Not too long after becoming a Quaker, I remember hearing an inspiring story. I was told that there was once a Friends Meeting that had at once been a vibrant community. The meetinghouse was built to hold several hundred people, and at some point – perhaps a hundred years ago – it had been filled to overflowing.
But times changed. For a variety of reasons, the community shrank dramatically, and by the turn of this century, there were only a few elderly members left. Finally, even these last few members died or moved away to retirement communities, leaving only a single old man as an active member!
Not so inspiring, huh? But wait – there’s more! While most people would have given up and found somewhere else to worship, the last remaining member of this Meeting made a different choice. Rather than joining some other community, he just kept on attending, all by himself. Each week, he drove down to the meetinghouse, opened up the doors and sat for an hour of silent worship. Alone.
Here’s the inspiring part: After a while, things began to change. Week after week, the last elderly member of this Friends Meeting sat alone on the facing bench, holding a silent vigil, but one Sunday morning, a young family arrived. They appreciated the hour of silence, a respite from their busy lives. To the old man’s surprise, the family came back the next week. And the next. Somehow the word seemed to get out about this little meetinghouse and its unique style of silent worship. Soon, there were several families and individuals attending.
The triumphant conclusion of the story, as I remember it, is this: Today, the meeting has thirty or forty attenders, and is an active part of the Yearly Meeting.
I don’t know how this story strikes you, but when it was first told to me, I found it encouraging. All around me, I saw Quaker churches dwindling down to fewer than a dozen participants, low on energy, enthusiasm and hope. But that did not have to be the end! This story taught me that one faithful person, resolute in trust and commitment, could hold the space and encourage the restoration of the community.
This story especially encouraged me because it fit into the narrative that I was already learning as a new Quaker. The idea of the Religious Society of Friends as being a faithful remnant is widespread, especially among the more traditionalist Friends that I was running with. In the faithful remnant conception, our job is to remain true to the tradition, even if it means apparent decline. If our communities are struggling, it must be a problem with our faith – or, more likely, with the world! – certainly not with our traditions.
I have heard the story of the old man and the meetinghouse on several occasions, in slightly different forms, and I have come to wonder to what extent this story is based in fact. Does it simply reflect the collective wish-fulfillment of an entire extended community that has not experienced real growth in centuries? Whether or not it is based in fact, I am increasingly convinced that this story is a false one, and that the remnant theory is holding us back from the becoming the people that God is calling us to be.
The reality is, for every church that experiences revival after dwindling down to a handful of members, many more congregations simply die off. I watched this happen before my eyes during the three years I lived in Indiana. Friends churches were dropping like flies in the summer heat. Across the developed world, most of our congregations are caught in a death-spiral of declining participation and a sense of stuck-ness that we seem unable to pull ourselves out of.
In times like these, one stubborn old man opening up the meetinghouse is the last thing we need! Even less do we need fading communities of entrenched Quakers who value the imagined glories of ancient Quakerism more than the new and living opportunities that God is calling us to in this very moment.
To be clear, I am not equating numerical growth with faithfulness. The size of our communities will vary, and some communities are undoubtedly intended to be smaller than others. But no one I know believes that most of our Quaker communities today are in a healthy place. We could become small and fruitful – but God does indeed expect us to bear fruit!
I do not say any of this out of disdain for the many thousands who are stuck in this place; I am, myself, a recovering stubborn Quaker. What I needed – and what I believe many of us still need – is a wake-up call. Our dogged commitment to the old forms and specialized vocabularies of sectarian Quakerism is not serving us well – and it serves our neighbors even less.
Our world is crying out for us to emerge from the meetinghouse and engage with our towns and cities as they are, not as we wish they were. If we are to be disciples of Jesus – imitating his love, grace and truth – we have to go where the people are, especially those people who are least likely to feel welcomed by our pious forms and churchy words.
How do we change the story? What if we imagine instead that the old man shuts the doors of the meetinghouse and goes to join a neighboring church that is engaged in ministry to the poor? Or maybe he doesn’t leave at all – but he starts reaching out to his neighbors proactively, seeing what the real needs are in his community. Perhaps the Quaker Meeting becomes something very different than he ever imagined it could be.
There are probably hundreds of alternative scenarios in which the lone member of this imaginary Friends Meeting goes out into the world to bless others and make disciples. All of these scenarios require radical change on the part of this last Quaker standing. And this is good news.