In its May issue, Friends Journal published a sloppy, unprofessional article on Quaker membership trends that does a major disservice to its readers and Friends generally. (Not online when this was posted.) Here are key quotes from the article, which is an interview with FWCC US staff:
In North America, FWCC has reported a decrease of about 10,000 over the past five years. . . . Why do you think the Society of Friends is growing in other parts of the world but not in the United States? And are there growing segments of Friends in the United States?
[FWCC]: The growth is the result of an active effort of evangelical Friends to share the good news.
My comment: The above statement contains damaging inaccuracies.
Where US Quakerism is losing numbers most rapidly is precisely among the pastoral/evangelical branches which are dedicated to “sharing” their “good news.” In fact, the record shows convincingly that if US Friends want to “grow,” they should sedulously avoid “evangelism,” because the results over decades demonstrate it to be a counterproductive waste of time and money.
One brief example will illustrate this point: Baltimore and North Carolina (FUM) Yearly Meetings are “next door neighbors” on the mid-Atlantic coast. Baltimore is liberal, unprogrammed, and has been growing steadily for many years. In sharp contrast, North Carolina (NCYM), which is pastoral and evangelical, has been declining rapidly for years. (Sources are below.)
Here’s a thumbnail: Between 1996 and 2006, NCYM shrank from 11562 members to 7019, a decline of 39%. It also lost 10 churches.
Meanwhile, between 1991 and 2011 Baltimore YM grew from 4047 to 4708 members, an increase of 16%, and started ten new meetings.
This comparison is not exact, but the trends are clear: North Carolina is in deep, deep trouble, and it’s not alone in this plight. (You can read a more recent summary of its dire state in the YM’s own words here. ) Baltimore, while hardly perfect, is neither endangered nor even shrinking. Such reports of its approaching demise are not merely exaggerated; they are false. Nor is it alone.
Yet BYM is not involved in “evangelism”; and its “outreach” is meager. Still it grows. Why? How? Those are good questions, which deserve more attention than can be given them here.
It’s also worth noting here that the Quaker bodies which are losing ground the fastest in the US include those which have been most resistant to affirming LGBT Friends, and most supportive of the political crusades of the Religious Right, including support for the recent wars. So why liberal bodies whose “good news” is welcoming to gays, challenging to the war machine, and seeks constructive alternatives to rightwing culture war campaigns should be imitating these groups escapes me, especially when such efforts don’t even work on their own terms.
So it is sad to see the FJ article’s purported good news about “growing segments of Friends in the United States” completely bypassing the documented, encouraging facts about YMs like Baltimore that have steadily expanded. Instead it focuses on the reported appearance of some scattered Hispanic oriented evangelical congregations in the US (about which, however, it has no data whatever), and “the continued growth of small Christian-Quaker worship groups. Some of them have been more visible online and others are more locally focused.”
They have also been special interests of both the FWCC staffer and the FJ interviewer. But like the Hispanic groups, what evidence is offered about an actual “upsurge” in the number and weight of these gatherings?
Well, actually none.
As the FWCC staffer concedes: “I don’t think there’s been any concerted effort to collect statistics on these.”
So all we really know is that these two people like them. Based on the shoddy use of data on offer here, this is not exactly a convincing case, and the obvious bias (ignoring YMs with solidly measurable track records to boost a scattered, undocumented coterie) is tendentious to say the least. Perhaps they will get back to us about them when there is some authentic data gathered; if there ever is.
One last but important point concerns the international numbers on the new FWCC map. The FJ interviewer asks “Why do you think the Society of Friends is growing in other parts of the world . . .?” But in truth, it’s not easy to know where such growth is real or only apparent. FWCC accepts the numbers sent in.
But count me skeptical: in poor countries, population and demographic statistics are notoriously unreliable. Among the reasons in many places are deeply rooted patterns of corruption at many levels. In Kenya, particularly, there has been plenty of corruption in Kenyan Quaker circles too, and their numbers should be regarded with great reserve, even disbelief. (Here’s an informed observer’s discussion of this probleml )
Furthermore, I’ve had in depth conversations with educated Kenya Quakers, of good reputation and wide acquaintance in church circles, who reported that the Friends church there is actually in considerable trouble, sapped by corruption and internal quarrels, and losing very many younger members to rival sects. I can’t fully verify these reports, but they are as credible as untested numbers from official sources widely known to be unreliable; to me, more so. (After all, something similar is happening among many US evangelical churches.) By contrast, the impressions of visitors from the US who attend short conferences, don’t speak local languages, and are guided around by officials with agendas, are just that, impressions.
Kenya is important here, because its reputed membership is by far the world’s largest — 146,000 on the new FWCC map, twice as large as the US Quaker numbers. That is, it may be the largest; who really knows?
About other countries I will not speak, for lack of information. But I would suggest an assertively challenging stance toward the meme that evangelical Quakerism is burgeoning around the world, while the fey liberals of North America are dying out. Much of the purported evidence for this from overseas is quite shaky; and as we have seen, applying this “analysis” to the US is just plain bogus.
The FWCC interview reminds US liberal Quakers that “some humility and openness to learning is a good thing.” Which indeed they are. At the same time, I contend they (we) have little to be apologetic or defensive about either.
So contrary to the FJ interview’s thrust, I would urge liberal Friends not to be dismayed or disheartened by such unsupported refrains as the “dying US Quakerism” claptrap. Stand up and talk back to it. Do not let it rain on your peaceful, spiritually progressive parade.
And don’t fall for bogus scaremongering.
Meantime, Quaker officials and “journalists” who spread such dubious and tendentious “information” should clean up their act. It undermines your credibility. Friends deserve better and more professional performance from you.
The FWCC map is here:
The BYM data is from the 1991 and 2011 BYM Yearbooks.
The NCYM-FUM data is from their 1996 and 2006 Yearbooks.