My experience of Quakerism has always been tinged with a palpable awareness of its impending demise. When I first became a Quaker during my time living in Mexico City, I remember walking with a respected elder from Pacific Yearly Meeting who confided in me, I don’t know whether Quakerism will survive.
This question of denominational survival has been a live one for generations of Friends. The Quaker community has been in steady decline for hundreds of years. Hard as it is to imagine now, roughly one third of the colonial American population was Quaker. Today, the Quaker community is statistically insignificant.
In the last 50 years, Quakerism has basically imploded in many parts of the United States. Meetings have dwindled and winked out of existence. There are many indications that this rapid decline may still be in process. An enormous question facing the overwhelming gray-haired North American Quaker community is, Can the Religious Society of Friends survive the passing of the Baby Boomer generation?
I had the opportunity to visit a Quaker Meeting on Long Island recently, and during the tea time following meeting for worship we had a deep discussion about where we are at as a spiritual community. As we talked, it became clear that, for Friends in that Meeting, the status quo isn’t working. One Friend said bluntly, If we keep doing what we are doing, this Meeting is going to die.
I couldn’t help but smile. This is exactly where this Meeting, where all of us, need to be: staring death in the face. For hundreds of years, the Quaker movement has stagnated and declined, and time and again we have responded with panic. We’ve tried all sorts of things to save Quakerism. We’ve doubled down on our sectarian streak, disowning the greater part of our membership for petty offenses like marrying non-Quakers or participating in non-Quaker organizations. We’ve gone the other way, too – virtually abandoning our traditions in the quest to be more relevant – whether that relevance looked like adherence to the latest scientific fads or Evangelical dogma.
We have tried so hard to survive. For generations, we’ve wrung our hands over why we’re shrinking. We’ve lamented our cultural irrelevance. We’ve blamed everyone else, and we’ve blamed ourselves. But always, always, always, we’ve tried to survive.
What I said to the Friends at this precious Meeting on Long Island, and what I say to you now is: We’re not going to get anywhere as a people so long as survival is our objective. We’re not going to grow – in any sense, spiritual or numerical – when our obsession is the future of Quakerism.
Everyone dies, but not all deaths are created equal. There’s the sad, pathetic demise of a person or organization who clings tooth and nail to every last breath. This is a deathbed drenched with fear of losing out, terrified of uncertainty, grasping at straws to hold onto some semblance of familiarity. This is the cringing, repulsive state that we are in when we cry, how do we keep Quakerism from dying?
In stark contrast to this repellent death rattle, there is a way of dying that welcomes, blesses, and builds up. Rather than clinging to the last shreds of life as we have known it, those who die in this way radiate joy and impart true life to everyone around them. This is the dying life of Mother Teresa and Francis of Assisi. This is the radiant death of Jesus, whose triumphant agony still has power to restore us today.
This is the abundant life that we are invited to dwell in today, as we witness the dying moments of our beloved religious communities. Instead of spending the time we have left lamenting what we are losing, why not rejoice in the gift that God has given us? Instead of desperately trying to preserve our community and tradition, what would it look like to break it open and pour out our blessings on others with reckless abandon?
The church will never thrive until we stop trying to survive. As we participate in the deep, radiant life of Jesus, we are freed from the power of brokenness, sin, and death. We don’t have to be captive to the terror of mortality anymore. With gratitude in our hearts, we can pass on what has been given to us, without expectation and without fear.