We're supposed to be a community.”
- Mike Chong Perkinson, co-author of The Organic Reformation
"...the original creators of the standard forms...used the forms as a loose guide for freely created music. Modern composers, however, are held back by the restrictive forms, which have hardened over time. 'Is it not singular, to demand of a composer originality in all things, and to forbid it as regards form?
…Music was born free; and to win freedom is its destiny.’”
- Ken Blacklock quoting Ferruccio Busoni
I am in a reading group that recently finished up a book on the “dones” by Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope - Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith. The authors surveyed people from across the U.S. that have left the church and found some striking commonalities in their responses. One of those key areas has to do with a phenomenon well-described by Ryan Frame as “sacrificing community for the sake of the institution.” This is a particularly timely consideration for Friends in light of the recent schism in Indiana Yearly Meeting and the ongoing struggles in North Carolina and Northwest Yearly Meetings.
The book and the yearly meeting arguments have led me to re-visit a workshop I presented at the 2012 ESR Spirituality Gathering on the evolution of Quaker organizational structure. The workshop was intended to serve as one effort to work out some of the practical organizational implications of Phil Gulley’s book, The Evolution of Faith.
My sense is that these books and the yearly meeting situations are interconnected. We may be in the midst of a painful confrontation between existing organizational structures and assumptions and new or differing approaches that may better fit the realities of faith in 21st century America.
If we are open to the idea of our faith communities adapting to better meet the needs of today, then we need to be intentional about the process. For those concerned about evolution, it can mean the loss of history and identity. For those drawn to evolution, it can mean positive progress. Neither necessarily represents the whole truth. A better understanding of evolution is on the one hand building on (rather than abandoning) what has come before, and on the other hand an experimental process that sometimes ends in unexpected outcomes or even failure. But if we can’t risk the possibility of failure we also can’t risk the possibility of new growth and insight that might be absolutely what we need to survive and thrive.
What we may be moving toward may have less to do with clear boundaries and hierarchies and more to do with a kind of anarchic harmony. This is what the composer Ferruccio Busoni worked to achieve in his music. His Toccata provides an excellent example:
"Music was born free," says Busoni, "and to win freedom is its destiny.” Could we say the same thing about worship?
Let’s walk through some of the various places where this dynamic has already / is currently / or may play out in the future:
Membership – the in vs. out question
Yearly meetings and associations all fall somewhere along the spectrum of open to closed in terms of how new meetings or individuals can join (or remain in) as members. Each carries its own risks. More open models are subject to the risk that by allowing those that differ in, the current “majority” view may be eventually outnumbered - including even by those with more “closed group” perspectives. More closed groups may limit opportunities for growth and spend more time focused internally on defining clear boundaries.
Categories of “Conservative” and “Liberal” or “Progressive” can be somewhat fluid here, and can shift over time. “Conservative” segments within a group may seek to draw in new affiliations into the group that would not have traditionally fit in, and “Open Group” segments within a group may very well appeal to “conservative” values such as tradition and founding documents to protect a group’s “open status.” Self-described or perceived “Open Groups” can also be largely closed by demanding allegiance to “openness” upon entry.
How will new forms fit in to old structures? Even though their own view on yearly meeting membership continue to evolve, the Friends of Jesus Fellowship is emblematic of this dynamic – considered to “Christocentric” for some yearly meetings, and too “welcoming and affirming” for others.
Authority – Top-down vs. Bottom-up
If we embrace an experimental model that must mean that not all experiments will not look alike. Structurally, this likely looks more like the ideal of federalism (50 research labs) rather than centralization. This has been a key point in some of the yearly meeting conversations. Where does authority rest (monthly, quarterly, yearly meeting), and what authority exists at various levels?
“The post-heroic philosophy of leadership is based on a bottom-up transformation fueled by shared power and community building,” writes Jimmy Long in The Leadership Jump. “It releases the potential power of everyone. In the post-heroic leadership model, everyone on the team is a leader… Instead of dividing people, it connects them” (53, 55).
Internal vs. External Focus
A consistent concern among those who have left the church was a sense that the churches they were involved with or even served in leadership among were primarily focused on internal matters. This is not to say that stewardship of an organization’s resources is not important, but that there should be balance between an emphasis on building maintenance and impact in the organization’s community and world. This is connected to the membership question above, in that excessive attention on internal theological, ethical, or cultural agreement (that we all hold the same view of atonement or we all hold the same view of environmental justice, for example) can lead both those within and without to regard an body as self-centered and oblivious.
A different model
A model that builds upon existing structures but creates space for adaptation and supports leadings might be composed around the guiding principles below:
- Subsidiarity – The principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Ideally, this suggests that more centralized authorities may only intervene at the request of less centralized authorities.
- Affinity – The principle that not all action or ministry needs to take place with the involvement of all members, but instead that like-minded or interested parties from across the breadth of a group can come together to pursue tasks or goals.
- Mutual Aid – The principle that a gathered group can offer support to those within the group that are most in need. This has taken the form of mutual aid societies in American history, but has strong Biblical roots, including Paul’s collection for the church in Jerusalem. In Galatians 6:10 he states, “whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”
- Walking humbly – The principle that while we may have gifts, talents, and important messages for others, it is equally likely that we have much to learn from others as well. As Gully writes, “the emerging Christianity, whose philosophy will focus less on power and self-preservation and more on ecclesial modesty and service.” Further, this implies that no policy taken or supported is worth calling upon force (and this has to include state action) to bring others into alignment with our beliefs. “Friends seek to follow the teaching and example of Jesus in rejecting the use of coercion and violence” (Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, 12).
- Intervisitation – The principle that no one Quaker body represents the whole of the Quaker spectrum of faith, and that we are strengthened and encouraged through communication and engagement with other Friends. As Gulley writes, “if the activities of Jesus were an indication of his priorities, it is clear he placed a high value on the social aspect of spirituality and faith.”
- Service and Engagement – The principle that our organizations should not be solely focused on their own internal growth and development but should instead be outwardly focused on the needs within their communities and the larger world. This should be evident not only in terms of financial contribution but through genuine encounter and worthwhile service that has the potential to impact the lives of others but also our own. “[W]hen Christians rise from their pews and work and sweat and invest their lives,” says Gulley, “people take notice and lives are changed.”
Can we control the evolution of our own faith, or faith in general? Likely not, but we can avoid responding out of fear and instead create space for it to take place. Lacking perfect knowledge for all times and contexts, we need the ability to let go of the illusion of complete control. We simply cannot know what will be best for all and at all times, and we shouldn’t take the risk of the damage acting as though we do can inflict.
Institutions and organizations, however, have their own dynamic that tends toward rigidity over time. As Packard and Hope argue, then, we have to work against this bureaucratic tendency by intentionally incorporating centers of innovation and experiment into the organizational structure. They offer some helpful suggestions on how to do this – from task-specific and time-limited committees to dedicating a portion of the budget specifically for innovative ideas (that just might fail). It’s definitely worth a read. “Today’s leaders must take risks and take the church to places the members never dreamed of going before,” argues Mary Louise Gifford in The Turnaround Church. “The church can no longer afford the luxury of marking time. Stagnation will lead to death. It is only a matter of time” (86).
I will conclude with one more thought from The Evolution of Faith: “if Christianity has mutated and evolved over the centuries, it’s reasonable to conclude it will continue to do so. It’s also reasonable to conclude God might inspire a number of people to shepherd that process, that I might be one of them, just as you might be, and that a fitting response is to share our insights with others.” So, what insights do you have to share, and how might you shepherd the ongoing evolution of faith?