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Preparing for the Harvest

I am encouraged to see a number of signs that unprogrammed Friends are developing a renewed focus on evangelism. LiberalFriends at Rockingham Monthly Meeting Friends in the US and UK are developing the Quaker Quest program as a pathway to numerical and spiritual growth, and Conservative Friends are also increasingly emphasizing outreach. In the last few years, all of the Conservative Yearly Meetings reported the addition of new Monthly Meetings. Ohio Yearly Meeting has been particularly active in outreach, nurturing several worship groups in the United States, Britain, Greece and Spain, as well as maintaining a network of affiliated and sympathetic Friends across the globe. As one of the smaller Yearly Meetings in the United States, Ohio Yearly Meeting has a disproportionate impact on missions.

Among Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting, there is a palpable enthusiasm for the work of evangelism. Working side by side with other Quaker Christian groups, I believe that we are poised for growth in the twenty-first century. I see no reason why the coming decades should not see the emergence of many new Meetings – even new Yearly Meetings – in the Conservative stream.

Given present size of my own Yearly Meeting, such high levels of growth could be overwhelming. Ohio Yearly Meeting probably has anFriends in the woods active membership of fewer than two hundred people. Adding a just a half-dozen new Meetings in the coming decades could bring about revolutionary changes in our small community, as newcomers quickly outnumber those who have been part of the Yearly Meeting for decades and generations. This is particularly true if the emerging Meetings are made up of Friends who are new to the Conservative Quaker tradition.

This would not be without precedent. The revivalist frenzy of the late nineteenth century was characterized by meteoric growth, with Yearly Meetings bringing in tens of thousands of new converts in a matter of years. Immediately, Friends were forced to consider how to integrate so many new Quakers into the fellowship. They found that the tried and true “education by osmosis” no longer worked in a context where most of the community was not raised in a sectarian Quaker community. One result of the search for new ways of transmitting our faith was the pastoral system, which has revolutionized Quakerism and now represents the overwhelming majority of Friends worldwide.

More recently, we have the example of the New Meetings Movement, when Friends were overwhelmed by the growth of new Meetings inFriends at Illinois Yearly Meeting college towns across the United States. Throughout the forties, fifties and sixties, new Meetings flourished across the Mid-west and West, while the traditional centers of American Quakerism (e.g. Philadelphia YM, Indiana YM) imploded. Even as the traditional Hicksite and Gurneyite Yearly Meetings saw their membership plummeting, new unprogrammed Yearly Meetings sprang into existence where there were none before. This resulted in a situation where local Meetings, and even Yearly Meetings, developed where there was virtually no seasoned ministry, eldership or oversight. New Meetings Movement Quakerism emerged as an individualistic faith, and connections with the past were tenuous. In many places, the New Meetings Movement has left a legacy of rootlessness and disconnection from many of the basic beliefs and practices of the Quaker tradition.

In both the revivalism of the late 1800s and the New Meetings Movement of the mid-1900s, we see cases in which growth outran the capacity of seasoned ministry, eldership and oversight to care for newly convinced Friends and Meetings. As a result, the tradition was radically, decisively altered in very short periods of time. This change often came less out of deep reflection and spiritual unity than it did out of an urgency to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. Above all, both cases demonstrate a failure on the part of Friends to prepare in advance for growth.

Precisely because I see the potential for such rapid growth in the coming decades, I believe that we must take care to prepareQuaker Youth Pilgrimage at Camas Friends Meeting ourselves not only to fan the flames of a new revival, but to provide the grounded leadership and example that will be needed in order to sustain the movement, connecting us through teaching and example to the tradition of the early Friends and the early Christian Church. Above all, it is critical that we prepare ourselves now for the coming growth. If we wait until explosive growth is upon us, it will be too late to develop our response.

I believe that it is crucial that we begin to operate under the assumption that Christ is already gathering a great people, and that we need to prepare ourselves and our communities to participate in that gathering work. I am convinced that we need everyone in our Meetings and worship groups to take seriously our responsibility to prepare the way of the Lord, throwing ourselves into the work of discipleship and evangelism, and steeping ourselves in the tradition so that we are capable of demonstrating it to those whom the Lord draws into our small order of the Universal Church. It is crucial that we lead lives that model the life of Christ as it is being revealed to us within the Quaker stream of the Christian tradition.

We need all hands on deck. We need to demonstrate with our time, energy and financial resources the priority that we place on sharingFriends at Ohio Yearly Meeting, 2009 the good news of Jesus Christ, inviting others into the tradition and community of Friends. What would it look like if building up the Body of Christ were truly our first priority? How would our lives change if we truly believed that God was about to send thousands of people to us, seeking to be welcomed into a community where Jesus Christ is known, loved and obeyed as our present Teacher, Guide and Lord?
I pray that you will join with me in building our house upon the rock, so that when the flood comes, we will be ready to offer refuge to others rather than being swept away ourselves.

*While there are several ways of defining Conservative Quakerism, I use the term to refer to Friends who see the Quaker practices of waiting worship and Spirit-led decision-making as central to their life of faith as a Meeting. Conservative Friends hold that faith in Jesus Christ and fidelity to the Christian tradition are essential for the Meeting community as a whole. Conservative Friends see common Christian faith – not only common worship and decision-making practice – as being the basis for membership in the Meeting.

  • Good word, Micah! This is challenging, and as I think the make-up of my own Yearly Meeting, where we have experienced good growth, such a dramatic influx could create major tension. How do we best prepare everyone in the Meeting for accepting/inviting/loving those who will come to the Friends church? Good things to ponder…

  • Jeremy Mott

    Amen, Micah. Just a few comments in
    addition to yours. The New Meetings
    movement was by no means limited to college towns; it also spread to
    cities, large and small, all over
    the country. This movement was
    still producing new meetings well
    into the 1970’s, and even later in
    the South and a few other places.
    The New Meetings Movement was very
    much a movement of united Friends meetings, especially in the Northeast of the U.S.A., and in Canada. In an extreme case, like
    New York Yearly Meeting, entire
    quarterly meetings (e.g., All Friends) were created by this movement, and not one of its five meetings was in a college town.
    You are certainly correct in
    saying that many of the new Friends were not well grounded in
    either Quakerism or Christianity.
    Beginning in the 1970’s, as American society seemed to disintegrate, some Friends meetings
    did likewise, and we started to lose most of our children. I myself am comfortable with Friends who will not say that they are
    Christians but do give allegiance
    to the Light Within, which is also
    the Christ Within. But it must be
    admitted that the New Meetings Movement was the origin of the present situation where a substantial minority of Friends are unwilling to admit any allegiance to Christ. I believe
    it will take a long, loving effort
    to put “liberal” or “united” Quakerism back together. It cannot
    be done by imposing even the shortest and simplest of creeds, as you seem to propose. It will have to be done by explaining why
    Friends follow the Light, and how the Light is Christ. It also will
    have to be done by explaining to
    Friends what it means to follow the example of Jesus in the gospels. I believe that this challenging task will engage many
    Friends for decades to come.
    Thank you for this excellent
    post, Micah. We must be warned by
    both the example of the revivalist Friends, and the example of the Friends of the New Meetings movement. Both ended up betraying
    some of the Quaker essentials.
    Jeremy Mott

  • Dear Micah,
    Few in numbers these kind gentle loving souls have shared their peace with thee. I have been blessed by one such conservative friend in Ohio, living in the Captina Creek watershed who responded in kind words, with beautiful letters and and allowed me to find Christ in a most easy, perfect way. I have been daily pouring over the her words and thru her course of study advised of Robert Barclay, Fox, Pennington, and the words of my dear Saviour, at her guidance. She attends the Ohio Yearly Meeting and does this and many other great things in a silent way.
    She is a gentle soul and because I know her privacy is important to her walk with Christ, I shall not make publick he name. And to which though I shall never see her I shall always grow strong in my walk with Christ.
    John 15:14-15 ” 14 Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. 15 Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.”
    She has written and counseled me and offered many kindness’ that have enabled me to seek God’s grace and mercy in the company of friends here where I reside in Arizona.
    I hope when the ice is long gone from Captina creek and the sweet corn is thick, at the time of the Yearly Meeting, and sassafras tangy, if God so wills it, I may sit and wait for Christ’s light to speak to my condition with friends from afar, in the far distand land of Ohio, God willing, your words are true, friend Micah. Thy friend paul

  • Thanks for this post, Micah. It’s a valuable heads-up.

    The keys to the preparation you encourage, I think, are: 1) to be clear about our message—what can we say? how can we equip our members to talk confidently and excitedly about their Quaker faith and practice? 2) to do everything in our power to serve the needs of families with children, so that when they come, they stay; 3) in the same vein, to be more effective at holding onto young Friends, by educating them in Quakerism before they leave for college, helping them recognize and understand their own spiritual experience in Quaker terms, and wisely using, I suppose, a ‘digital strategy’ that will keep them engaged when they do leave for college; and 4) to be much clearer about what membership means—what do we want and ask for from people seeking membership? This, as you say, is a matter of seasoned ministry, eldership and oversight.

    Upfront, I think the matter and manner of the message is the most important thing. And the fragmentation of Quakerism combined with the relative ignorance of many of our members, whatever branch we’re in, makes this a challenge. For those Friends and meetings already centered in Christ, this will be a matter of understanding the truth and power of the distinctive Quaker form of discipleship; in this you probably will not appeal to non-Christians seeking a religious home. For more post-Christian Friends and meetings, the biggest challenge, I think, will be finding ways to speak to both Christian and non-Christian seekers with a coherent message.

    I recently ran into an old friend whom I hadn’t seen for some time and discovered that she’s been attending one of our local meetings and she had a bunch of questions. She was considering joining, but one of the stops she faced was that the meeting was “too Christian” for her. Meanwhile, this meeting is actually pretty post-Christian in most ways, though not hostile to Christianity.

    Her nervousness springs from the fact that she’s not a Christian herself, she has negative personal experience of evangelism—pushy, arrogant, and narrow insistence on her need for Christ—and a general desire to have room to seek on her own terms. She was surprised to hear my claim that, until it’s been decided otherwise, ‘Quakerism’ should be considered a Christian religion and we non-Christians should consider ourselves guests in Christ’s house.

    That’s not really what she wanted to hear. This is where the membership process comes in. On this score, at least, I think she can be quite happy in her meeting. Nobody’s going to try to convert her. But she also has to make room in her own heart and mind for God-talk, Christian vocal ministry, and the Bible—for Christians to be as at home beside her as she wants to be. This means that a clearness committee for membership should engage with her to make sure she’s willing to take responsibility for her baggage and invite her to approach membership as a covenant, to see the meeting as a place for spiritual work and exercise, and not just as a safe haven from stuff she doesn’t like. But then the meeting has to reciprocate; it has to see itself as a spiritual gym, too, as a place to build up the character of the soul in truth.

    Most Friends meetings I know take the opposite tack. They fear turning people away by asking too much, meaning asking anything at all. Meanwhile, sociological studies of religious communities uniformly conclude that it’s the churches that ask for real commitment from their members that grow the most. This is a cultural thing that will take a long time to change, if it can be done at all.

  • Remember that in the 17th Century there were NO seasoned Friends. Fox repeatedly comments that he brought people under them might power of God and left them there, evidently with great faith that said power was sufficient. Of course, there were networks of visitors and letters, but very slow by our current standards. So my question is, where is the mighty power of God in this age? If unprogrammed Meetings, such as mine, are to be involved in evangelism, there needs to be some much more powerful good news to share than I’ve heard out in this part of the country. I’ve heard rumors of this outpouring of the Spirit for decades. May it really be happening.
    And thank you for the encouragement. I’m off next week to spend a ski weekend with HS age Friends. Prayers.

  • Very good article, Micah. I think that conservative Quakerism is a very appropriate response to a world full of relativism. I loved the way you define conservative Quakerism. I am very happy thinking of Ohio Yearly Meeting’s impact on missions. Thy friend in Christ,