New Friends, New Meetings, New Challenges
by Bruce Birchard
Thousands of people are attending and joining unprogrammed Quaker meetings across North America, fueling growth in the number of meetings and worship groups. In 1956 the Friends World Committee for Consultation’s Directory listed approximately 400 unprogrammed meetings in North America (not including Conservative Friends’ meetings.) By 1996 that number had almost doubled to 740.
Despite the increase in the number of meetings, overall membership in the unprogrammed branch of the Society of Friends increased only slightly during the same period, from 32,140 in 1950 to 34,700 in 1994. These changes in membership have been different in different regions, with western yearly meetings growing as much as 300% in membership while Philadelphia and New York Yearly Meetings declined by approximately 25%.
Clearly, we now have a large number of small, even tiny, meetings and worship groups. Compared with fifty years ago, few Friends today belong to large meetings with 200 or more members. In addition, our small meetings and worship groups are geographically wide-spread and many have only a few members with lengthy experience in Quakerism.
These trends point to tremendous opportunities and challenges. How do we welcome the ideas and energies of new attenders and Friends while maintaining the Quaker essentials in our worship, our conduct of business, and our practice of testimonies? What resources and programs do our meetings need to integrate the newcomer into the life of the meeting? How do we continue to nurture all Friends to grow deeper in the Spirit in this new context? These are questions for all Friends as we move into the twenty-first century.