Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Enabling Believers or Respecting Freedom of Choice?

While a member of another faith group, an old joke was invoked every time turnout on any given Sunday was less than expected:

Q: Why don't ______________ go to church during the summertime?
A: They don't have to.

This same conundrum, modified slightly, could easily apply to many liberal Unprogrammed Friends, regardless of the season or the time of year. I make light of this not to raise the specter of collective guilt, but rather to highlight one of the many challenges currently facing me. At my monthly meeting, I am the unofficial official co-clerk in charge of Young Adult ministries. The Clerk and I have tried a variety of very novel, very different approaches to keep Young Adult Friends motivated to participate and to, above all, turn out consistently. Regardless of what is attempted, attendance is almost always sporadic at best. No matter how interested someone appears at first, it is statistically very likely he or she will rarely stick around.

If I had to provide a rough estimate, I'd say out of ten people whose hand I shake at the rise of meeting or during coffee afterward, eight are likely to attend only one function and never return. Of that same group, many will wish to be placed on the group listserve and never attend a single Young Adult gathering, nor attend another worship service. An additional challenge that presents me is how many Young Adult Friends perceive of the group as a bit of a dating service. This is hardly unusual to any religious/spiritual gathering, but when that becomes the sole motivation for anyone to show up with any consistency, then it can be safely labeled a problem. I have torn my hair out struggling with this situation and have recently conceded that all I can do is all I can do.

A friend of a Friend, in great contrast, has not had any of these same problems with her Young Adult group. A critical mass sprung up quickly, almost of its own accord, though the organizers certainly put (and still devote) a lot of hard work into keeping it going. Astonishingly, in the church itself, Young Adults make up fully a third of those in attendance. They have even eagerly taken many leadership positions within it. Granted, she is not a Quaker.

Instead, she is a United Methodist. I find this particularly interesting because I myself was raised United Methodist. Although I would have considered the ideology of the two Methodist churches I attended to be somewhere between centrist and liberal, there was, political allegiance aside, nonetheless an expectation that going to church every Sunday was expected. Perhaps this explains the consternation with my current situation. Plainly put, if I don't go to meeting on Sunday, I feel as though I've really missed out on something I've really needed and could not obtain through any other avenue. Would I call that guilt? Partially, but pure guilt alone has, to me, always connoted something I feel I need to do that I will severely dislike when I do it.

Friends may relate highly to Wallace Stevens in "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman".

A High-Toned Old Christian Woman

Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms,
Like windy citherns hankering for hymns.
We agree in principle. That's clear. But take
The opposing law and make a peristyle,
And from the peristyle project a masque
Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,
Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
Is equally converted into palms,
Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
Madame, we are where we began. Allow,
Therefore, that in the planetary scene
Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed,
Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade,
Proud of such novelties of the sublime,
Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,
May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves
A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.
This will make widows wince. But fictive things
Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.

I certainly know what not to do. Some months back, I gave a very poorly received message on this topic during Meeting for Worship. Despite my desire to light a fire underneath what I considered to be recalcitrant Friends, I was thought to be heartlessly hectoring those gathered while waggling my finger. I will never forget how a woman stood up after I had finished talking, plainly furious at me, implying that while she was deeply insulted, she at least admired my courage to be this offensive. She has never returned. It does not give me any pleasure to have made such a negative impression on anyone that they no longer wish to attend meeting. I felt more frustrated than before I rose to speak, observing that the end result backfired so impressively. All I had sought to do was open a dialogue. Apparently, the dialogue cannot be opened in this fashion.

Yet, most discouraging of all is the overall assumption of so many. I think sometimes that liberal Unprogrammed Friends may have been raised to believe that worship was not an obligation, but rather an occasional event that could easily be superseded if something more interesting or pressing came up instead. How does one even begin to reverse that attitude? As it stands, that belief fosters an attitude that worship is there only when I need it, or even, I only reach out to God when I really need him. If we were speaking about a sports team, one would be called a fairweather fan. In bad times, all religious gatherings are filled to capacity, only to dissipate when good times returns. However, when this attitudes borders on epidemic and is always present regardless of the state of the times, it needs to be addressed.

And here I am, left with that eternal quandary once again. How much of a personal decision to be a sporadic attender can be safely chalked up to free will and with it that oft-cited assumption that we're all, each of us, on a highly individual spiritual path? If I believed people didn't need an intense connection with a higher power and with that a way to have community with others similarly inclined, I would feel less troubled. As it stands, I'm not terribly upset these days when an event planned months in advance is sparsely attended. What does upset me is when I contemplate the attitude that makes my job a challenge, regardless of what I do. I have no answers and no pronouncements, only the realization that I seem to be swimming upstream. I am not discouraged and I enjoy what I do, but I don't know how to begin to take on the systemic issues that demand a solution.

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