Tradition, Mission and Innovation (OYM)

Still Water Meeting House

This past friday Martin Kelley, David Male and I all talked about ‘ Convergent Friends: Seeking a Deeper Spiritual Experience Across the Branches of Friends’ at Ohio Yearly Meeting in Barnesville. David Male and Shawna Roberts, both from OYM, were the brains behind the Convergent Friends Workshop that Robin and I spoke at in March. Out of that presentation more interest was expressed for us to do the same type of thing for the Conservative Friends’ Yearly Meeting this August, David and Shawna again working to make it happen. While I was happy to accept the invitation, I find that traveling, speaking and meeting people is something I really enjoy, I have to say I was a bit nervous as well. Other than Shawna I’ve never met a Conservative Friend and didn’t know what to expect and I wondered whether we would be able to connect at all. I also wondered how they would feel about what we had to say, that is, I wondered if our message would be accepted or whether we’d be run out of town. I am here to report that the whole thing was a fantastic experience. Emily and I both felt extremely welcomed by all the Friends we met and really appreciated just how warmly they treated us. We left with the feeling that we would really enjoy being a part of their faith community, we also hope to be invited back sometime…

Besides the basic “we had a good time” reporting I thought I’d give a few brief thoughts on the presentation for those of you who weren’t able to join us for the fun. First David gave a brief intro and we had some silent worship, then he introduced me. The three of us were allotted 20 min to do whatever we wanted so I took the opportunity to tell everyone about our forthcoming daughter and just how excited I am about that and gave a little bit of a background on some of the things I’ve been doing as of late. Then I dived into the meat of my topic.

(Conv)ergent: Tradition and Mission

  • 1) I discussed the word (conv)ergent. After talking briefly about Robin and her role as a convergent Friend I explained my take on the (conv) part of the word. That is I stated, in not so subtle terms, that convergent is rooted within a conservative Friends narrative. This means that it accepts the importance of tradition and its authority within the life of a believer. It seeks to embody the rich account of Quakerism through not only its practices but also through the understanding of its virtues. That is to say that (conv) ultimately understands that the metanarrative of Quakerism is Christianity from which it derives its telos, language, virtues and practices.
  • 2) I then explained the ‘ergent’ part of convergent through talking about the emerging church as a form of post-modern radical reformation faith. Giving the nine practices of the emerging church:

Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures…[thus] Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities (Bolger and Gibbs 2005:44-45

The basic point here was to express how many of these Quaker-like practices are being picked up and used in a very different context and very different ways. However, while they are different in many ways they also share the same goals for faith.

Jesus and The Dance Club

This led to a discussion on how these churches view mission in the West, and how mission has shifted in the last 20-30 years. I talked about how as the church we often times turn to Paul for our missionary training, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, we should see Jesus as our primary model for how we are to be missionaries. The incarnation is mission par excellence. This has implications on a number of different levels. First, we look to Jesus for how we interact with our culture, it’s not that we are called to be counter-cultural or against everything “worldly,” which is understood to be people doing less-than-Christian things, but instead, if we are to be like Christ, we are to in yet not conformed by culture (While recognizing this is only possible inasmuch as we know where we are being conformed by culture). We also need to redefine “worldly” in order to think of it in terms of the fallen “principalities and powers.” Secondly, we realize that there cannot be a “one size fits all” approach to mission. The church’s mission is context dependent. The example I used was that Conservative Friends may want to decide not to have as their top outreach option visiting dance clubs (it’s a very tempting option I know!), not because they don’t dance but because at least in Barnesville a “club” is almost non-existent. So those churches that meet in clubs in LA, London and elsewhere may work great for their context, but won’t in others. Third, because of #2 we, the church, must become like anthropologists and make listening our primary focus for understanding how God wishes for us to interact with our neighborhoods, cities and our world.

Why Conservatives Need to Innovate

Finally, I discussed the role of translating our conservative/old tradition in a postmodern world.

I gave three views on tradition and innovation:

  • Tradition Hinders Innovation (Get rid of tradition when it no longer works for us)
  • Tradition is opposed to Innovation (To remain static is to be faithful)
  • Tradition is the only grounds for Innovation (Tradition is an indispensable guide for leading us into the future)

Advocating the third option I discussed what it might mean to “translate” the faith into a new culture as missionaries of a particular tradition. This conversation inevitably leads to the questions about how much and to what extent we need to change? It is here that we must stress the value and importance of a community of discernment. I know there are some Friends who believe that no change is necessary, that to become conservative Friends is all we really need. Others think change is always good. And there are other Friends, such as myself, that see each Quaker group as needing to change in particular ways and understandings that there is no pure Quaker faith to return or cling to. I believe that there are things that we can do differently, perhaps better, and more contextualized for today’s world that are not only faithful to our tradition but also to our Christian metanarrative. Maybe these changes will be for the good, maybe they will strengthen our numbers or give us a longer life-span of faithfulness and maybe they will fail. But I am not content to believe that what we currently have is the best of what God is calling us to and I will continue to try and help there be creative and faithful voices within our church. If the Spirit of God is living and creating today the church should be doing the same.

Leaving Barnesville Friday evening left me with a feeling of great hope and joy for the future. Not only do I think there is life and vitality within these Friends’ faith, but they appear to be ready to take it to the streets in some very creative ways.

10 responses to “Tradition, Mission and Innovation (OYM)”

  1. Wess, thanks for being there. It was great to see you and Emily!

    I don’t know if anyone has talked to you about a process that OYM began a few years ago. Something became clear to a then-existent subcommittee of Ministry and Oversight called CORE – Committee on Renewal and Encouragement. We had a very strong, urgent sense that the Lord wanted us to prepare for important work, and it would involve changes, it would involve preparing Friends to be much more active in the Kingdom. We weren’t the only ones who had this realization, of course.

    We have held retreats, programs, prayer meetings, and have had many conversations, sometimes wondering aloud what the Lord was up to, and just what we needed to be doing in response. One of the things many of us sensed was that we needed to be ready to welcome people seeking the Lord, ready to share our love for Christ and our understandings. Friends have been learning new skills in languages, traveling, attending more conscientiously to spiritual disciplines, among other things.

    I have seen a spiritual vitality and a tenderness (compassion) increasing at our Ministry and Oversight meetings and at other gatherings.

    Your visit was a great service, and I believe it is part of the preparation and perhaps even part of what the Lord has been drawing us toward.

  2. Raye,
    Thanks for being there Friday! It was great to see you again and it was awesome having you in the front cheering us on.

    I haven’t not heard of CORE, either that or I don’t remember anyone telling me about it. I can see that you all are far more on the ball about thinking on this stuff than we are because this would have been my advice to any group of Friends – start a group to consider all this stuff. I’d love to have an opportunity to learn more about what CORE has done and is doing or is planning to do. And if I can be of any more service in the process just ask because I think you all are great!

  3. Hey Wess, thanks for the report. I WISH I COULD HAVE BEEN THERE. I’m glad it went well, and I look forward to hearing more details as they become available.

  4. Hi Wess, Thanks for giving a precis of your presentation, it’s quite helpful to see it after hearing it. I’m not sure I even could give an outline of mine–the downside of spontaneous ministry. For those of you not there, I probably had about five hours of things I could have talked about (see all my recent blog posts) but when it was my turn on stage I started with a story I had heard only a few hours before and went from there.

    And Wess, could you share that one observation that became popular. Something like: “A tradition that loses the ability to explain itself becomes an empty form.” A couple of Friends in Ohio seemed to latch onto it (altering it somewhat from your original formulation). All human institutions are perpetually in danger of losing their meaning and Ohio is no exception, but OYM has some of the best people resources to explain itself and thereby reconnect faith and practice. In doing so it could inspire and help guide other Friends into explaining themselves in turn. It sounds like the CORE program Raye mentions above is one piece of that important work.

  5. Martin, Wess,

    Just a note about CORE and beyond from someone who served with that group for a few years. . .

    I agree that CORE, like its predecessors, was a very helpful subcommittee for its time. It was formed by Ministry and Oversight to meet some specific needs of the YM.

    I believe that CORE fulfilled its mission well, and most Friends who were part of it sensed that the things the Lord was drawing us toward were for the whole of M&O together, not just a subcommittee. Other leadings, for retreats and educational opportunities, are being followed by the Friends Center. The Holy Spirit’s work is anything but static!

    Since CORE finished up, indeed, M&O has continued to pray and work for encouragement and renewal (among other things) within Ohio Yearly Meeting and beyond. I have been encouraged and renewed as we see what the Lord is doing in each life and in our lives together.

    Should (or rather, when) specific needs arise again, another subcommittee to focus on meeting those needs will also arise, again, I believe. I appreciate Friends’ efforts to follow the Lord’s lead, in assembling, reassembling, disassembling as is fitting for the time and place.


  6. Hey Martin,
    I just remembered that I still needed to respond to your comment.

    Basically, what I said was similar to your “A tradition that loses the ability to explain itself becomes an empty form.??? The idea is taken from MacIntyre’s discussions on narratives that go through an epistemological crisis. In other words, all large-scale programs/projects, traditions, and even human lives go through moments when the very way we conceive of the world is called into question; the very framework from which we investigate reality seems to be unreliable (or is discovered to actually be unreliable).

    I’ve argued elsewhere that Quakerism in general is in this stage. We are losing or have lost our ability to make sense of our tradition in light of our tradition’s text and the challenges of modernity and postmodernity. I think the crisis is most apparent within liberal-Liberal Quakers and I would reference Pink Dandelion’s “Liturgies of Quakerism” to make that point. In this case what it means to be ‘Quaker’ is completely up for grabs – there is no agreed upon epistemological starting point or even common language from which to reconstruct a common identity.

    I think that conservative and evangelical Friends are in the best position, for different reasons, to begin to reconstruct the story. This is why I also talked about convergent-Friends as an experiment and project, I see our works as self-consciously being aware of our tradition, its crisis, and attempting to rewrite the story using all our tradition’s resources while addressing the challenges and questions of today’s world.

    So basically, that’s what I meant.

  7. Hi!
    I’m working on the Quakercamp at Stillwater gathering in cooperation with Friends Center folks this June and wanted to include a photo of the mtghouse. Do you know who took the photo on your website and whether it can be used?