13 June 2019

Does Truth prosper? Why or why not?

Early Quakers asked each other, "How does Truth prosper among you?" When I was asked to lead a workshop at Friends United Meeting's recent "Stoking the Fire" conference, that query came to mind, and I designed the workshop around it.

To give the workshop some structure, I went back to an experience I had about four decades ago ... a workshop led by George Lakey of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting on some topic relating to social change. I remembered a chart that he used, with forces or factors favoring the desired change on the left side of the chart, the desired change itself in the middle column, and the impeding forces arrayed on the right side of the chart. We could then think about how to activate the favorable factors and confront the obstacles.

For the "Stoking the Fire" conference workshop, I proposed the following desirable change: increased access to the Quaker message (and to the community shaped by that message). This is the "Truth" that we offer the world -- our understanding of the bondage-breaking freedom in Jesus that we are learning about as Friends, and that others might find to be as life-giving as we have found it. I put this goal in the center of our workshop charts.

To demonstrate and prime the pump, I put up a blank chart and briefly sketched in the positive and negative factors that Russian Friends might be facing as they seek to increase access to Friends' faith and life in Russia. Then -- we started a fresh chart and, together, tried to do the same thing for the American meetings and churches we belong to.

(For the version I'm posting here, I'm working from notes, which differ slightly from the sheet I photographed at the end of the session. TOGIEO = "that of God in everyone." I reworded some of the more obscure one-word notes.)

Among the positive factors proposed by workshop participants:
  • Numbers/visibility: this factor comes from a city that has several Friends meetings and a history of Quaker involvement in city life.
  • Attractive presence: same city, attractive meetinghouses and Friends schools.
  • Curiosity: Friends still benefit from being known just enough to be on people's radar, but not so well that everyone has the details they might want. When that gap succeeds in provoking interest, we benefit.
  • Form of worship: Even programmed Friends meetings usually have a period of silent (waiting) worship. This factor, silent worship and the absence of sacraments, was listed on both sides of the chart, as a factor in favor (an appealing distinctive) and an impediment (misunderstood or off-putting).
  • "That of God in everyone": the faith that God already witnesses inwardly to every person we might meet; we simply need to engage in "permission evangelism" to direct people to that inner witness.
  • Idealism: if history can be summarized as a debate between idealists and cynics, even the most severe and pessimistic Quakers can usually be found among the idealists, giving us a potential appeal to unaffiliated idealists everywhere.
Among the impediments proposed by participants:
  • False assumptions/confusion: mixing us up with Shakers, Amish, Jehovah's Witnesses; or believing that we don't exist anymore.
  • Pacifism and passivity: the frequent criticism that we would be passive in the face of evil, or that our ideals prove we are (negatively) living in la-la land, or (positively?) we must all be saints or lofty adepts; who could be pure enough to be acceptable?
  • Apathy: Our own lack of interest in growing, or being accessible to people not already in our communities.
  • Military culture: one of our participants came from a city where the military and related industries play a major role.
  • Civil religion: several of us mentioned the enmeshment of religion and patriotism, or the association of religiosity with right-wing politics.
  • Desire for hierarchy: our nearly flat organizational structures has little attraction for people who want the assurance provided by "strong" leadership. This leadership model often dominates the religious scene in many parts of the country.
  • Quaker elitism/exceptionalism: when this came up, I told my favorite Jane Boring Dunlap story. Some years ago, when we were having a discussion of evangelism and growth at Wilmington Friends Meeting (Ohio), someone asked, "If we get new people, how will we know they're really Friends?" Jane asked in turn, "Why do we assume that new people would be more stupid than we are?"
  • Church or chaplaincy? A church is a multigenerational community in which people are born, form households, live, and die, in organic relationship with the wider community. A chaplaincy ministers to a specific population (a military base; a hospital; a university). It can also serve as a metaphor for a congregation that prefers to minister to those already there, or to others very much like themselves. In considering obstacles to greater access, a congregation needs to be honest about which it is.
Some of these factors could be additionally classified as "internal" or "external" -- originating in our own strengths and dysfunctions or from the wider communities we find ourselves in. However, many factors are both internal and external, as we ourselves absorb helpful and unhelpful assumptions from our wider cultures.

The original blank chart that we distributed to conference participants had another column on the left side of the desired-change column. This extra column was a place to note "preparation required" for each of the positive factors. We ended up not using that column in the workshop, although others using this tool might find it helpful. Instead, we put two recommendations in the center, under the desired change: "persistence" and "reframing."
  • Persistence: none of our positive engagement or our confrontation with negative forces may result in immediate growth. If we discern an approach which honors our leadings and values, we need to persist. And we need to continue to exercise a lively curiosity about whether we still care about accessibility.
  • Reframing: Can we reframe our message to overcome misunderstandings and false scandals within our potential audiences? In the military culture, can we begin conversations about the Lamb's war that is not fought with outward weapons and completely redefines "enemy"? If the lack of sacraments is shocking, can we talk about our inward understanding of communion and baptism? (And have we done our homework, so that we don't accidentally trivialize concepts that our audience cherishes?) 
This tool may be too linear and rigid for every group or situation, but maybe it could be adapted, or could simply be used as a conversation-starter. We had only ninety minutes for both the case study and this chart -- I'd love to imagine what could happen with more time, a sharper focus -- just one church or meeting, just one location -- and a prayerful, creative, wide-open approach to the core query, "How does Truth prosper among us?"

Here's a blank chart in .doc format.

Two more Quaker conferences: Quaker Religious Education Collaborative (August 9-11, this year); and the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference (June 24-28, 2020).

Rita Finger: Is God "Father" on Father's Day?

Ivan Golunov and Russian civil society's brief moment of solidarity and euphoria.

Two of Golunov's articles: the real estate bonanza of Moscow's deputy mayor's relatives; and the mortuary racket.

Are Russians getting tired of the church?

Svetlana Alexievich has good things to say about HBO's miniseries Chernobyl. (So do I, in a future post.)

The cost of not opening up the Russia beat to more diversity among journalists and academics.

Donald Trump realizes he needs to do dramatic things to unstick the situation.

Mellow down easy...

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