One of the questions I get asked most often (being a thirty-four-year-old woman who is present at many Quaker gatherings) is this: “Why don’t more young adults come to things?”
(There are variations of this question. Some people ask why young adults don’t come to meeting for worship; some ask why young adults don’t participate in large gatherings or attend conferences; some ask why young adults who grew up Quaker leave the Religious Society of Friends, or why more young adults don’t become convinced Friends in adulthood; some inform me, in a most Eeyore-like manner, that because of the general patterns of society, expecting young adults to participate in Quakerism is simply an impossible task.)
I actually believe that the answers to these young adult questions are tied up in the general relationships between all our age ranges – children, teens, young adults, middle-aged Friends, and aging Friends. In short, our culture as (liberal, northeastern) Quakers works really well for many people between the ages of 45 and 80 or so. (And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that it’s really set up for white people in this age range.) But this same culture actually forms barriers to participation from other age groups.
My friend Gabi Savory Bailey, after years as serving as a young adult field secretary, wrote a fantastic pamphlet called “The Courageous Work of Weaving Vital, Multi-Age Faith Communities.” I love her use of the word courageous. The work of multiage inclusion requires a great deal of courage because it requires change—and it also requires a certain level of knowledge, so that we’re changing meaningfully and not randomly.
When I look around the Religious Society of Friends, I see that many of us wish that more seekers would find us, that our communities might become more diverse, and that more of our young people would stick around. Some of us also recognize that in order for those things to happen, we’ll have to be open to cultural change, but many of us have a hard time knowing exactly what sort of changes might be necessary.
It’s important to point out that cultural change is not the same thing as changing our spiritual foundation. Sometimes it’s hard for those of us who are inside (northeastern, liberal) Quaker culture to recognize which of our behaviors are cultural, which of our behaviors are a direct manifestation of spiritual leadings, and which of our behaviors fall somewhere in between. In fact, it’s hard for all human beings to recognize the aspects of a culture that is our own. It’s like the old joke about the fish—one fish says to the other, “How’s the water today?,” and the second fish says, “What’s water?”
On way to parse the difference between spirit and culture is to examine some of our specific behaviors. I’ve sometimes worked with meetings and asked them to write down all the behaviors they can think of that happen on a normal Sunday. For example, they might list:
– We wear nametags
– We stand to give ministry
– Our children come into worship in the last fifteen minutes
And then we talk about why.
Why do we wear nametags? So we know each other’s names. Why does that matter? So that people feel personally welcomed.
Why do we stand to give ministry? So that everyone can hear and see the person who is speaking.
Why do our children come into the last fifteen minutes of meeting? So they can experience worship. Why does that matter? We want to make sure our children have opportunities to encounter the Divine with the community.
From here, we can see that there are some specific things that this meeting is called to do by Spirit:
– Help people feel personally welcomed
– Ensure everyone can see and hear ministers and ministry
– Provide children with opportunities to encounter the Divine in the community
And once we’ve identified these spiritual calls, we’re likely to discover that the way we’re currently doing things is not the only way to be faithful. Wearing nametags is cultural; helping people feel personally welcomed is the point. So if we encounter a reason to stop wearing nametags, that’s not necessarily something we need to resist, as long as we’re finding other ways (and quite possibly better ways) to help people feel welcomed. Once we’re secure in what Spirit is asking, it’s easier to accept cultural change.