Friday, June 29, 2007

Should Quakers Become More "Evangelical"?

Of course I do realize that many Quakers are already evangelical. But there is a tendency in some varieties of Quakerism to be wary of being evangelical. And so what I am asking is whether those who are wary of being evangelical should reconsider. Are we hiding our lights under bushels? Are we withholding knowledge of something that other seekers would find valuable? Is there more that we could do to make our presence known more widely? Is there more that we could do to be inviting?

Let me brainstorm some ideas. Some of these, admittedly, are wild ideas!

A wild idea: Start a Quaker TV station.

Less wild: Create a Quaker-produced TV series (for public TV) and/or radio series (for public radio) not about Quakerism as such, but simply offering programs on matters of Quakerly concern. For example, there could be programs on pacifism and nonviolence; programs on environmental sustainability; programs on social and economic justice; programs on the role of education in society; programs on understanding world religions (including but not featuring Quakerism); programs on creating and nurturing a positive sense of community; programs on simplicity.

While public TV and public radio already have excellent programs that touch on some of these themes, what I am envisioning is a way of doing a series that makes the Quaker background visible, but in a very subtle, understated way.

Admittedly, it is hard to imagine how this would be possible. Our only models are the overtly evangelical Christian stations. But public TV and public radio have snuck in a limited amount of subtle advertising, and their viewers and listeners do not object too much to this back-door way of letting business interests establish something of a foothold. Even so, it is almost impossible to believe that they would let a particular religious group establish a foothold in a similarly subtle way. We live in a world in which, ironically, business interests are still regarded as “innocent” while religious interests are regarded with high suspicion: even though business interests have become more and more self-serving and increasingly exert an oppressive influence upon the lowest-paid employees, whereas true religion has little power in today’s world and religious evangelism at heart desires what is truly best for people (love; spiritual enlightenment; freedom; salvation; a well-lived life; healthy ways of processing life’s disappointments; a sense of community).

But just because the world is currently a bit irrational in this respect does not mean that the tide will never change. And, anyway, I think it is time for Quakers to highlight a crucial difference between Quakerism and most other religious traditions (at least most other Christian traditions): that Quakerism offers a unique kind of space in which to explore questions of religious faith. The point is not to press people into conformity of belief. The point instead is to offer community support and guidance in reflecting deeply upon one’s own experience, clarifying for oneself one’s own beliefs, and integrating one’s beliefs with one’s way of life. At its best, Quakerism offers an ideal balance between community and individuality, tradition and innovation, thought and practice. There are principles that shape Quaker faith and practice (e.g., simplicity, community, integrity, peace, justice), but these principles are rich and flexible concepts that individuals are free to interpret and integrate into their lives in ways that meaningfully connect with their own experience.

And so I do think that it would be possible to start a public TV or public radio series that would subtly but clearly convey to viewers or listeners this unique feature of Quakerism: showing that Quakerism offers a distinctive approach to religious inquiry, which truly invites all into a kind of space that supports without oppressing.

But, because I think that this idea may still be too radical for today’s world, I do have another, perhaps more realistic idea:

What if local Friends Meetings offered discussion groups on religion and/or spirituality open to all? Again, this would not be a forum to advocate for Quakerism specifically: but to offer Quakerism’s openness to exploring matters of faith to the world beyond those who have already discovered this about Quakerism.

Quaker Meetings already often do a nice job of having regular reading or discussion groups, adult education classes, and/or worship sharing groups for its own members and attenders. Some of these are specifically geared for newcomers.

But I am speaking of something different here: an opportunity for people to explore questions of faith that is open even to those who have not attended Meeting and perhaps do not intend to do so. Again, this would have to be set up very carefully, so that, on the one hand, people would know that it is the Quakers organizing and sponsoring and guiding these discussions; but on the other hand, it would be very very clear that the purpose is not to “convert” people into Quakerism specifically.

Imagine a world in which all Quaker Meetings everywhere did this, and people just understood that this is something that Quakers do: provide an open and supportive space for people freely to explore their questions of faith.

Imagine a world in which young people who start reconsidering their own religious disillusionment, and young couples who begin worrying about their children’s spiritual development, look for the Quaker-sponsored opportunities for spiritual discussion as their starting point for how to make decisions about their own faith lives and their children’s religious upbringing. Imagine that some individuals and families find these discussion groups the site where they decide to reconnect with their parents’ faith traditions; others explore a number of different local churches and process their experiences in the group, eventually finding their own new home church; others come from different faith traditions and just want to connect with other seekers in an interfaith way, and see these Quaker-sponsored discussion groups as the ideal way to do so. Of course a few might decide to join the Quakers, but there would never be a sense of pressure that that is ultimately the “right” decision or the “best” path for everyone.

Some, after joining some other church or religious tradition, might keep coming to the Quaker-sponsored discussion group, because this is where they feel most free to process and share what they learn in their newfound spiritual home. Others might never formally join any religious group, finding that this discussion group alone serves their spiritual needs.

Imagine these groups becoming so popular that a given Meeting needs to break the original group down into smaller groups, and has a team running five or six of these groups at a time.

Imagine this becoming a site for a new spiritual awakening in North America, the U.K., and beyond.

(I plan to engage my own Meeting in a discernment process about whether we ourselves should try something like this. I'll keep you posted on how this unfolds!)


  1. this is a very intrigueing idea!! i'd love to see something like this come to fruition.

  2. Scott,

    Thanks for finding this idea interesting! I'll keep posting about how this unfolds.


  3. The answer to the title of your post is "Yes!". And I like many of your ideas. I won't complain about the reasons they're unlikely to happen, but will keep trying to imagine them, as you suggest.

    I don't know whether you know about Northern Spirit Radio out of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, which is similar to the kind of radio show you're contemplating. The host, Mark Helpsmeet, is a Quaker and has support of others in his monthly and yearly meetings. The content isn't explicitly all-Quaker-all-the-time, but it does reflect Mark's Quakerishnes.

  4. I also recommend the "other" QQ (besides, that is): Quaker Quest in Britain.

    They hold sessions similar to what you describe, though they are explicitly about the "Quaker way of life."

    Quote: "We have found that people enquiring about us want to hear what we have to say, talk to each other and us about it, get an idea what sort of people we are and experience Quaker worship."

    -- Chris M.

  5. Thanks for these ideas -- I think they're all good ones, though I wonder if these days if the internet might not be a better medium than TV.

    I will say though that we're talking liberal Friends, "outreach" is probably the better term than "evangelism." There's been some discussion on this on a recent post on my blog.

  6. Although not wildly successful--This is something we've been doing. ie, our reading/discussion, which gets pretty eclectic, happens in the store downstairs, includes one Theosophist regular, has attracted people from Seventh Day Adventist & other groups. And while we often look at Quaker materials, particularly the better old PH pamphlets, we're not focused on promulgating "Quakerism," so much as connection to the Spirit. (Which has been observed among many religions & traditions.)

    Maybe we'll get more popular if we can become personally deeper...

  7. I'm the person behind Northern Spirit Radio, but am also a part of a new venture called Friends World Media. We're looking to have a site up by mid-September,, which will be a Quaker potluck. I will start with mainly audio, but will also include, and build up a collection of video/visual items. We're looking for contributors now, so contact me at helpsmeet*AT* - call it outreach or evangelism, do it by Internet, radio or whatever, but let's do it together!


  8. Wow, thanks everybody! Thanks both for sharing support of these ideas, and for showing me and my readers some of what is already being done along these lines! I hope soon to explore the links you have contributed, and then to follow up with further thoughts. Thanks again!