By J. Brent Bill
The Google Alerts headline read: “£500,000 in a week to save Quakers.” I’m no foreign exchange rate whiz, but by what I know about the British pound and the American dollar, I figured that meant around $800,000. I emailed the headline to a Friend, followed by the comment, “That much money would go a long way toward saving us.”
She quickly fired back, “You really think so? How?” amazed by my naiveté.
I have to admit that I knew, even from the cryptic headline, that the £500,000 wasn’t being raised to save the Society of Friends, nor do I think $800,000 — or even $8 million — would save Friends. By clicking the link I learned it was, instead, about saving the 129-year-old Darlington Quakers football (soccer) team from going under.
But over my years as a Quaker minister and retreat leader, I have heard a lot of talk that indicates many Friends think along these lines: “If we just had more money”; “If we just had more people.” Sometimes the two are combined: “If we just had more people, we wouldn’t have these money woes.” “If we had more money, we could attract more people.” Rarely do I hear anyone say, “If we were just deeper spiritually,” “If we prayed more,” “If we really fed the people who are here …”
I also hear and see a number of Friends churches and meetings that believe finding the right program or “best practice” will help revitalize them. It’s not that I’m against doing things to help revitalize our congregations. I lead retreats on revitalization, and I’ve even written my ideas about such things in blogs and in my booklet, “A Modest Proposal.” From Natural Church Development to “40 Days of Purpose” to whatever the latest offering a publisher or consultant (even me) has, all are fine and good. But alone they will not revitalize our congregations.
Instead, I firmly believe that unless we go deeply into the questions that we rarely ask, all programs, all rearrangements of furniture or bulletins, all marketing plans and so forth are in vain.
So, What’s the Question?
Growing up in what is now Evangelical Friends Church-Eastern Region, I used to hear: “Christ is the answer.” My smart-aleck teenage friends and I would look at each other and mouth silently, “What’s the question?”
What’s the question indeed, if Christ is the answer? I believe the question for our congregations is: “What is Christ wanting us to do with this people, in this place, at this time?”
Too much of our communal energy is spent answering questions that have no “Jesus factor.” “What new program should we try?” “How can we attract more people?” “What are the Baptists (Methodists, Nazarenes, Unitarians, Brethren, mega-churches) down the street doing that we could try?” Those things imply that life comes from outside and is purely numerical.
But for a congregation, life and growth is so much more than numerical. If life and growth are not primarily spiritual, then nothing else really matters, because it just won’t work.
In John 21, Jesus and Peter have an encounter on the seashore. It’s after the Resurrection and Jesus asks Peter three times (interesting in light of Peter’s thrice repeated denials of Jesus earlier) whether Peter loves him. “Yes,” Peter says, answering more emphatically each time. And each time Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.”
The Christ who is the answer asks our congregations today, “Do you love me?” Then, if we respond that we do, he says to feed his sheep. Spiritual life and growth come from feeding the sheep God has gathered, and then trusting God to bring any others to us who need to be fed.
That’s why the query: “What is Christ wanting us to do with this people, in this place, at this time?” is crucial for each congregation to ask. Existing congregations have already been gathered by God in a particular place at this particular time. So what does God want us (the congregation) to do with:
This people — those who regularly attend, those who once attended but have dropped away, those on our membership rolls, children of attendees, etc.
This place — the building, the grounds, the rooms we have that groups could use, our city or town or rural neighborhood.
This time — now. 2012. Not 10 years from now. Not five years from now. Not 30 years ago. But now.
Worship: The Heart of the Matter
The answers to the question above can only come out of the interior life of a deep, worshiping community, where attendees are both fed and feed each other.
For Quakers, I believe that means that we need to recover the understanding of the role of silence in our gatherings for worship. Preaching is fine. Singing creates a wonderful communal bond when our voices are lifted in song. But the Friends understanding of worship is deeper than preaching or singing or Bible reading or communal prayer. A Friends’ worshiping community, if it wants to be truly fed, needs to be sacramentally present to Christ, the Good Shepherd.
The only thing I can compare it to is the Catholic belief that in the “celebration of Mass … Christ is really present through Holy Communion to the assembly gathered in his name.” It should be the same way with silence for Quakers, believing that Christ is actually present without a host to elevate or priest to preside.
Our singing, preaching, Bible reading and other parts of worship should lead us together to the place where our hearts, minds and souls are still, and we wait expectantly in holy silence for the presence of Christ to come among us. In such holy hushes, where outer and inner noise ceases, we become a gathered meeting — gathered together and with Jesus. We sense him in the electrified air. We feel charged with an awareness of the miraculous; the marrow of our bones will hum in holy recognition of the One who stood at the dawn of creation and called the world into being.
Such an expectation of the presence of Christ among us changes worship. Instead of going through the motions of our weekly hour together, we can feel the first chapter of John’s gospel come to life: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
If our worship recovers this goal of really experiencing Christ among us, we will be changed people. We will find a true Sabbath, one free from noise and busyness as we worship and are fed. We will find power to live as the individuals and community God calls us to be at this time and in this place.
Worship bathed in the attitude that we are gathered to be quiet before the Lord, whether outward words are spoken, prayers offered, music is played or we are entirely unprogrammed, is a Meeting for Worship where God can work a way into the deepest parts of our hearts and out to our fingers and toes and noses. We will then rise, feeling fed and prepared to go out and feed God’s other sheep.
The Same Spirit
“The Lord had said unto me that if but one man or woman were raised by His power to stand and live in the same Spirit that the prophets and apostles were in who gave forth the Scriptures, that man or woman should shake all the country in their profession for ten miles round.”
George Fox said that over 300 years ago. If we’re really concerned about revitalization, we need to look at a key phrase: “stand and live in the same Spirit that the prophets and apostles were in.” God’s Spirit moving and working in and among us is at the core of spiritual vitality.
That’s the message we Friends need to hear. No amount of tinkering with worship (contemporary, traditional, blended, programmed, unprogrammed), marketing or new programs is going to achieve growth (especially numeric) if our congregations are not spiritually alive. People, especially people seeking a real experience of God, are drawn to life. A congregation with a deep spiritual life will draw the people who need to be there — who God wants there — unto itself.
We need relevant programs and outreach to let people know where we are so they can experience God’s life-giving power. But if our lives as Friends congregations do not match our programming or advertising, visitors will not be seen again.
If we do come to “stand and live in the same Spirit that the prophets and apostles were in,” then we will shake ourselves and our communities. Perhaps not with huge influxes of people, but by fully growing into the people of faith that God calls us to be, with these people, in this place, at this time. We will be faithful to Jesus’ command to feed his sheep.
By the way, there are no six easy (or otherwise) steps to revitalization. And it appears that local fans and businessmen who believe in the Darlington Quakers football squad raised the necessary funds to keep their team alive. Will we raise the spiritual capital we need to do the same?
J. Brent Bill is a Quaker minister, author and retreat leader who lives in Mooresville, Indiana. His most recent publication is Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God.