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Are We A Book Club, Or A Church?

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. – James 1:22

I was raised in a family that prized education. Growing up, I viewed learning as an end unto itself, and my parents encouraged me to explore a wide range of subjects. I immersed myself in history, philosophy, vocal music and foreign languages. Later, I sang opera, studied abroad in Mexico and learned what it meant to be a historian. I graduated from college with a solid liberal arts education, steeped in the intellectual heritage of Western civilization.

While I am grateful for the training I received in my youth, it had certain weaknesses. Though I received a balanced and well-rounded education, I soon discovered that my liberal arts degree had not prepared me for any career in particular. If I wanted to become a historian, I would need to go back for a doctorate. If I wanted to teach Spanish, I would need to get an education degree. Most anything I could imagine doing would require more study.
Though I received a stellar education from grade school through seminary, I learned mostly theory rather than application. My training consisted mostly of learning how to do school rather than how to do life. At the end of the day, most of my practical knowledge came from outside the classroom.
My experience of religious education is similar. As a child, I learned Bible stories and heard sermons. Later, I was encouraged to read devotional pamphlets and books about Quaker history and theology. There was a Pendle Hill Pamphlet for every occasion. In retrospect, I can see that my formative religious experience mirrored closely the assumptions of the schools and universities that I attended.
This makes sense. In the Quaker church, many of us have spent most of our lives immersed in the wider educational system. Most of us have spent far more time in the classroom than we have in Christian fellowship. It should not be surprising that our assumptions about what constitutes knowledge, expertise, and experience bear great similarity to those of the schools and universities we have attended.

At worst, we have come to treat religion as yet another subject to become proficient in. Far too often, our faith becomes abstracted into a series of maxims – “there is that of God in everyone” – or behavioral codes – “we do not speak in the first fifteen minutes of meeting for worship” – that fit better into standardized testing than into the off-script, rough-and-tumble of everyday life. No wonder our faith is so often confined to an hour on Sunday morning! No wonder we often act like one person “at Meeting” and a different person at home, school or work: We have become trapped in a religious system that is only relevant at “test time.”

How can we develop faith that has relevance beyond the Sunday-morning Quiz? How can our time together become occasions of mutual support and practical equipping for the work of the Kingdom in daily life? How might we as Friends adopt a more earthy, practical spirituality? When our fellowships often resemble book clubs more than a radical movement for peace and justice, how can we start applying the radical message of Jesus?

  • I wonder at times whether people attend Meeting to be Spiritually moved or to be intellectually entertained. Food for thought has its place, of course. I sat through many a sermon designed for that purpose while a member of a traditional Christian denomination.

    I think that any religious group maintains its own terminology and encourages its members to learn it. Liberals often believe that if everyone were able to as educated and knowledgeable as they are, then problems would cease to exist.

    This is not always the case.

  • Rather, if everyone was able to be…

  • Jan

    I grew up a Quaker in IMYM, when I got to college, I had to work during Meeting, so I attended the Buddhist student group. I have been told that they were probably Zen. It was basically the same thing, but with fewer books that were actively recommended and fewer pot-lucks.

  • I completely agree! Unfortunately, even many of those who like your question will, ironically, still try to answer it in theory instead of with action/experimentation. I think it will take some bold souls, who know they don’t have all the answers (and know that all of the knowledge in heaven doesn’t matter without obedience), to take some risks and just do SOMETHING, and allow their experiences to be their primary classroom. This would, hopefully, inspire others to follow.

    In theory, doing what Jesus did and said to do seems like a good place to start. 🙂

  • thank you Micah – this post resonates with some spiritual experiences / messages I’ve felt lately… about looking more deeply at who Friends are, corporately, in our actual meetings, now, and asking ourselves, together: why has God brought us here? US, these particular people, in this time and place. Here we are, Lord — whatever you want from us — here we are, Lord –

  • Or sometimes we just have to do the work that God has placed in our hands and not be too bothered by whether or not it has a Quaker label on it. At the end of the age the question will still be “what have you done for the least of these?” If ones Meeting is supportive it is a help, but the work still needs to be done.

  • I think you are living it out, Micah. And I wanted to tell you about friends of our who I would point to as people who absolutely live/lived out their faith in all they do/have done. You may even know members of the wider family – Tom and Jan Angell. They home-school their 8 children and they’ve all grown up so well, so faithful. They have a family blog: that embodies all they do. Hope the New Year is full of good fruit from all the work you do. God bless.

  • We don’t want to minimize the education part of life. The problem is when we replace life with education! Education without life is pointless. Life without education is needlessly more difficult than it has to be.

  • Good questions.
    it’s clearly time to witness to all of life as meeting for worship.
    Authentic community anyone?

  • Assuming one could change the culture of a church or meeting, what happens to the people who really want a book club and are not comfortable with the other aspects? I don’t think that is a trivial question.