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Bill Samuel, August 4, 2002
Bill Samuel

Towards Renewal Within the Religious Society of Friends, Part 2 of 2
by Bill Samuel

Reprinted with permission from Quaker Religious Thought #87 (May 1996)

If you have not yet read Part 1, I suggest you do so before reading this part.

The Call of Christ

Are these negative feelings the proper mark of Christ's people? Of course not. It is all too easy to let ourselves be overcome by the things that disappoint us. But if we believe in the gospel, we know that Christ has won the victory and we should not be discouraged. Jesus' Great Commission and the vision of Fox of a great people to be gathered should still motivate Christians. There is a broken world around us, full of people who need to hear the Good News of their Savior, not the frustrations of people immobilized by denominational struggles.

There must be a realignment. I am not speaking of a structural change in the Religious Society of Friends, although that may come about. The realignment of which I speak is to come into alignment with the cause of Christ in this world. Christians must move from reaction to the initiatives of those who don't share our faith, to action to implement the call of Christ in our individual and corporate lives. That others don't hear the call, or actively resist the call, is not a reason for us to give anything but our all for our Lord and Savior.

Signs of Renewal

There are indeed signs of a stirring among Christian Friends who may seem isolated in the Quaker environment in which they find themselves. There are many striving to align themselves with Christ, increasingly joining with others for mutual encouragement and nurture. In recent years, local and regional fellowships of believers have sprung up in many parts of liberal Quakerism. From Maryland to California, from Britain to Chicago, Christians are gathering periodically to worship together, to pray together, to nurture each other's faithfulness. There are no formal ties among these groups, but there are many connections made. Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative) has played an important role in nurturing a number of these fellowships through visits, correspondence and larger gatherings.

What are the fruits of these movements to gather together in the name of Jesus? I know best from several years of experience of Christians in the Baltimore Yearly Meeting area meeting together. I hear similar reports from other areas.

Christians become bolder in proclaiming our faith. With the support of others, Friends "come out of the closet" and speak openly of their faith, and are less inclined to re-cast their message in terms deemed comfortable to a mixed group of listeners. Initially, Christians often do this with a lot of residual fear of how others will react. More often than not, we find our meetings respond more positively to authentic messages which are unambiguously Christian than they have to our self-filtered messages of prior years which had lost their power in the speaker's efforts to be inoffensive.

There may be noticeable changes in the atmosphere of monthly meetings. Where before there may have been a distinct sense that messages referring to Jesus or the Bible were not very welcome, such messages may become common and accepted. Bible study groups may begin, and adult education opportunities may focus on our Friends heritage without shrinking from its Christian content.

Friends revitalized through Christian fellowship may bring that energy into yearly meeting work. In Baltimore Yearly Meeting, Friends involved in the informal Christian fellowship network have played key roles in furthering the Spiritual Formation Program and other initiatives of the Committee on Nurture and Recognition of Ministry. While such programs are not presented as explicitly Christian, and involve a wide range of Friends, their character is deeply affected by the Christian commitment some of the leadership brings to them.

Christian Renewal in Perspective

The Christian renewal movement that I see among Friends (and there are signs of renewal in other parts of Quakerism than those I have concentrated upon here) is not an isolated phenomenon. The fresh winds of the spirit are blowing across the body of Christ. They are reflected in denominational renewal movements, parachurch movements, and the growth of nondenominational churches. In the limited contacts I have had with renewal movements centered in other denominations, I see certain characteristics appearing repeatedly:

  • They call for a return to the spirit and vision of the early leaders of the denomination.
  • They express kinship with other parts of the Body of Christ, finding spiritual companionship in renewal movements in other Christian bodies and in parachurch organizations.
  • They are open to the outpourings of the Holy Spirit that may be manifested in ways which are not typical of their particular tradition.
  • They see the need to cross racial and ethnic lines in unifying the Body of Christ, although at the same time they may oppose what they see as copying of secular affirmative action models.
  • They find nourishment in meeting together.
  • They include congregations as well as individuals.

I recognize that I am bringing forth the best in these movements. It is undeniable that many "renewal" efforts within denominations also include those who are fighting for the past, rather than being infused with the Spirit's continued presence today. But to the extent that such efforts represent a genuine movement of the Holy Spirit among the people of God, they may be instructive for Friends.

The Future of Christian Renewal Among Friends

To what are Christians within Friends, particularly within the parts of our Society which do not claim to be exclusively Christian, called? In part, we are called to a continuation of the efforts I highlighted earlier in this article. We are not called to a carefully worked out long range strategy developed through conventional human means. But I believe the Holy Spirit is calling us in certain directions to which we need to be prayerfully attentive.

We need to place greater emphasis on the positive task of discerning and following the leadings of Christ, and become less concerned about struggling with those following different paths in the name of Friends. This is a spiritual realignment. While the Lord's work certainly includes unmasking the false prophets and the inroads of the Deceiver, we must also be aware that we too easily become distracted by church politics from our central focus on following Christ.

We need to transcend the divisions in Friends that have kept brothers and sisters in Christ apart. Within Friends, this means fostering unity across the differences in styles of worship. We must recognize that our Lord's call to us to "worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24) was not a call to a particular form of worship, or absence of form. We need to make more connections between the Spirit's work of renewal among unprogrammed Friends and that same work among pastoral Friends. While I have emphasized here the movement within one part of our Society, there is clearly renewal occurring in other parts of our Society, and notably within the organizational structure of the largest branch of Friends, Friends United Meeting. We need to nurture one another in faithfulness to our Lord, and benefit from cross-fertilization among Friends from different Quaker backgrounds. If we do not feel our unity in Christ, we are not being faithful.

We need to place ourselves firmly within the larger Body of Christ. While continuing to treasure the particular gifts and understandings of Friends, we need to be more interested in humbly learning from other Christians than in pushing our distinctives on others. We need to join with Christians of many affiliations in renewing the Body of Christ and inviting others to join it.

We need to transcend racial, ethnic, economic and cultural differences. It may be comfortable to sit in worship among people who look like us, are in similar economic circumstances, and have similar backgrounds. But we are called to be faithful, not comfortable. Our Lord invites all to become members of God's family, and we must seek to better reflect the diversity in God's family at home as well as overseas. This won't be easy, but it will bring us closer to Christ. It may include changes in style of worship, singing and prayer.

We need to meet and pray together for mutual nurture, encouragement and accountability. Such meetings should occur at several geographical levels. Especially in areas where yearly meetings do not have a corporate commitment to Christ, these meetings should sometimes include official representatives of Christian meetings as well as individuals. We need to be prepared to plan together ministries to which we are called corporately, as well as nurturing each other as individuals and local groups.

Our Lord is calling us. Are we ready to answer the call?

If this article was of interest to you, you may also be interested in Realignment Among North American Friends?.

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