we began with my presentation "Facts and Figures." After a season of deep worship, I opened with this quote by George Fox:

“The Lord had said unto me that if but one man or woman were raised by His power to stand and live in the same Spirit that the prophets and apostles were in who gave forth the Scriptures, that man or woman should shake all the country in their profession for ten miles round.”

I mentioned that everything that followed had to be predicated on our being open to being vessels of the Spirit -- otherwise we were merely rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. Well, if not the Titanic, maybe the Woodhouse.

I then presented some statistics (most of which are in "A Modest Proposal"), beginning with
the idea that "Congregations Still Matter" and noted that in the past 20 years there were
+32,000 new congregations in the US, with +28,803,815 new attendees, and that religious affiliation is up 26%.

Then I asked "But… do Quaker Congregations Still Matter?" and noted that in the past 20 years
we’ve added 311 new congregations, but have 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, and Friends General Conference has grown 1,000 members.

I spoke of myths that we (as congregational members) live by, strengths of growing (spiritually, numerically) congregations, activities that are undertaken by growing congregations (not just numerically growing!), and showed the interrelation of theology and growth (none!). These were all based on scientific studies of religious life in the United States and Canada.

On Saturday we began with me presenting "A (Not So) Modest Proposal. This consisted four ideas, three of which came from my tract (pamphlet, essay, rant) "A Modest Proposal." The four were:
Unprogrammed Programmed or Programmed Unprogrammed?
Where to Sit: A Shift in Architecture
The End of the Quaker Pastorate
Seeking the Seekers

After I presented these ideas, the group broke into four self selected groups to talk for about an hour on the topic that most interested them. They gathered their thoughts on presentation pads. At the end of this session, the groups on "Unprogrammed Programmed" and "Where to Sit" presented the highlights of their discussion. The entire group then asked questions (clarifying ones, mostly) and offered some opinions/thoughts.

Following lunch, we heard from "The End of the Pastorate" and "Seeking the Seekers" groups -- again followed with questions and thoughts.

Immediately after that, Katie Terrell and I had a dialogue, with questions and conversation from the attendees, about "New Worship Forms" -- including New Monasticism, House Churches and Worship Groups. Katie and I both belong to (and helped start) worship groups that meet in homes. They have very different purposes (except for the common theme of worship and sharing) but shared some similarities -- wanting to go deeper in faith, allowing the Spirit to lead the time together, having a set starting time but not ending time, and other things.

After a short break, I introduced the group to some positive change tools that could be used in local Meetings, at Yearly Meeting, in YM committees or other places that wanted to address revitalization issues. The three were interview, asset, mapping, and World Café.

As we were near the end of the day, there was only time to practice one of the tools -- interview. I asked everyone to pair up with someone they did not know well (which was not difficult, given the diversity of the crowd). Once they had chosen a person to interview, I explained that I would give them three questions. It was to be an interview, not a dialogue. So each person got fifteen minutes to ask their partner the three questions. They should take notes, just like a "real" interview. Then their partner would ask them the same three questions.
The questions were:
what attracted you to/kept you among Friends?
what was a “best moment” for you among Friends?
what three wishes do you have for Friends?

The purpose of these questions was to discover the circumstances, condition, and/or practices that contribute to vitality.

After thirty minutes (give or take a few minutes -- you know how Quakers are!), we got back together and people shared their "interviewee's" answers to the questions. I captured these on chart paper.

Then, since time was waning, we went into a period of rich worship, with some vocal ministry.

All in all, I found the retreat a powerful experience. There seemed to be high energy and engagement in the topic. Friends also seemed to be sorry that the time was drawing to a close -- feeling that we could have gone on longer. Of course, that's my perspective as a leader. I'll be curious to hear what participants think!

More detailed reports on each session (especially the notes by the groups and thoughts from the interviews) will follow in the coming days.

-- Brent


Laurel said...

Brent, this sounds like a really good day. Thanks for posting the summary. What was the "Where to Sit: A Shift in Architecture" group about?

Brent Bill said...

Ah, the "Where to Sit" group was about rearranging the configuration of the Meetingroom to enhance worship. More details will be in the report from that session (stayed tuned! Ha!).

Vanessa said...

Thanks for this. I have only recently joined a local Friends Worship group here in Newmarket, Ontario and I love the idea of working to grow the congregation.

Friends have a wonderful spiritual message that has been working its way into me. I look forward to reading more about the retreat.

And I *LOVE* the idea of the hospitality evening at your home. I am totally starting that once the weather warms up. Thank you.

Steven Davison said...

Brent, this sounds like a fruitful weekend.

A note on "where to sit": New York Yearly Meeting writes a State of the Society report each year based on State of the Meeting reports from the local meetings. The yearly meeting committee on ministry and counsel writes a set of queries for the local meetings to answer in their reports and, one year in the late '80s or early '90s, the queries all had to do with the gathered meeting: Have you experienced a gathered meeting? How would you describe it? How do you know? What factors help and hinder the experience of a gathered meeting?

On this latter question, except for a fairly consistent report that meetings for marriage and especially, memorial meetings, seemed more likely to be gathered, the most often mentioned factor was physical proximity to each other—the closer people sat to each other in the meeting space, the more likely the gathered meeting; the more space there was for people to get far away, which inevitably, some Friends did, the less likely. This suggests that how the benches face may be less important than how compact the meeting space is relative to the number of worshippers. I wonder if this may also be a factor in worship groups, especially if they meet in homes. A lot of parlors are small enough that, even though folks have to sit in separate chairs a lot, rather than right next to each other on a bench (or couch), still they may be close enough to each other for their auras to meld a bit.

On the question, how do you know you've experienced a gathered meeting, many meetings struggled with the problem that some Friends would report experiencing a meeting as gathered when others in the same meeting did not. How many does it take? they asked. Two meetings answered this question for themselves: two or three—"wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I also." (Matthew 18:20)

Brent Bill said...

Thanks, Steven and Vanessa for sharing your thoughts here. Very helpful. And welcome to Friends Vanessa! So glad you are among us!

Dale Graves said...

For what it's worth, I was there. And yes we could have used some more time. I'm quite convinced that all the attenders were fully engaged until the end (although a couple of folks had to leave at noon on Saturday due to prior committments).

It was a GREAT workshop!