Burn Down the Meeting House

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.– Luke 12:32-34

A friend of mine recently suggested that perhaps the best thing that twentysomething Quakers could do would be to burn down a Yearly Meeting meetinghouse. What would happen if the young adults of the Yearly Meeting were to show up one evening with torches and openly burn that ancient, venerable, valuable piece of real estate to the ground?

Of course, the most biblical thing to do might be to sell the meetinghouse and give to the poor. If we had it in us to do such a thing, this would certainly be a powerful witness. But can you imagine an entire Yearly Meeting finding unity to sell the community’s flagship real estate investment? I can already hear the objections. We would be admonished to be more responsible, more realistic. We would be reminded of the building’s substantial history and the role that the property plays in outreach.

It is hard to imagine a Yearly Meeting selling one of its most visible symbols of establishment. I have an easier time imagining the twentysomethings of the community banding together to bear prophetic witness to the wider body. The Yearly Meeting as a whole may not be ready to release the dead weight of the past – the fear of losing money, status and security – but younger generations might call for a break with stagnation and decline. What would happen if we put the movement of the Spirit ahead of property management?

It would probably be premature for Friends of my generation to start burning down meetinghouses. As powerful as this sign might be, it would be an act of desperation rather than a first step on the path of prophetic engagement. What might these first steps look like? How could twentysomething Quakers serve a wake-up call to their Yearly Meetings in a way that older Friends can hear?

The image of burning down a meetinghouse is a powerful one, spurring me to think about what might happen if twentysomething Quakers decided that we were done sitting at the kids’ table. Rather than waiting around for older generations to invite us into responsibility and leadership, the image of burning down the meetinghouse represents younger Quakers rising out of the silence and declaring God’s truth as we have experienced it. Even when it makes the gray-hairs uncomfortable.

One thing is clear: The status quohas been failing us for decades, perhaps even generations. We find ourselves today in the midst of the greatest economic, technological, cultural and religious transition in human history – a momentous shift that virtually the entire world is participating in. This generation faces a stark choice.One option is to continue on as we have for many years, warming ourselves by the dying embers of an ancient tradition. We can huddle together in our creaky, historic buildings, drafting minutes and sinking deeper into irrelevance as our young people drift away to other communities that can provide a more satisfying framework of meaning.We can choose comfort over challenge, anesthetized death over the messy and sometimes painful business of life. This is what the meetinghouse represents.

Or we can change our minds.We can turn back to the same God who taught our ancestors how to lead lives of radical faithfulness. We can embrace the exhiliration and the riskiness that comes when we choose to walk beside Jesus on the water. This will mean venturing out from the safety of the meetinghouse – all of the beliefs, processes and possessions that we cling to for our sense of identity as Friends. The community that arises from the ashes of the meetinghouse will have the clear-eyed aspect of a person who has given up everything to fully invest in the present moment, walking in faith with our ever-present Guide. Burning down the meetinghouse is a metaphor for the true freedom that we find when we renounce all the things that we put before God.

What would it look like for younger Friends to take responsibility for leadership within our Yearly Meetings, not waiting for permission or validation? How can we invite our entire religious community, young and old, into a shared journey of radical transformation and openness to the new thing that God is doing in our time and place? What in us needs to die in order for new life to grow?