How do we as Friends help visitors to our meetings to experience a transformative faith? How do we make the Quaker way an accessible path for the thousands of people that walk through the doors of our meeting houses each year? While the liberal, unprogrammed form of the Quaker way is modestly growing in the U.S. and Canada – primarily in the mid-Atlantic, south and west of the United States – only a small percentage of those who visit our meetings stay long term. The question is why?
If the Quaker way is not right for a particular person, my experience is that many Friends would support that person’s quest to find a spiritual path that is right for them. However, what if the problem for many of these seekers is not the Quaker way itself? What if new people leave our meetings because they’re not finding and experiencing the depth that our faith and practice offers?
How can we invite newcomers into that depth? As Quakers, we often talk about letting our lives speak. Indeed, letting our lives speak is at the core of our tradition. It’s the alignment of who we are called to be with our actions in the world. When I was first attracted to exploring the Quaker way, someone said to me: “When I was a teenager I met this man. He was full of integrity and life. I wanted to be like him. I found out that he was Quaker and I decided I was going to be Quaker too. I then set about learning how to walk Quaker.” What struck me was that while seeing how someone letting their lives speak attracted him to become Quaker, he also knew that he had to learn how to live Quaker to enter fully into the integrity he saw.
Many Quakers know experientially that the Quaker way has to be more than demonstrated. It must be actively shared or made available through teachings and lived experiences for the learner. After all, many of the most revered figures from our tradition, such as Jesus, Fox, and Jones were teachers of faith and practice. They lived it, but they also taught it. It is the teaching and opportunities for experiential learning that fully make our tradition comprehensible, that speak to people in the place that they are, and that make the tradition adaptable to someone’s own life and circumstances.
In March of this coming year, a group of forty or more Quakers involved in religious education and spiritual formation efforts will sit down together for a multi-day meeting. We hope to have Quakers from every affiliated yearly meeting as well as specialists present who can bring new perspectives and experiences to the discussion. Our goal is to be led by Spirit to affirm us in the development of a comprehensive spiritual formation program. Based in part on what we learn at the consultation, we will strive to build a program that will help serve the fullness of a person’s spiritual journey – be that person a child, an adult, a newcomer, or a seasoned Friend. This program will have the flexibility to serve worship groups, small meetings, and large meetings alike, and we pray that the quality of the program and the ease of its administration will be such that hundreds of meetings and thousands of people will be happy and excited to use it.
I’m clear that the development and sharing of a new spiritual formation program is a great collaborative journey that will involve many, many Friends. The consultation in March is an early step on this journey. The development of this program will take time and a willingness to experiment, to test our assumptions, and to listen deeply to each other and to Spirit. We know that there are ways forward that respect our theological diversity and the diversity of how we live our tradition as individuals in community. We hope you’ll help us develop the new work as it goes forward. In the coming months we’re developing a survey for Friends about their spiritual formation needs, and your input when the time comes would be deeply appreciated. We’ll be sure to bring you updates as the work unfolds. Done well and widely adopted, the program we develop together can be of great service to many thousands of people who long for greater connection and meaning in their lives.