What would it look like for a Spirit-led, Christ-centered movement to emerge out of the North American Quaker community? Certainly, such a movement would shake up our comfortable habits of religion. Regardless of our theological or cultural background, we would all be deeply challenged by an authentic movement of renewal within the North American Quaker Church. Such a movement would call into question our conformity to the American way of life, to which almost all of us are deeply wedded. It would demand that we dedicate everything – time, money and attention – to Jesus, receiving his Light and following the guidance of his Spirit.
But do we truly want to be part of such a movement of the Holy Spirit? Most of us would like to see an uptick in energy, financial giving and attendance at our established Meetings. Many of us would even like to see some new Meetings be founded, to have the sense that we are a part of a growing community, rather than one which peaked long ago and is in the slow process of going extinct. It is natural for us to want to feel confirmed in what we are doing, to see positive indications of the health and vitality of our community. But is what we most want a self-affirming human community – or are we prepared to risk everything to follow Jesus?
There are some existing institutions that are already quietly at work preparing the way for a fresh, radical obedience to the Holy Spirit in our North American context. I think of Earlham School of Religion, where Friends and other Christians from across the country and the world are given vital training in Christian scholarship and discipleship. There is the School of the Spirit, which for almost two decades has nurtured Christ-centered eldership and ministry, primarily within the Liberal-Unprogrammed branch of the Religious Society of Friends. The Friends Center of Ohio Yearly Meeting is an example of an attempt by Conservative Friends to provide more opportunities for structured learning and development of gifts. And Northwest Yearly Meeting has its own Friends Center, which is dedicated to developing Quaker Christian leadership in the Pacific Northwest.
It is my hope that each of these institutions – and, surely, many others that I have failed to mention – will provide a base for developing well-informed, self-aware and spiritually grounded leaders for this new century. Yet, I am also aware that this kind of leadership development is by itself insufficient. Leadership training may be little more than hospice care for a dying institution unless we as Friends make the choice to humble ourselves and commit our whole lives to Jesus’ mission in the world. Until we are willing to set aside our own prerogatives and desires, seeking first to follow Jesus together, the Religious Society of Friends in North America will continue to wither and die.
And maybe that is OK. If many of our Meetings, institutions and programs are no longer receptive to the leadings of the Holy Spirit in our midst, we are not of much use anymore. What is to be done with salt that has lost its saltiness (Matthew 5:13)?
But there are those of us who sense the call to be a flavorful expression of Christ’s presence on earth. For those of us who hear this call, how can we join with others in laying down our own priorities and seeking to be completely obedient to the Spirit? How can we support one another in being obedient unto death – the death of the self-will, of our clinging to money and status as a form of security, and even of our physical bodies if need be? How do we make the transition from a faith that is a “good idea” to one that is worth dying for?
And what role do our existing institutions have to play? How can our Meetings and Yearly Meetings become places of shared wrestling with the challenge of discipleship to Jesus? How can our schools and leadership development programs become engines for the radical change from self-serving to self-sacrificing? How can our community and tradition become as a seed that dies in order to bring forth a new harvest of faithfulness (John 12:24)?