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


Bill said...

"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?"
Thank you, Brent, for raising this most important question. I'm looking forward to further posts

CJ said...

As a former "Quaker Insider" who had viewed the goings-on in Friend's cirlces from the outside for a number of years now, I look VERY forward to your "modest proposal" and what it might have to say to those of us who love Quakerism but have felt such disappoinment with the way the message has been presented to the world. Plus, at almost 51, I am STILL a young turk...HA!

forrest said...

To confirm (and say amen to) your blessing!!! (What is leading you into this.)

Although I probably don't seem at all like one who "hides his light under a bushel" I have undergone a lot of suffering (and desperate craziness creeping into my responses sometimes) out of the sheer difficulty of discerning how to know and do something I've felt called to for years-- which appears to mean that we are part of a common project. ("If you bring forth what is within you...")

Thank you, and I rest impatient for more!!!

Unknown said...

I look forward to this brent.

Chuck Fager said...

This proposal is so modest, I missed it. Or is the above to be considered a teaser for it?

And a comment by way of eldering, Brent: I find it unbecoming for one to be internalizing the ageism of both our society and Society and pre-marginalizing your comments because you're almost 60. Why not take some modest pride in lasting so long?

Having been part of a generation that was also lionized for its youth, I know by experience that there is nothing so certain to be lost as any sense of "virtue" attached to being young. My conclusion: it does youth no favor to be privileged and praised for that ever-vanishing fact.

And to the question of how younger Friends can "tap into" the "wisdom" some older Friends might have attained, I pose a double answer: one is for us "geezers" to speak up about what we have seen and thought, without apology. And two, younger Friends can take some time to pay attention. Plus a caution: some of what they hear or read might not be so comforting.

This is more by way of observation than command: speaking and listening are among the basics for communication. Maybe particularly so between generations.

And there are older Friends (I don't mean Fox & Woolman, but rather some of us who are still alive) who have in fact spoken and written a fair amount on matters such as on the problems and prospects of the RSOF.

Is any of it of value to younger Friends? There's really only one way to find out.
Two Bible verses go with this comment, from Proverbs 27:

17 As iron sharpens iron,
so one man sharpens another.
and 21:
Fire tests the purity of silver and gold, but a person is tested by being praised.
So is a generation.

Brent Bill said...

Thanks to all for the comments so far. And, to allay Chuck's fears (not that I think he's really afraid that he missed something) no, there is not much of a proposal (modest or otherwise) in this post.

I think it's more than a "teaser" -- hopefully it's a preface. An introduction to what plan to do in the upcoming posts. Indeed, it may take a few posts to even get to the actual pieces of the modest proposal as I do want to at least sketch the problem as I see it before offering my solutions to it.

Brent Bill said...

Oh, and regarding the age thing... I am not ashamed of my geezerhood. I am just sometimes surprised by it.

But, in the same way that I as a young man was annoyed by the elders "who knew it all" and encouraged by the elders who had lived it all and welcomed my thoughts, I want to be respectful of the needs of the emerging leaders to make their way "their way." If I have some wisdom to offer because of (or despite) my age, then I will gladly do so ... if asked. Which I feel, in this case, I sort of have been ... so hence the series.

Anonymous said...

I am thoroughly intrigued & very much looking forward to reading this...

Jami Hart said...

I believe that a lot of folks will read this. Especially if we all share it on Facebook. As you say, there is a hunger.

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Brent,
Thanks for starting this! Obviously, these things have nothing to do with age. The bigger question has always seemed to me to be whether you're curious and want real dialog--listening both ways, sharing both ways. A lot of institutional Quakerism has been a small group of people talking only to themselves.

There are people in my yearly meeting that have been having the same meeting with the same group of people for thirty years. Newcomers constantly come, get discouraged and drop away and the same small group discussion goes round and round.

I dreamt up a whiz-bang outreach program when I was prepping for my talk to Phila YM's Interim Meeting sessions the other week. I never delivered it, as the people who most needed to hear it didn't bother to stick around. Maybe I should write it down and post it....

Eileen Flanagan said...

Yes, Martin, do!

Brent Bill said...

Yes, Martin, I agree with Eileen... I'd like to see it!

Joe Snyder said...

Dear Friends,
Brent, onward! Chuck, as one who also was brushed with a rekindling fire 40 years ago, I, too, believe we have much to share and help with this new group. Dealing with the despair of watching the sun go down in Kaimosi in 1982 when it was clear Friends there were not catching on fire, and similar ones that others or us have shared should be aired with this great group - not as geezers vs. youth, but as fellow soldiers in the Lamb's War.
Yours hopefully,

Robin M. said...

And a very fine series it is. I am inspired by each piece of it. Thank you. Can you come over to my house next week so we can talk about it some more?

Brent Bill said...

I'd be delighted to, Robin. However, instead of lovely San Francisco, I get to travel to Merrillville, Indiana (don't ask!). Would be great if you could join us at Quaker Hill Conference Center in January for a discussion on this. I wonder if we can do a viritual (skype?) set up?

Robin M. said...

Brent, I'm sure there are wonderful opportunities even in Merrillville, wherever that may be. However, I am open to possibilities in January. My life should open up some after Thanksgiving of this year. (Thanks be to God!) And thanks to God and the Internet, this conversation will continue, even if we don't live next door to each other.

Brent Bill said...

Merrillville is indeed a place of opportunity (our newest office of the Center for Congregations will be here) and I am here again.

I am hoping that the January conference at QHCC can make use of Skype, etc, for those who are unable to attend 'in person.' At least I am going to push for that.