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Can Quakers Become A Mass Movement?

I was talking recently with a friend about the possibilities for growth and outreach at Capitol Hill Friends, and he made a comment that struck me. He said that he did not view Quakerism as having much potential for being a mass movement, since it can be such a demanding, austere path. It was his opinion that many of the core disciplines of the Quaker path – such as silence, waiting, and group discernment – are simply not accessible to most people in our culture.

Is this true?

Without a doubt, the simple commitment to follow Jesus runs counter to many of the assumptions of mainstream society. In many ways, it is a hard thing to be a follower of Jesus and a citizen in Empire. Yet, many churches are growing today; a community of 150 people is not generally considered to be extravagantly large. Being a Christian is deeply challenging, but I know that there are many people in our city who would prefer a purposeful life of challenge to the meaningless rat race of consumer society.

All that being said, there is a certain reality to the claim that the Quaker path is simply not appealing to most people. The truth is, Quakerism has not been a mass movement for centuries. Based in my own personal experience, I would say that most North American Quaker congregations today have fewer than 50 active participants, and many – probably a majority – have far fewer than that.

In the Yearly Meeting (regional association) where I first became a Quaker, there was one church with a regular attendance of about 120. Every other congregation had fewer than 15 people on a Sunday morning. In another Yearly Meeting that I have been a part of, the largest congregation numbered perhaps several dozen on a Sunday morning. This made it abnormally large, since every other group in the Yearly Meeting had fewer than 10 people present at their worship! These are, perhaps, extreme cases, but they are my experience of the Quaker community at this point in time.

When I reflect on the demographic status of many parts of the Quaker community, it is understandable why my friend would conclude that Capitol Hill Friends could not reasonably expect to draw great numbers. It is demonstrably true that most Quaker communities do not attract many people. But why?

Is it because our tradition asks so much that only a sturdy few can take up the challenge? I cannot believe that. Though the gospel message can seem daunting, it is also good news for those who are suffering. Most of us struggle in so many ways, and there must be millions of Americans whose hearts would leap for joy if they received the good news of Jesus in a way that made sense to them. 

Are there aspects of our religious tradition that actually bar the way for those who are seeking God? Are there unquestioned habits and assumptions in our life as a community that keep others out? Has preserving a set of cultural distinctives become more important than inviting our friends, neighbors and co-workers into the life of God’s kingdom?

What would happen if we defied the assumption that our communities are only for a special few? How might our ways of engaging with the world change if we came to believe that the gospel is good news for the whole world? What traditions are we being called on to discard, modify or re-mix so that we become once again a mass movement that blesses the world?