I had the opportunity to spend time with a number of Friends in New England this past weekend to discuss the importance of Quakers practicing outreach. I am still processing what I heard and what I learned from that very rich and deep time. Here is one thought that arises.
There is a need to relink the life of the Spirit with our thinking around outreach, or as some would say, “the mission of the church.” I realize that this language – outreach or mission – is normal for some Friends and sounds really scary for others. I’m less invested in reclaiming the word “mission,” than I have been in the past, but it gives us a jumping off point. I know that when we hear this word we think of colonialism, gentrification and church growth. So let’s talk about that. And let’s look at where we are guilty of these things, rather than assume that only those Christians over there are the guilty party on this. And let’s talk about alternative ways of understanding what it means to practice outreach, “witness” or in the words of George Fox, “let your life preach.”
Ever since the origins of Christianity, there has been a push and pull between word and deed. This has been exacerbated by the rise of the sacred and secular split in the West with the dawning of the Enlightenment and modernity, but it is nothing new and it still impacts how we frame these conversations. In the Jesus’ teachings, there is no distinction between a faith that is vibrant and a faith that is embodied publicly, or in the world. Jesus’ view is integrated and non-dual. One’s life in God informs one’s life in the world, and one’s life in the world informs how we approach, speak of, and narrate our experiences of the Divine. Faith in a non-dual perspective is a way of life, rather than a series of scheduled events, responsibilities, or labels we apply to ourselves and others.
If we think we have to get everything within the house in order before we step outside the doors to share the good news (what is our good news anyway?) then it will be rare that we’re motivated to get up off the bench.
If our view is that we have only extremely limited resources within the meeting and so we have to be very careful what we all do together, then we’ll rarely take the risk of stepping outside ourselves. I believe it is this fear, which we think is somehow protecting the life of the meeting, that will eventually be the death of the meeting.
And if we are sitting in our meetings hoping that someone somewhere will find out just how relevant our faith is to their needs and then show up on Sunday for worship then I’d say we’re fooling ourselves. At Camas, we had wonderfully faithful people tell me how they drove by our meeting house for years and had no idea what it was, or who it belonged to, let alone know if there was even anything going on there that they could participate in until they met someone from our meeting and learned about us. This is like operating under a referral program of Quakerism. We hope that our history in some way refer people to our meetings based on what we did __________ (name any given historical Quaker thing), the same way people refer friends to a favorite restaurant or bar. If we’re relying on the reputation of history to get folks to our doors than what will people find if they ever do get to us? Does the past and present connect? And if we’re really being honest, our history is not all Time Magazine covers and is very much what keeps some people from having any interest in our faith tradition now. Has any of this changed? How would people know?
The life of the spirit and that life being embodied in the public square is a necessary link that should not be broken. This is true for Quaker faith and practice and it true for Christian theology more broadly speaking. Renewal comes through dialogue, it comes through practice and it comes through sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding in our experiments. The point is much less about being effective and more about listening and searching for and responding to, as best as we are able, the work that God is already doing – without our permission I might add! – in the world around us.
I see this kind of participatory renewal not as numerical growth but rather a revitalizing of our communities and a re-imaging of who we are in light of present needs and gifts among us.
Flickr credit: Brian Rogers “New growth amongst the old leaves“