Monday, October 15, 2012

Community: What is the Point?

Quaker musician and minister Jon Watts published another provocative blog post on Friday, entitled Support A Minister. Sell Your Meetinghouse. In his characteristically passionate style, Jon is calling on the Quaker community to step up to the plate and support the ministry that God is raising up in our midst. He insists that genuine, Spirit-led ministry requires real commitment, not just on the part of the minister, but also from the wider community.

For many Quakers, the idea that we should financially support ministry is a radical concept. The truth is, we often struggle with providing even basic counsel and spiritual care for our budding young ministers. Rising generations have a deep need for mentoring, love and guidance - a need that often goes unmet for a variety of reasons.

In some cases, our communities may not have the spiritual depth to provide this kind of care. Other times, we might shy away from providing explicit guidance for the lives of others, fearing the appearance of hierarchy or rigid dogma. So often, our capacity to guide and care for the emerging gifts in our midst is simply overwhelmed by the demands of everyday life. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

If providing basic spiritual care and oversight for ministry is often challenging for us, providing financial support can be even harder. We are caught in the economic stranglehold of the Great Recession, and most of us are looking for ways to reduce costs and hold on to the little bit we have left. Even in more prosperous times, financial support for ministry could be a hard sell. Now is a particularly unfavorable moment to make a pitch for financially released ministry.

Yet the crisis facing the Quaker community today is not primarily financial. As a group, North American Quakers have all the money we need. Scarcity - at least for the time being - is not the issue. The real question facing us has to do with what it means to be a community in the 21st century.

For Quakers, the definition of community has been unraveling for at least 150 years. At one time, Friends lived under a tight code of community discipline, similar in many ways to the modern-day practices of the Amish or Conservative Mennonites. Being a member of a Quaker Meeting meant submitting to a strict code of dress, behavior and speech. It also meant participation in an intense form of solidarity with the other members of the community. If the Meeting determined that a minister had been led by God to travel in the service of the gospel, Friends would financially support that minister and her family for the duration of her travels. Ministerial trips frequently lasted for months - even years.

Our way of life has changed dramatically in the last century and a half. At this point, "community" is a vague term that can mean almost anything, and even the most traditionalist Friends come nowhere close to the level of shared commitment, discipline and solidarity that once characterized our Meetings. Indeed, the basis of our congregations has become so weakened that in many places the very idea of formal membership is being challenged. What is the point of formally joining a Quaker Meeting?

This is a legitimate question. In most cases, our communities are a pale reflection of the robust network of relationships, mutual support and obligations that once characterized our fellowships. When formal membership no longer represents significant commitment, it is quite reasonable to ask: What is the point?

I think that we as Friends would do well to sit with this question, without seeking to answer it too quickly, because it strikes to the heart of our shared crisis today. Clearly, the structures of historic Quakerism do not work the way they once did. The Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meeting no longer have the same power to draw us in and command our attention. Why is this?

Jon Watts writes about the ministry of prophetic music, saying, "I want to say that I don't see it as my ministry. It is yours. You tell me what to do with it." Who is Jon talking to? Who is the community that Jon is seeking to be accountable to? As best I can tell, Jon is speaking to "all Friends everywhere." In his desire to be faithful, answerable and supported, Jon has reached out to everyone.

But "everyone" is not a community, in concrete terms. In the Quaker tradition, members of communities make concrete commitments to one another, and stick to them even when it is uncomfortable; even when there is fierce disagreement. Members of Christian communities love one another, not merely because of momentary passion, but because we sense that God has knit us together into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. We become a body. The body of Christ.

We all long for this. Our hearts ache for this true community - the fellowship we find when we are drawn together into something bigger than ourselves. This experience of unity, love and shared purpose in the Spirit is the basis for all support, shared discernment and accountability. It is the foundation upon which sustainable ministry is built.

Do our centuries-old systems of Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings still serve as useful containers for this experience? Is formal membership, as it functions in many of our local congregations today, an aid or a hindrance to the uniting power of the Holy Spirit? Do the ways that we gather together amplify the voice of Christ within, or do our inherited forms threaten to block the continuing revelation of Jesus?

Jon Watts suggests that we should sell our meetinghouses and use the proceeds to support Spirit-led ministry. That is an exciting idea. But we may need to go even further. What would it look like to re-imagine our formal structures as Friends? What would a 21st-century understanding of membership look like? Of gospel ministry and eldership? Of mutual support and accountability under the direct leadership of Christ?

What if selling the meetinghouse is just the beginning?


Comrade Kevin said...

In Alabama, the liberal Christian denominations took a more hand's off approach towards community. The Evangelicals--Southern Baptist, Conservative Presbyterian, among others, actively involved themselves in the lives of others.

In The Religious Society of Friends, I think we've followed the same path as the liberal Christians. We seem to ask of Meetings not "what can we do for you", but "what can you do for me?"

Jones said...

this does beg the question of the purpose of the meeting house. does it exist as a public statement similar to 'We're here!', does it exist to serve the wider community, or does it exist to serve the needs of the meeting community as it exists. i think that if it's only serving the last need, and not either of the first two, then the meeting should seriously re-consider the necessity of maintaining the meetinghouse.

i've served as paid youth minister in two separate congregations where the money required to maintain our historic church buildings (granted, one of which was very historic) severely curtailed the quality, and quantity, of the ministry that we could do. not simply due to the lack of money for salaries, but more importantly money for poverty relief, scholarships for school, mission work, etc.

one choir director even made the argument that the church building was the MOST important expense b/c many people worshipped in that congregation simply b/c they enjoyed sitting in such a pretty building! somehow, i was not impressed by that. communities need a place to meet, and a place to house community 'property': books, games, worship stuff, etc. that storage need not be somewhere historic, or 'pretty', in my opinion.

i think that meetings, and congregations, can become very proud of their houses, and wind up conflating the house w/the community. it was exactly what the early friends complained about when they took issue with the 'steeplehouses'. quakers shouldn't become the very people that we were pushing against. in the end, it's simply brick, wood, stone, steel: all stuff that is not human, and is not community. the house must facilitate the life of the community or it is dead, and must be pruned away.

Jones said...

further reflection got me to this: some of the most vital faith communities that i've ever started, or been a part of, have met in homes, in basements, and in other people's spaces. the community was a commitment to each other's lives in a deep, spiritual way. it was a love bond. the structure was rather unimportant, while the bonds between us were of the greatest importance.

'membership' wasn't an issue, b/c everyone knew who was 'in' the group by the demonstration of their care and commitment to the community, and the other people in the community. i guess that's why i'm not big on 'membership' in a community anymore, at least not as an official thing. i can see its importance. yet, i have also been placed in the position of having to tweak my 'membership rolls' in order to demonstrate that i had enough members in my youth ministry to justify my job. that's deeply uncool.

Micah Bales said...

While our use of meetinghouses are definitely a matter for discernment, I am more concerned about the whole constellation of entrenched habits and "best practices" that can sometimes get in the way of being awake to the new thing that Christ is doing in this time and place.

Even if we all sold our meetinghouses - would our communities be compelling enough to warrant real commitment?

Jones said...

micah, re: the meetinghouse comment, i didn't get a chance to comment on this issue when you discussed the meetinghouse question before, so i figured that i'd take my chance now. :)

your post brings three issues (institutions; the definition of community 'membership'; and meeting 'identity', including meetinghouses) under your one big query of 'what would quakerism look like in 21st century terms?' i think that this is an essential question, and one that much of quakerdom is considering right now. we're looking around at a world that is rapidly changing, and a quakerism that is failing to keep up, and we're scared to consider the possibility that we might just slowly die away.

we're not alone. the episcopalians were spotlighted recently by Ross Douthat of the NYTimes as one example of a mainline tradition that was rapidly shrinking. we're all in the same boat...even the megachurches are starting to come to grips w/being suddenly less 'mega'. it's part of a much bigger question: what does it mean to be a follower of christ in our current context?

i'm going to stick my neck out there and say that i think the answer to this question, for quakers, lies in an informal, webbed network of flat (non-hierarchical) relationships where 'community' occurs both online and off-. the community holds to certain shared values and beliefs which reflect the quaker tradition, and Scripture, but do not hold non-contextually to the forms of the values and beliefs as previously understood. the community is mutually supportive and accountable, with a strong emphasis on regular, 'intense' communication and interaction (that MUST include face-to-face)...yet, these interactions do not need to happen on a weekly, Sunday, basis. MOST importantly, i think, is a rootedness in a current community, in a sense of local 'place'.

thus, i think that mega-churches will die as a model, as they are simply too big. i also think that many institutional structures will eventually die away, such as our yearly/monthly meeting structure, AS WE CURRENTLY UNDERSTAND IT. i think that an overarching 'tie' will bind us together, but it won't look like it currently does. i think that churches will go much more small, local, and may wind up looking much more like the house church model, as our society grows more secular. maybe that's too pessimistic. but, i think that if we get ahead of this, we can re-make quakerism into something that speaks to our current desperate need for community, and for being 'about something'.

Micah Bales said...

Dan: You sure do know how to pack a lot of dense, meaning-rich words into a small space! I like it. :)

I agree, and I'm looking forward to working out the details together in community with you.

leftistquaker said...

I lived with a Christian intentional community for nine years and it was the best decade of my life so far. My faith underwent a shift near the end of the time there, so I left and became a Quaker. I still have lots of friends in that community and live close enough that I can see those friends often.

I am considering moving back into their neighborhood, since they are still wonderful people, despite their confessional orthodoxy.

James Breiling said...

Learn from others.

How do the LDS (Mormons) conduct vigorous outreach, create and sustain a community and pay for their religious facilities -- all without (unless I'm mistaken) paid ministers/pastors.

How do JW's and others do the same thing.

And, how might our Meetinghouse sites and buildings be used to address one or more of our concerns? For example, at least one church in DC and another in Arlington County have expanded the uses of their properties to include newly constructed housing for low- and moderate-income families (for which there is a pressing need) while simultaneously replacing their too large and too expensive to maintain older facilities with new, right sized and far less expensive to care for facilities.

Small Farmer in The City said...

So bringing a practical thought to the matter at hand....if a meeting has a meeting house why not let a released minister and family live in the house and make it a model of what a house church and Christian family home are meant to be?

And depending on where the meeting house is, could it also become a neighborhood or community center? This might also help with outreach and generating additional funds for programs, overhead, etc.

Finally, perhaps we still miss the point if we don't make the effort to live as Quakers and make our presence known in the World. This will mean different things to different folks, but no matter how many released ministers we have, we are all obligated as Ministers of the Gospel to speak truth to power and honor that of God in all persons. Thoughts?