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Who Needs Religion, Anyway?

In the Quaker community, we engage in regular hand-wringing about why younger generations are largely disengaged from our congregations. Generation X mostly dropped out of the Quaker Church a long time ago without anyone making too much of a fuss; there were still enough solid older Friends to keep the torch aloft. But in the last decade, the problem has grown only worse. Not only are younger people mostly not joining Quaker congregations, but the older generations that have been the spiritual and financial foundation of our communities for decades are actively dying off. As these demographic realities become too fearsome to ignore, we are waking up to the massive decline of the 20th-century Quaker model. Something is broken and we do not know how to fix it. And if we continue this way much longer, we will not survive as a living faith tradition.

Quakers are not alone in this. Virtually all of the “mainline” religious traditions in the United States have been suffering serious decline in the last two generations. We used to live in a society where practically everyone belonged to a Christian denomination as part of their cultural identity. There were Methodist families and Lutheran families, Congregationalists and Episcopalians. Besides the standard flavors of Protestant, there was also a visible (if marginalized) minority of Roman Catholics and Jews. Denominational and religious identities were to a great extent heritage markers. You were a Lutheran because your family was Lutheran; Quaker children were born to Quaker families. Going to church on Sundays was the norm, an unquestioned ritual of an all-American lifestyle.

That world is gone now. Most of the United States has exited the cultural Christianity that had been the norm since its founding. Despite the attempts of some politicians and religious leaders to roll back the clock, America no longer even pretends to operate based on “Christian values.” The point of reference is the State, the Market and the American Dream – not any particular ideas about Jesus Christ or the nature of God. While the United States is not a secular society like much of Europe has become, we are increasingly living in a post-Christian, pluri-religious society in which each individual is expected and encouraged to make up their own mind on the subject of religion.

Faith has become a matter of personal preference and individual identity. Religion is increasingly viewed as a form of self-expression – like tastes in music, art or fashion – or as one of many options for personal enrichment and relaxation – like yoga, meditation or membership at a gym. For many of us, our spirituality is primarily focused on helping us to interact with and get along better in a pluralistic society that is focused on the pursuit of wealth, status and personal achievement.

When viewed in this light, the “spiritual-but-not-religious” phenomenon makes a lot of sense. “Spirituality” has become code for the benefits that faith has for the individual: reduced anxiety, wisdom, centeredness and expanded awareness. “Religion,” on the other hand, represents those aspects of faith that make demands on the individual and require wrestling with a community that may not always affirm and de-stress us.

In this environment, it is not surprising that the phrase “church shopping” has become a part of our lexicon. Faith communities easily become just one more consumer choice, with individuals picking and choosing based on where they feel most “fed” – where they get the most benefits for themselves and their families. It is also not surprising that many churches have succumbed to a strange sort of religious capitalism, explicitly viewing their congregations like businesses, competing for “market share” in a voracious consumer religion market. In retrospect, the rise of the mega church – the big box store of American religion – was virtually guaranteed.

It would be easy to decry the changes that we have witnessed in American culture over the last 75 years, and I will admit that I have sometimes longed for an imagined past. I dream of an era when finding genuine Christian fellowship was easier, a society that was more focused on the community as a whole, rather than mostly on the particular desires of each individual. Sometimes I am tempted to long for the days of cultural Christianity.
But I do believe that these yearnings are a temptation. I see all around me the consequences of yielding to it: Individuals and congregations that obstinately ignore the wider culture, opting out entirely rather than risking “infection” by the world. Many Christian communities are becoming increasingly irrelevant and out of touch with the real conditions and concerns of their neighbors. We can and do become so caught up in recreating a perfect miniature replica of an imagined “Christian nation” that we make ourselves useless in communicating the gospel in the context of post-modern America.
I see this in our North American Quaker community, which has imploded over the last 50 years and which is poised to enter into catastrophic decline as the Boomer generation moves into elderhood. We have not yet discerned a way out of the cycle of decay and irrelevance that is striking almost all traditional religious groups today. Instead, we habitually shift the blame onto others. “Quakerism is a challenging path; it is not for everyone,” we tell ourselves with a strange mixture of resignation and self-congratulation.

Many of us have convinced ourselves that our decline as a religious community is primarily due to a failure on the part of the wider culture. They have failed to understand us! This is the way religious movements end: With us – the religious insiders – dismissing and feeling superior to those on the outside – the very people that Jesus teaches us to seek out!

I long to be part of a community that is radically engaged with our pluralistic, post-Christian society, ready to speak the truth in love while at the same time listening deeply and understanding the concerns and conditions of our historical moment. I want to break the artifacts of our faith out of their display cases and see how we can adapt them to our present circumstances.

I am grateful that our spiritual ancestors were able to find a living relationship with Jesus Christ in centuries past – but we cannot benefit from their example by simply mimicking them and repeating their words by rote. What we need now are not the forms of the past – all our structures, processes, vestments, liturgies and worship styles. We need the Spirit that inspired them in the first place! All of our time-tested religious traditions are useful when they teach us to walk more faithfully in the Spirit’s teaching – but they cannot substitute for the living presence of the Holy Spirit here and now.

What does it look like to radically engage with our surrounding culture, neither condemning the world nor accepting wholesale its assumptions? How can we discern when we are being called to adapt our religious practice to better share the good news of Jesus in this new culture that we live in? How can we honor the Spirit that inspired our religious forebears while avoiding the false safety of human absolutes that keep us cut off from the living work of Christ in our midst? What would it mean for us to lay everything at Jesus’ feet, allowing him to guide us in what we picked back up?

Are You a Pastor?

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. – 1 Peter 5:2-3
Much of my work recently at Occupy DC has been related to the ecumenical Christian presence at McPherson Square. As I have been engaged in this publicly Christian effort, folks have often asked me whether I am a pastor.
I struggle with how to answer this question. What do people mean when they say, “pastor”? Do they want to know if I am a “professional Christian”? A member of the “clergy”?(1) An authority figure in my congregation? A certified graduate of a divinity school? It feels hard to answer this question authentically without engaging in a long discussion, so I usually dodge the question with a response like, “I’m a church planter.” Yet, I remain unsatisfied with this answer. The mainstream Church has a very particular set of boxes that it puts ministry into, and it is a challenge to live into ministry that does not fall neatly within the predominant model.
Lately, I have been doing a lot of soul-searching about what God is calling me to in my work with Capitol Hill Friends. I need to learn to better explain the broader conception of ministry found among Quakers. If we do not embrace the mainstream Protestant model of pulpit ministry, then what alternative are we modeling?
Over the course of centuries, the word “pastor” has come to signify a very narrow vision of church leadership. “Pastor” has become synonymous with positional leadership, institutional authority, one-sided lecturing and monarchical control. At its worst, the pastoral system can usurp Christ’s role, getting between us and our true leader.
But this has not always been so. The word “pastor” is a translation of the Greek word poimen, which means “shepherd.” Throughout the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, God is referred to as a shepherd, caring for the flock. God is imaged as a strong, gentle caretaker; a loving herdsman who watches tenderly over his sheep.
Jesus declared that he is the good shepherd. He cares diligently for us, and we – his sheep – know his voice.(2) Jesus has taught us to model ourselves after him, becoming caretakers of one another. If we love Jesus, we will feed his sheep.(3) This is a responsibility for all of us, not just a small group of “clergy.”
I have never thought of myself as a pastor in the popular sense of the word. I have a tough time with the idea being the one man in the whole local congregation who is charged with preaching, teaching, visiting with people and providing leadership for the church. I believe this model to be damaging to the congregation, teaching them to look to a human leader rather than Christ’s immediate presence in our midst. I believe that the “head pastor” model can create a dynamic of dependency and spiritual sloth.
Not only can the pastoral system set up an unhealthy dynamic within the congregation, but it is also frequently unhealthy for the pastor herself. It is unfair to put the spiritual burdens of the entire congregation onto one person. Only Jesus can carry that load.
Despite my skepticism of the pastoral system, I am convinced that God is calling me to be a shepherd to this little flock. Just one shepherd of many, but a shepherd nonetheless. I feel inadequate to the task in many ways. I feel that I lack many of the gifts that are so important to good shepherds – especially patience. I know that I cannot be a shepherd alone, because the church needs far more gifts than God has gifted me with. Nevertheless, I will share the gifts that I have. With the Lord’s blessing and assistance, I will do my best to be a shepherd to God’s people.
I pray that God will continue to raise up shepherds for his people. If God can use me for this work, I am convinced that the Lord can use anyone he calls: Women and men, aware of our weakness and inadequacy, nonetheless called into the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Working side by side, we can become co-laborers with our head shepherd, Jesus.
1. Can someone provide a scriptural basis for the “clergy/laity” distinction?
2. John 10:11
3. John 21:15-17

The Word is Near to You

But what [do the Scriptures] say? “The word is near to you, on your lips and in your heart.” – Romans 10:8

Last night I attended a Bible study in Congress Heights. Those in attendance were from different Christian backgrounds. Besides me, there was a Methodist, a person who grew up in Baltimore Yearly Meeting and is now attending a Roman Catholic church, as well as several people who are members of a local Churches of Christ congregation, including their pastor. This evening, the pastor was leading our Bible study.

At the previous Bible study, I had gotten into a fairly lively discussion with the pastor about the role of Scripture in relation toMy Bible the role of the Holy Spirit, the scriptural basis of women in ministry, and other rather intense topics that should not be discussed over dinner. So, I braced myself when the pastor announced that our study that evening would be on the authority of Scripture.

He guided us through about a dozen Bible verses from the New Testament, explaining the scriptural basis for the supremacy of the Bible as the rule for Christian life. In his understanding, the Bible – the Old and New Testaments together – is the written Word of God. As a Quaker, my understanding of the role of Scripture is different from his, and I struggled with how to engage with his (and his fellow churchgoers’) understanding of the Bible.

In my reading of Scripture, I see the term “word of God” used in two ways. First, it is used as a name for the Son of God, JesusImage of Jesus Christ on Reformation Lutheran church building, Capitol Hill, DC Christ, who is the creative force behind the universe (For examples, see Revelation 19:13; John 1; 1 John 1:1-3). Most Christians – including my brothers and sisters at the Bible study – would not deny that Jesus is the Word of God. They can read the plain meaning of Scripture just as easily as I can, and it’s hard to deny the textual evidence for giving this title to Jesus, the creative power behind all of creation.

But there is indeed another sense in which the term “word” is used in Scripture. The Word of God can, without a doubt, mean Jesus; but it is also used to mean the commands and teaching of God. A prime example of this usage of “the word” is found in the Torah, one of the foundational texts of Judaism (and, by extension, Christianity):

Surely this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. – Deuteronomy 30:11-14

In this passage, Moses explains that the commands that the Hebrews have received from God are not simply a code ofHebrew Scriptures regulations that are written down on scrolls. On the contrary, God’s law and teaching are available to every person and every community. The teaching of God is not a once-and-for-all event; instead, God continues to guide each one of us through the power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and in our midst as the Church. The Word of God never changes – Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8) – but we, God’s people, do change. Our needs change; our context changes; our challenges are different from day to day. God, in great mercy and compassion, continues to walk beside us and show us how to live in our present context.

The apostle Paul remarked on this phenomenon of Christ’s direct guidance within the human heart, pointing out that following God is possible without having any knowledge of the Scriptures or of the Christian tradition. He explained, “When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law unto themselves. They show what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness…” (Romans 2:14-15). Though the Scriptures and the Judeo-Christian tradition are of great help in walking in the Way of Jesus, the ultimate foundation of our faith and life in Christ is our inward experience of Christ’s presence, God’s law written on our hearts.

I was saddened to hear one of the members of our Bible study say that she was envious of the people she read about in the OldEden Testament, who had full access to God. Adam and Eve walked and talked with God in Eden, and Abraham and Moses had regular conversations with the Almighty. She wished she had a similar “direct line” to God. How I longed for her to experience the living presence of God today, and that continual, personal relationship that each of us can have with our Creator! I wondered whether her church’s teaching that the Bible is the “written Word of God,” presented a stumbling block to her having that kind of intimate, direct relationship with Christ. How could it not be a barrier to have your religious community tell you time and time again that all connection with God must be mediated through the Scriptures?

I struggle with how to communicate the centrality of Christ’s inward presence with my non-Quaker brothers and sisters. The Scriptures are very precious to me, and I would never want to denigrate their usefulness in helping us grow in our relationship with Jesus. Nevertheless, I question this over-emphasis on the perfection, completeness and God-like authority of the Scriptures. I fear that many of my brothers and sisters risk losing sight of the supremacy of Jesus Christ, the Living Word, and substituting a dead letter – “holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5).

I pray that we discover the living, inward presence of Christ, so that we can say with Paul: “…I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is theLiving the Word power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith…” (Romans 1:16). The true gospel is not merely the words that have been written under divine inspiration; Jesus and his gospel cannot be fully captured by any text (see John 21:25).

Rather than seeking to assure ourselves that we have pinned Christ down, let us humbly confess that we understand now only in part, but that as we continue to be led by the Holy Spirit we will be brought into the fullness of Christ’s Kingdom (1 Corinthians 13:12). I pray that the eternal, living gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ may come to you, “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction…” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).

TransFORM East Coast Gathering in DC

I had the opportunity this weekend to participate in a gathering of emergent church leaders TransFORM East Coast Gathering in DC– folks who are involved in or seek to be involved in planting missional, emergent faith communities rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus.  I was able to hear speakers such as Brian McLaren, Peter Rollins, Kathy Escobar and Anthony Smith. I also attended workshops on Christian ecology; turning Jesus’ teachings into living practice as a community; developing new Christian communities alongside more traditional congregations; and a discussion on the way forward for Christians who are neither willing to exclude queer folk from the Church, nor downplay our respect for Scripture. Finally, and most importantly, I was privileged to connect with folks from all over the country, including quite a few from my neck of the woods.

The most spiritually-charged and powerful moment for me this weekend was Friday evening, when we gathered to hear Peter Peter RollinsCollins preach.  He spoke to us about the importance of doubt in our walk with God. Rollins observed that Christ himself cried out in doubt on the cross, and he emphasized the need to release our comforting beliefs and sense of identity, because they in fact separate us from God. God is Truth, not our limited and self-serving conceptions; the Truth – as terrifying and incomprehensible as it can be – must be a the center of our life in Christ. To place our own beliefs and desires at the center is to replace God with an idol, and to dodge the suffering of the cross, which we as Christians are called to bear with our Lord.

Peter Rollins believes that our worship together should reflect the “dark nights of the soul” – our times of spiritual despair, doubt, and sense of separation from God. Our corporate worship can tend to focus exclusively on our experiences of assurance and connection with God; but Rollins encouraged us to consider the role that acknowledgement of suffering, darkness and doubt might play in our shared life as church communities.

To give us a taste of what this might look like, Rollins asked Vince Anderson and Amy Moffitt to perform a song from the Ikon communityMusic in Ireland, where Rollins serves. It was a hymn of darkness, despair, loss and doubt. To be honest, it made me feel very uncomfortable. As the hymn came to a close, though, something remarkable happened. The Holy Spirit descended on us, and the entire gathered assembly was still and silent, hushed with awe. This was a clapping group, which normally gave applause after every event – but after this hymn, no one moved.

The awed silence was broken after a short while by the facilitator, wanting to move us along in our evening program. I felt grieved that the work of the Holy Spirit was being brushed aside. Others certainly felt this way, too. A man rose from the audience, interrupting our facilitator, “Thy kingdom came!” I heard voices say, “Amen!” The man continued to address the facilitator, “can we acknowledge the grace of God among us for a moment?” After perhaps a minute more of silent reverence before God, the facilitator again took up the schedule.

When we were dismissed a few minutes later, a young woman rose from the audience, interrupting folks as they greeted oneTransform another. She invited anyone who wanted to pray to join her at the front of the sanctuary where we were gathered. Faith and I immediately rose and followed her to the raised area at the front of the room. Five of us gathered in a circle while the rest of the group socialized and made their way out of the building. We took turns praying aloud as we were led. Praying for the gathering; that God to continue to pour out the Holy Spirit on us; asking forgiveness for the way in which we had turned away God’s presence from our midst. I feel so grateful for the way in which a few of us were drawn together in the Spirit in that moment to cry out to God and intercede for the Church.

I am in awe of how I see God at work in the wider Church, despite our failure to fully embrace the Spirit’s work in our midst.  I feel grateful for the connections that I have made this weekend with other followers of Jesus, both here in the DC area and acrossBrian McLaren addresses us North America. I had never been exposed to the emergent church movement before, having focused almost all of my attention on the Quaker community in the years since I became a Christian. As a result of this gathering, I feel energized to engage with emergent Protestants; both to learn from them and their experiences as disciples, and also to share with them the rich heritage of Quakerism, which informs my own walk with Christ. Together, I believe we can grow into more faithful friends of Jesus.

A few relevant links:

The New Quaker Monasticism and Liturgy

This Ash Wednesday, a few friends and I got together to observe the beginning of Lent. We shared a meal, and then we read the lectionary scripture for the day and settled into waiting worship. After worship had broken, we walked together over to St. Mark’s Episcopal church to attend their service. For me, the Episcopal service was at once foreign and familiar.

Several years ago, while in seminary at Earlham School of Religion, I lived as part of a new monastic community called Renaissance House. We lived together in a big, dilapidated mansion in the once-prosperous Starr District of Richmond, Indiana. We hosted public dinners three times a week where all were invited, and which were frequented by the mentally ill, the very poor, college professors, entrepreneurs, drug addicts, seminary and college students, and neighborhood kids. We lived off the land, dumpster diving for food and foraging for wasted wood and fallen trees to heat the house. We prayed together as a community four times a day.

As we explored what it meant to be a worshipping community, we visited a nearby Roman Catholic monastic community, the Sisters of St. Francis, in Oldenburg, Indiana. One of the surprising things we learned was that we at Renaissance House did a lot more corporate prayer than the “real” monastics did. We gathered for worship before breakfast (Matins), at noon (Sext), before dinner (Vespers) and in the late evening before bed (Compline). We prayed liturgy out of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, we sang, and we read the Scriptures aloud.

Because I had come to Christianity in the Quaker tradition, this form of worship was new and somewhat strange for me. I did not know quite what to make of spoken liturgy, especially because the Friends tradition that I was being steeped in put a high value on extemporaneous, “Spirit-led” prayer and vocal ministry. To have our prayers “scripted” seemed questionable. Despite my reservations about the details of our worship, I felt very committed to the worshipping community at Renaissance House. I believed in our way of life as a Christian brotherhood. I believed that our ministry to the neighborhood and wider community was meaningful; that we were truly “being the Church” in that time and place.

My experience at St. Mark’s this Wednesday surprised me. First of all, it became clear to me that Renaissance House was an Episcopal-inspired new monastic community. Having the chance to participate in a more formal Episcopalian service, I saw how almost all of our practice at Renaissance House was based in that tradition. Second of all, and far more shocking to me, I realized that I missed the liturgy. I missed the corporate recitation of the Psalms. I missed the congregational call and response. I missed the corporate confession of past failure, and repentance from sin. I missed the discomfort of being asked to say things that I would not normally say.

Recognizing that spoken liturgy has meaning for me, I feel the need to reflect on how this relates to my distinctively Quaker interpretation of my faith. I know that the early Friends rejected precisely the form of worship that I am now finding compelling. And I feel like I understand why they did. When the Quaker movement was emerging in the middle of the 17th century, the Church of England (now known as Episcopalian in the United States) was an oppressive force that demanded submission to an array of priestly codes, and which made the Gospel something that had to be mediated through educated, humanly authorized clergy. I affirm the early Friends’ rejection of human-based authority and the idolatry of Scripture and ritual.

But the early Friends did not merely leave the “apostate” Church of England and take up a revised liturgy on their own. They did away with the liturgy, with pre-arranged congregational singing, Scripture-reading and prepared sermons. They insisted that for worship to be conducted “in Spirit and in Truth,” there could be no pre-arrangement. True worship was when God was waited upon and women and men preached out of a sense of immediate leading by the Holy Spirit. The liturgy was a dead letter imposed by the human mind, but the Spirit gave life.

I think that this may have been the right answer for the early Friends. This first generation of Quakers had been filled to the brim with ceremony, liturgy, singing and Scripture. From their earliest childhood, the tradition of the Church was inculcated in them. The liturgy was practically in their DNA! The early Friends already knew the Scriptures, the creeds and the hymns of the Church by heart before they broke away from the deadening ritual and hierarchy that fallen humans had employed to take the Gospel captive. The early Friends rejected the abuses of Scripture, music and liturgy – but they retained full knowledge and use of them as they gathered to wait on the Lord.

More recent generations of Friends have not been as fortunate. We have been raised without as rich a sense of the tradition of the Church: without a corporate knowledge of our hymns; and without a regular corporate confession of our faith, our recognition of sin, and repentance. Many of us have lost even a basic awareness of the Scriptures.

Given our present context and condition, I wonder whether some form of liturgy might not be a good thing for Friends. What is the balance between us waiting on Christ to lead us in every step and us taking initiative to respond to Christ’s call?  What would be a Quaker way of doing liturgy?

Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #8

Dear brothers and sisters in Truth,

My travels among Friends this summer are now underway as Faith and I visit Eastern Region Yearly Meeting at their annual sessions in Canton, Ohio. It might be fair to say that Eastern Region Yearly Meeting is the flagship of Evangelical Friends Church in North America. Eastern Region (formerly Ohio Yearly Meeting [Damascus]) was the only one of the Orthodox Yearly Meetings to decline membership in the Five Years Meeting (now Friends United Meeting) when it was formed in 1902. Eastern Region felt that FYM’s statements of faith were not sufficently Evangelical. They were certainly uncomfortable with some aspects of FYM’s corporate statement of faith – the Richmond Declaration – which denied the use of outward signs of sacrament, such as water baptism and bread and wine communion. Since the late 19th century, Eastern Region has held that there should be “freedom of conscience” with regard to outward signs of sacrament. Since the 19th century, some churches in Eastern Region have celebrated these rituals, but they are optional: No one is required to be baptized with water or partake in bread and wine communion in order to be a member of the Friends Church.

Over time, a number of other North American Yearly Meetings became disaffected with the insufficiently Evangelical stance of the Five Years Meeting. Oregon (now Northwest) Yearly Meeting broke away from FYM in the 1926 after FYM would not acknowledge the Richmond Declaration as a creed. Kansas (now Mid-America) Yearly Meeting withdrew in 1937, and most of Nebraska Yearly Meeting‘s monthly meetings withdrew and formed Rocky Mountain Yearly Meeting in 1957. Evangelical Friends Alliance (now Evangelical Friends Church) was formed in 1965, and Evangelical Friends Church in North America now includes Southwest Yearly Meeting (formerly California) and Alaska Yearly Meeting.

But Eastern Region is the original. Here, ever since the Revival experience of the mid-1800s, Friends have greatly emphasized the tradition of Evangelical Protestantism, often at the expense of Friends heritage. The attitude among Friends in Eastern Region might be described as: “hold onto what is essential, jettison everything else.” And for most Friends in Eastern Region, what is essential is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, fidelity to the Bible as the Word of God, and an actively missional stance in the wider world (see Matthew 28:19-20). And, by and large, the Evangelical Protestant tradition has all of these things.

The Friends tradition, except as it directly supports these three emphases, is not seen by most Friends in Eastern Region as being necessary. It is worth noting that the Friends tradition is often referred to as “Friends distinctives” by members of Evangelical Friends Church: They are the things that make Friends “distinctive” from other Evangelical Protestants. But the Evangelical Protestant tradition – the story of Luther and Wesley – is normative. As a Yearly Meeting, Eastern Region is Protestant first, Quaker second – if at all. It is worth noting that most Friends here do not identify as “Quaker,” as that word is associated with liberal, non-Bible-based Friends branches. Friends here are very careful to distinguish between the Friends Church and Quakers.

Attending Eastern Region Yearly Meeting has been a “cultural experience” for me on a variety of levels. The first worship service I attended was a three-and-a-half-hour-long Spanish-language service. There were around 200 Spanish-speaking Friends in attendence to hear many individuals and groups perform music, to sing congregationally, and to hear a number of speakers, including a guest preacher who spoke for around an hour. He was an impressive orator who alternated between stand-up comedy and fire-and-brimstone screaming. Just when I thought I couldn’t take any more warning and judgment, he made us laugh. I enjoyed seeing the vibrancy of the Spanish-language Friends at Eastern Region, though I was a bit concerned at how segregated the Spanish-language and English-language sub-Yearly Meetings were. Most of the Spanish-speakers only stayed for the weekend, leaving the English-speakers to do Eastern Region’s business on Monday and Tuesday. It was as if there were two Yearly Meetings, and the English-language Yearly Meeting was where the business was done.

The English-language portion of the Yearly Meeting was just as much a cultural experience. The worship services were made up of three primary elements: Congregational singing; performing artists (from Hungarian Gypsy musicians to a teeny-bop Christian rock band); and preaching. Friends applauded after most of the songs and sermons, and there were rarely even a few seconds of silence between events. I had difficulty with how prepared and managed everything felt; and the congregational singing and preaching was often triumphalist in nature.

Another challenge for me was the almost exclusively male leadership of the Yearly Meeting. Eastern Region has no female senior pastors. One younger Friend who I spoke to said that she had female Friends who had left the Friends Church to join the Mennonites in order to be able to engage in pastoral ministry. They did not feel that they could do so in Eastern Region. It was noteworthy that this year the Yearly Meeting recorded one of their long-time missionaries as a minister of the gospel – but not his wife, who has been co-missionary with him for decades. No one publicly questioned why this should be so. Throughout the time here at Yearly Meeting, I have heard statements that underscored the role of women in Eastern Region: For example, when one leader prayed that God would, “raise up new missionaries and missionaries’ wives.”

Another thing that I must mention is that Eastern Region Friends vote. I had known this before I arrived, but knowing that Friends in this Yearly Meeting vote could not entirely prevent me from having my breath taken away when I first witnessed it. Most of Eastern Region’s business is done without discussion: A report is presented and approved (they say “favor” to indicate approval). However, a vote is taken on “motions” – that is, on any action item.

Voting seems to be especially important for cases when there is a question from the floor about the decisions that the leadership has presented to the body. The only vote where I heard any “noes” came after one individual questioned whether it was in right order to freeze for the coming year the Yearly Meeting’s “minimum wage” for pastoral ministers. After this man had spoken, the clerk called for a vote on the matter without hearing further discussion. The vote was taken by voice, and I would guess that it passed by a margin of at least ten to one. It seems that voting in this particular case served the function of allowing some Friends to “stand aside” on the decision. But I was disturbed that no time was given to discernment of the matter; Friends were not encouraged to wait on God to provide further guidance. There was a schedule, and Friends intended to get on with it – so a quick vote took care of the voice of dissention.

Eastern Region had its good points, of course. I was impressed with the fact that the Yearly Meeting took half a day to do service projects in the community. I went with a team of Friends that weeded the grounds of a local Jewish community center, and a dozen other teams served the local community in many other ways. One team visited a man in very poor health and cleaned up his yard. Another team visited the local fire station that had just lost a fireman and cleaned their vehicles and prayed with them. Yet another team worked with children. I thought that many Friends could learn from Eastern Region’s very practical service orientation.

I was also deeply impressed by Eastern Region’s cross-cultural emphasis. While I am concerned by the de facto segregation of the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking sections of the Yearly Meeting, I am very excited about the development of that relationship. Eastern Region also has a Chinese-language congregation, and “ethnic ministry” is a stated emphasis of the Yearly Meeting. I am excited to see how greater partnership might develop between Friends of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Eastern Region bears witness to Friends’ Testimony of Unity: to the power of Christ’s Spirit to unite us across cultural, class, and linguistic barriers.

The emphasis at Eastern Region is on church-growth, foreign missions, and Evangelical Protestant theology based in the authority of Scripture as the Word of God. I did not detect much interest in engaging with other (non-Evangelical) Friends. Nevertheless, I believe that Friends would do well to reach out to Eastern Region Yearly Meeting, inviting them to share fellowship with the wider Religious Society of Friends. Despite our doctrinal differences, we are all children of one Heavenly Father, and we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. I pray that the Holy Spirit will permeate all of the churches of Eastern Region Yearly Meeting and that Friends will be responsive to the Inward Light of Christ as it seeks to lead them in His Way.

This coming week, Faith and I will be visiting Northwest Yearly Meeting, also a part of Evangelical Friends Church. I was blessed to visit Northwest Yearly Meeting last year, along with Tyler Hampton, and I am looking forward to being among Friends there again.

I pray that the Spirit of Christ is richly dwelling in each of you, leading you in the way of truth and mercy, justice and love.

Your friend in the Way of Jesus,

Micah Bales

Shane Claiborne comes to Wichita

The Church in Wichita was honored to receive Shane Claiborne, a fellow laborer from Philadelphia, who is a prominent voice in the New Monastic movement and an inspiration for many people – especially young Evangelical Christians – who are tired of “business as usual” in the Church and who long for a more radical call to discipleship in the Way of Jesus. Claiborne came to Wichita as a part of a larger speaking tour, during which he visited several Kansas communities. In Wichita, he spoke at Eastminster Presbyterian Church to a largely Evangelical audience. Claiborne preaches a message of unity within the church and between Protestant denominations, the Roman Catholic Church, and other branches of Christianity. He says that he and those in his community seek a renewal in the Church, not a continuation of the centuries of divisions that created the modern face of the Western church.

Claiborne especially highlighted the obligation of Christians (or “Christ-followers”) to work for social justice. He says that, “one of the signs of the early Church was ending poverty” (see Acts 4:34). Claiborne’s inclusive message stresses the importance of working with those whom we do not fully agree with – theologically or otherwise – so that together we might be about the work of the Kingdom of God. Hospitality to our brothers and sisters is critical to Claiborne’s understanding of the gospel. In particular, Claiborne preaches a Christ-like solidarity with those who are most shunned and despised by our society, such as the homeless, the addict, the physically and mentally infirm, and the poor. It is not enough to give charity, we must be an incarnational community; we are called to live and work among the poor. Flowing naturally from this loving concern for all of God’s children, Claiborne was explicit that the Way of Jesus is the way of nonviolence: War and oppression are incompatible with the Christian life.

I was impressed with Claiborne’s message, especially in that he combined a fidelity to orthodoxy (right belief) with a commitment to orthopraxy (right practice). Claiborne affirms the creeds of Roman and Protestant Christianity, but he insists that mere belief in Christ is not sufficient – we must strive to be like Christ in our lives. Love, mercy and humility are the key ingredients of our walk in the Way of Jesus; if our way of living does not give testimony to our belief in the person of Jesus, our intellectual assent to church doctrine is meaningless. As Claiborne put it: “You can have all the right answers and still be mean.”

One disappointment that I had with Claiborne’s presentation that day was that he did not explicitly direct his hearers to the Inward Teacher, Christ in us. During the question-and-answer session, several individuals stood and asked questions of Claiborne: they wanted to know how they were to live this radical life of discipleship that Claiborne had been talking about. It felt like they were looking for a technique, a set of steps to follow, a rule to walk by. Claiborne did well in that he did not claim to have the answers; he made it clear that he was living out of his own experience and in his own context and that each of us must determine what is right in our own situation. But I wish that he had taken it a step further, directing his audience to seek guidance from the immediate presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst and in our hearts. I wish he had said, “I can’t tell you what the next step is for you – but Jesus Christ can, and he’s ready to lead you if you get still and listen within your heart for his voice.” It is clear to me that Claiborne himself practices this inward listening; it was implicit in everything he said. I just wish he had made it explicit for his audience, many of whom may never have heard of such a concept.