Growth and the Society of Friends

[Something along these lines was given me to share at Meeting for Worship on Saturday, April 27 at the Representative Body gathering of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative.) Often, when I have shared, I can sit down with the feeling that I have discharged the burden. This isn’t one of those times. The message would not leave me alone, and I found that I needed to  develop it further. So here it is, after another week’s work in thought, meditation, prayer, research, note-taking, etc.]

The subject of growth and decline is a common one among Quakers. I have heard Friends moan for as long as I have been a member about declining numbers, meetings being laid down, and so forth.

Most of the time, I find these statements to be sincere but misguided.

Let’s begin with the Society of Friends itself, and the nature of our testimony and mission in the world. (I’m not foolish enough to try to define “nature of our testimony and mission in the world” in one short blog post. I’m going to assume some familiarity with that among my readers, or at least a willingness to Google it and read an article or two on the Net.) What we represent, and especially our foundational declaration of that Light which enlightens all humanity, may have universal applicability, but does not have universal appeal. We may believe that there is that of God in everyone, but not everyone rejoices to hear this.

There are those who could care less about religion or spirituality. A lot of them. I won’t venture to propose a percentage, but if we were slicing a pie, it would be a big slice. So set that number off to the side.

Then there are people who are satisfied to remain in the faith in which they grew up. They don’t have questions. They aren’t seeking something else. I don’t blame them. Most of us make many decisions this way, without reflecting that we are doing so. The places we like to live, the clothes we like to wear, the people we like to hang out with, all of these choices are influenced one way or another by the experiences we had as youngsters. Quakerism has always been most successful among Seekers. Most people are not Seekers. Set aside another large slice of pie.

Then there are those who want an authority to tell them what to do, think, feel. That authority could be a priest, it could be a dogma, it could be a ritual, it could be a tradition. Whatever it is, it provides a kind of security that a whole lot of people find sorely lacking in their lives. If they can find it in religion, they grab it and don’t let go. Security is the second of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I have no argument with those who find it in this way. My heart goes out to them. I’m genuinely glad for them. Another large slice of pie, off to the side.

That pie is looking mighty small by now.

Then there are those who are willing to reconsider the faith of their youth, want to find a faith that speaks to them deeply, are willing to risk all to find it, whose particular combination of abilities, character, personality, preference, etc. leads them to find what they are seeking in a branch of the Christian community other than among Friends. I consider Dorothy Day, for instance, as a fellow traveller, but she found what she was seeking in Catholicism. Martin Luther King, Jr., found it in the Baptist church. The Wesleys, Alexander Campbell, and others had to establish their own communions. Emerson and Thoreau, who would have been highly influential Quakers had they chosen that route, found it outside of any organized body. Whitman, who grew up among Friends and remarked to Hamlin Garland in 1888 that “I am a good deal of a Quaker,” found it in poetry.

Even less of the pie is left. From where are we to draw thousands of new Friends, as some seem to want to do?

Moving from that strictly quantitative approach, I would like to ask if we are so arrogant as to believe that bunches of folks, already members of churches from Catholicism and the mainstream Protestants, to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter Day Saints, and all the little one-horse churches dotting the landscape with names like “God’s House of Prayer,” will suddenly abandon their former affiliations because, by golly, they’ve been wrong all along and suddenly realize that they must be Quakers?

To end our consideration of quantity, let me say this: It is odd that such a worldly yardstick should be used to measure a spiritual body. Ad men, Nielsen raters, sports promoters, and the like may well use such a criterion. It is important to the success of their trade. But we are not tradesmen. The profit we seek is not money, fame, prestige or power.

Growth doesn’t have to be in numbers. Growth can be in depth, richness, seasoning. Growth can mean that we are more thoroughly following the leading of that Light we proclaim. As the Bhagavad Gita says, “Do your duty to the best of your ability, thinking always of the Lord, abandoning worry and selfish attachment to the results, and remaining calm in both success and failure.”

The story of Gideon is instructive. In the 6th chapter of the book of Judges, we learn that God had a task for Gideon to do, to deliver Israel from oppresion. “Pardon me, my Lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” The Lord answered, “I will be with you.” Gideon was the least of his clan, which was the weakest. It was not his strength or numbers that God wanted, but his faithfulness. God doesn’t explain how things will work out, he just says “I will be with you.” Trust me. Do what I ask, without attachment to the results. Let me handle the rest.

In Judges 7, Gideon shows up with 32,000 men to fight the Midianites. He figures this is how it is done. It’s what the Midianites themselves would do. God tells him it is too many men. He pares the army down to 10,000 men by letting all who are afraid go home. But this is still too many. God doesn’t want the Israelites to think they have won the victory by their own strength. And they would have. Most of us would, too. Pride wants to take credit for every success and avoid responsibility for every failure, today as much as in Gideon’s time. God trims the army down even further, to 300 men. 300! Less than one percent of the 32,000 who first showed up! The author of Judges doesn’t tell us how many Midianites there are, just that their camels numbered more than the sands on the seashore. Taking on an army of that size with 300 men is an act of radical faith. This is definitely a case of “abandoning worry and selfish attachment to the results.”

In Alcoholics Anonymous, the 11th Tradition states that AA is a program of attraction, rather than promotion. What about the program would make it attractive? It is this: people who work the 12 steps have their lives transformed, from the powerlessness, despair and wreckage of alcoholism to a vital spiritual life which is reflected in selfless service to others as well as personal metamorphosis. AA groups in which few members are living the 12 steps in their daily lives tend to be lifeless. Groups in which most people are working the steps are radiant. Anyone who has been around AA long enough can attest to the truth of this.

Some other germane verses from the Bible:

‘This is what the LORD says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?” declares the LORD. “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” — Isaiah 66: 1-2

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” John 15:1-7

A friend of mine who pastors a  vigorous, spirited church which has grown from a small group to several hundred in a few short years agrees with what I am saying here. It is the health of the vine that counts. If the vine has exuberant good health, it will produce good fruit. In some cases, that may mean numbers. The impact on lives will be seen in how many lives are touched. His church is living proof of that. In other cases, the fruit may be few in number but have an impact which is farther-reaching than might be expected. We have many evidences of that in Quaker history, from Mary Fisher who walked from Greece to Adrianople to meet with the Sultan of Turkey, to the physicist Arthur Stanley Eddington, among whose other accomplishments are included the experimental measurement of the bending of light near the Sun during a solar eclipse which furnished the first real proof  of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

I won’t say it doesn’t matter what the outcome is; it matters very much. I wouldn’t want to be interpreted as saying that a little lethargy couldn’t hurt. What I am saying is that if we are true to the Light as it is given to each of us, we can safely leave the outcome in the hands of the Great Architect of the Universe.

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