Shannon Isaacs, Director of Advancement at Pendle Hill, is concerned about addressing growth of the Quaker faith. Her upcoming workshop Using Your Power: Changemaking and the Future of Quakerism shares ideas on how to appeal to and engage next generations. As Friends discuss what has worked for those meetings that have successfully engaged younger generations, Janaki Spickard Keeler, PYM’s Friends Counseling Service Coordinator, is supporting the workshop as an Elder. Together they have resources, tools, and strategies to share.
Captured below is a short e-conversation with Shannon about the work we need to do as a community and the future of the Religious Society of Friends:
Why do you believe that the Religious Society of Friends is in danger of extinction?
The number of Quakers in North America has dropped dramatically in the past thirty years. And we don’t have a robust next generation of younger people coming in. There are a handful of Quaker meetings and gatherings in North America that are truly intergenerational, with equal parts Baby Boomer aged, Generation X aged, Millennial-aged, and Generation Z aged Friends. Unfortunately, these do not represent the majority of Quaker spaces. Too many meetings lack diverse age representation in significant numbers. Without change, these spaces are likely to dwindle and be laid down in the next generation.
However, there are many things that Quakers have successfully done to turn around these trends. In the upcoming workshop, we will be exploring the characteristics of thriving meetings and case studies of ways struggling meetings have turned themselves around. We can glean lessons from the growth of other mystical faiths like Buddhism in the United States. We will also identify the underlying systemic forces that prevent Quakerism from thriving and meeting the spiritual needs of younger generations.
We are facing a dramatic shift in how generations interact with and commit to organized religion. Religion is no longer seen as an obligation; it is seen as an extracurricular activity. Those interested in religion are there for a specific reason, not just to attend church. Younger people have different spiritual needs and bring different gifts. There are many ways that Quakers can adapt to these new realities; however, they require a willingness to change how we’ve always done things.
What are the ways in which Quakers can engage in a multi-generational, cultural shift?
We need to talk about the issues openly and make a plan for what we can do to address the problem of the unsustainability of our faith. Too often we see either denial or defeatism about these issues around the future of Quakerism. We can adapt our structures to work with the new needs of new generations. We can do this while leaning into the core of Quakerism: Faithfulness to the Spirit, Spirit-led Justice, and Deep Worship. Generation X, Generation Z, and Millennials have profoundly different spiritual needs and proclivities, and in meeting those needs we can make Quakerism better for everyone. In this workshop, we will look at ways that Quaker spaces have successfully adapted to meet the spiritual needs of diverse generations.
At the institutional level, we need to look at supporting young adult friends and having programs aimed at young adult friends. We need to change our definition of success for general Quaker programming; if a program attracts only older Friends then it is not a success because it is not sustainable.
We can make our meetings and Quaker spaces the kind of spaces that can attract and retain young adults. For example, deep worship, faithful vocal ministry, and clear articulation of the Quaker spiritual path will attract mystical young adults. Authentic and meaningful Spirit-led engagement with the social justice movements of today, such as Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis, will attract activist young adults.
What seems to be working and what is not working for Quakers today?
Ignoring the issues that the Society of Friends faces regarding long-term sustainability and the dramatic changes in how people Gen X (age 56) and younger relate to religion is not working.
We will be looking at case studies of some of the many things that are working in the Society of Friends in this workshop. This includes Mountain View Friends Meeting in Denver, which has fifty young families, and Madison Friends Meeting, who were at the point of laying down their First Day School twenty years ago before listening to Spirit and growing its programming to 30 children including a thriving teen program. We will also look at other thriving meetings or initiatives that helped turn around struggling meetings.
What are the ways in which we can use our individual and collective power to create change?
We have massive individual and collective power to create change to support the future of the Society of Friends. We can address the systemic forces that are preventing Quakerism from becoming a sustainable religion.
We need to actively discern individually and collectively what we are called to do for the future of Friends. Plans for the future of Friends need to be on the agenda at business meeting at monthly, yearly meeting, and national levels in Quaker organizations. We need to start looking at new initiatives outside of old structures as well. We need Friends to advocate for the future of Quakerism to be on the agenda, be on the schedule, be in the budget, and be in every Quaker space.
Individuals could bring a workshop on outreach, intergenerational community, supporting young families, or deep worship to their meeting. For some meetings, Quaker renewal looks like integrating newcomers better. For others, it looks like becoming more visible as a faith community. Some Quaker spaces need to improve in their capacity to answer that of God in people who are younger than themselves. The call around the future of Friends looks different in different spaces. We need to advocate for and support initiatives that support the future of our faith. We can create change.
This workshop will support friends with tools about thinking about systemic change in Quakerism and discerning their personal call around this change.