Quakers & Membership: The Ifs, Ands, & Butts

Quakers & Membership: The If, Ands, & Butts

Did you know?

American churchgoers lie about how often they go to church.

It’s a fact. Americans LIE about going to church. They (we) lie habitually; we lie ecumenically; we lie shamelessly; and we lie on the record.

In the classic studies, researchers first polled people from carefully selected churches, and 50 per cent said they attended church weekly. Then the pollsters compared this with actual Sunday head counts in the same churches, which showed that only half of those who claimed to be there actually showed up. These results have been replicated numerous times.


Which means that for every “churchgoer” telling the truth, another was lying. 

Let’s keep this result in mind when talking about Quaker membership statistics. Because some more needs to be said about them.

A few readers have pointed out that, in my 09/28/2015 post on how North Carolina YM-FUM has been losing members dramatically while Baltimore YM next door has been steadily growing, the measurements were not precisely equivalent. 

The BYM total of “around 7000” cited by its interim General Secretary included both attenders and members, while NCYM’s 6500 numbers were supposedly members only. 

The key term here, I think, is “precisely.” Recent Quaker membership statistics, in my experience as a reporter/researcher, are anything but precise.

Quaker-Birth-RecordMany historians feel differently about Quaker numbers during the first, say, 200 years: Friends’ record-keeping regarding births, deaths, transfers, disownments, and so forth, are regarded by many scholars as meticulous and highly reliable.

And who am I to question these worthies? 

But that was then.

Nowadays, what do we find?

That Quakers today fit right in with the pattern established by denominations that are much larger (but not, it seems, as large as they claim). Indeed, working with Friends’ records moves me to revise the old saw from my peacenik days at Quaker House in Fayetteville/Fort Bragg: 

“There’s lies, damned lies, statistics, Pentagon cost estimates — and bringing up the rear, Quaker membership numbers.”

This goes not only for the utterly fanciful data presented by FWCC about foreign yearly meetings in countries where census figures are chronically unreliable. It also applies to reports from meetings in the supposedly high-tech first world setting of Baltimore YM and NCYM-FUM.

And let’s not stop there. In communication with Bob Rhudy, the interim General Secretary for Baltimore YM, I learned that other YMs grapple with even bigger gaps than average. In Philadelphia (PYM), for instance, where the official number is around 11,000, PYM staff recently instituted a periodic practice which I call the BITS survey. 

BITS stands for Butts In The Seats: several First Days a year, PYM sends visitors to meetings for the BITS survey; the BITS counts butts.

And compared to the “OP” (On Paper) tally of 11,000, the BITS butt count has yielded a deflating, or more charitably, humbling tally of about 3000 living, reliable participants for PYM, barely a quarter of the “official” number.

Butts-NOT-In-The-SeatsWhy the huge discrepancies? A variety of factors: recordkeeping by volunteers, who are very rarely get around to the laborious chore of “cleaning a list,” removing all who are dead, comatose, in their second quarter-century of living across the country, or have been sojourning with The Church of The Sunday Paper since 1987. 

Further, in some YMs, that’s not to mention “birthright” Friends who are on the list because their parents (and maybe several sets of grandparents) were on it, and out at the burial ground, some are still in it.

Even more delicate: what about meetings where whole battalions of Friends, who were made “Junior Members” at birth, were supposed to confirm their membership at 21 — except they never bothered, and now they (or the survivors) are in their 40s, and the Clerks are way too timid to actually, you know, seek them out and ask them to fish or cut bait. (Plus, in many liberal meetings, the entire notion of “membership” itself is increasingly suspect — a total can of worms.)

I also remember one year when the membership of Baltimore YM, after steadily rising for more than a decade, suddenly dipped by over a hundred. Good grief, I thought, when I saw the number: what have we here? An unacknowledged schism? A raid by Zen Buddhist privateers? A dreadful epidemic?

Nothing so dramatic. The largest monthly meeting had simply nominated a recording Clerk who actually DID go over the membership list and culled out the dead, the de-converted, and the decamped. (Actual, you know, attendance had hardly budged, I was assured.) The following year, the numbers climb resumed.

What does a humble scribe/blogger do in the face of such uncertain and unreliable data? The answer is relatively simple, if not very “precise”: one attends meetings, especially annual sessions, over a number of years, reads many reports and gathers impressions, then considers the recorded numbers as part of the mix. 

In this jumbled mass of “data,” one looks above all for trends: to use an analogy, if we lack reliable instruments for judging the precise depth of our various Quaker “ponds,” we can still hope to get a pretty plausible bead on whether their water level is rising, or falling. 

And that’s what I have done with BYM and NCYM-FUM: attended them collectively close to forty times. Read many minutes and reports, absorbed lots of numbers.

And while the figures might be “imprecise,” vulnerable to flunking the BITS test — well, the trend, I still believe, is unmistakable: Baltimore is growing, its morale is pretty good; NCYM has been shrinking, and its morale is, um, challenged.

To be sure, within these overall patterns, there are some meetings bucking the trends, growing in NCYM or declining in Baltimore. But overall, I stand by my sense of the trends.

As to what accounts for the rising tide in Baltimore, and the drying up in NCYM, that’s a rich subject, but trickier: harder to nail down, and it elicits more debate.  We’ll get to it another time.

Meantime, will Quaker membership records ever regain their old-time precision and credibility? 

I’m doubtful. For one thing, in those “simpler” times, before Social Security and Medicare, membership records were very important credentials for those in need. And when communities were smaller and scattered, they were much like passports and could even be a kind of credit card.

Today? Regardless of how various yearly meetings tally their members/participants, in almost fifty years among Friends, visiting them in three other countries too, I’ve taken many private BITS counts. But I can’t recall ever meeting a Quaker with a “membership card,” of any kind.

But there’s much of Quakerdom I haven’t visited, so maybe I missed it: is there any yearly meeting today populated by “card-carrying” Quakers?  If so, please tell me about it.

– – – – – – – –

For Those Who Want More on this Topic:

Here is a book review from  Quaker Theology, Issue #21, page 91ff, of the book, American Religion, Contemporary Trends, by Mark Chaves. Princeton University Press, 2011, 135 pages. 

Reviewed by Chuck Fager 

Most Quaker groups I know of worry about growing. Whether they call it “outreach” or evangelism, whether they preach about it endlessly or only whisper furtively in the hallways, the desire, the need for more members and attenders hangs over Friends like an ever-present specter. 

Chaves-American-Religion-Cover-Church-GrowthThis concern (obsession?) is as prevalent in large pastoral churches with many staff as it is in small silent meetings wondering how to pay the light bill. In response, barely a season goes by without a new outreach/evangelistic scheme popping up and seemingly catching fire, be it “friendship evangelism” for the pastorals or “Quaker Quest” among the unprogrammed liberals. Some are quite expensive, requiring training sessions, purchase of materials, consultants’ visits, and so forth. 

And just as quickly, it seems, these programs fade, like last year’s must-have video game or a shark-jumping “reality” show. They recede, alas, because they don’t show results after the early flurry. And in the Quaker groups which are losing members most rapidly (you know who you are; your name is legion), an undertone of desperation can be detected in discussions about their future; if the tide can’t be turned, Friends, oblivion – denominational as well as congregational– lurks not far around the corner. 

Where, the urgent query rises as eyes anxiously scan the clouded horizon, where can we find real help? 

Right here, I’m pleased to report. 

Mark Chaves has it all, in this slim, packed, award-winning volume. A professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke University, his American Religion, Contemporary Trends, sums up more than 40 years of careful, wide-ranging, and impartial survey research on U.S. Protestantism. And in this body of work are all the time-tested ingredients needed for solid, continuing church growth, which I’ll pass on to you presently, no extra charge. 

But first, a bit of background. The overall picture of American Protestant Christianity which emerges in Chaves’s pages is not, at first blush, an optimistic one. For one thing, church attendance has been stagnant since at least the 1970s, and now there are signs of slow but gathering decline. (The trend seems clear, even though Americans obscure it by habitually lying to pollsters about their religiosity, claiming to attend church substantially more often than they actually do. (43-45)) But they haven’t fooled Chaves: “Any talk of increased religious participation in the United States in recent decades,” he declares flatly, “is baseless.” (47) 

For another, the prospects for smaller congregations (which includes most Friends meetings) seem dim indeed: churchgoing Americans continue to flock to and swell the rolls of the so-called megachurches (65f), while the smaller ones dwindle: collection plates get emptier, and the main way their membership grows is older. 

It used to be that this church shrinkage was primarily a liberal or “Mainline” problem, while evangelical bodies kept expanding, and took the differential as a sign of divine favor. 

But that was then. In the past fifteen years, the Mainline virus has seeped widely across the Mason-Dixon line. (92, 131) Now even the once-mighty Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant association and one long under staunchly evangelical control, has been losing numbers and money bigtime. (Barna; Rankin; Stepp) 

Meanwhile, the fastest-growing category on the religious landscape is the un-churched. (18f) Few of them are actually atheists (though non-theist numbers are on the rise), but they seem content to deal with God or Whoever on their own, thank you very much. Yet for the custodians of institutional religion, their indifference is just as great a calamity as if they were out-and-out unbelievers. 

So, as Chaves repeats, anybody who tells you the U.S. is undergoing some kind of religious revival is either ignorant, or kidding: themselves, you or both. 

Yet, amid the overall gloom, there are (non-mega) churches which are growing, some quite rapidly, and the reasons for their increase come down to a startlingly simple formula. Simple, but time-tested, and not limited to a particular doctrinal system. 

What is it? Get out your tablets and prepare to pound the keys, Friends, because here it is: 

The Guaranteed Formula For Church Growth 

Step 1. Have lots of kids. And;
Step 2. Hang on to most of them. 

That’s it. 

As Chaves says, “Differential fertility has produced approximately 80 percent of the shifting fortunes of liberal and conservative Protestant churches.” (88) Until the past generation, evangelicals had the growth drill down pat: their fertility was high, and busy youth ministries kept young people (and many parents) involved all the way through the high school years. (89) 

The “retention difference,” Chaves explains, “probably exists because evangelical families place more emphasis on religion than mainline families do, and conservative churches involve young people in a denser social web of youth groups, church camps, and church-based socializing, all of which increase the chances that a young person will remain in the fold as an adult.” (90) After that much programming, even many young adults who wander off for a decade or so tend to drift back when they have kids of their own. Or at least, they used to. 

By the way, contrary to some reports, Chaves notes that only about 10 percent of youths who drop out of liberal churches then turn to the evangelicals. The rest then “drop in” to the “none-of-the-above-ites,” who don’t go to church at all. (87) 

To repeat: if your group wants church growth, have lots of kids and keep most of them. That’s the law and the prophets. The once robust growth rate of evangelical churches, Chaves reiterates, came “because their families produced more children than did mainline families and because they retained the people they had better than liberal denominations did.” (91)


What? Is that reader resistance I’m already feeling? Did someone say it has to be more complicated than that? 

Go ahead, cavil. Check it out for yourself (the book is short, barely 130 pages of widely-spaced, accessibly written text), and ponder the results. See if you find any way around it. 

But what about all those nifty evangelism/outreach programs? Don’t they work? 

Basically, no. 

Sure, some bring in newcomers, a few of whom will stay. But if you look only at the visitors coming in the front door, Friend, thee will fail to notice the other attenders slipping out the side and back doors. Attrition is an ongoing fact. In the face of such erosion, outreach work is at best a wash, that maintains the status quo; except usually not quite. 

By contrast, evidence for the efficacy of this “Guaranteed Formula” runs all through the research Chaves summarizes, and is widely confirmed from outside it too: the Amish and the Mormons are Exhibits A and B. Many Islamic groups are Exhibit I; Orthodox Jews are Exhibit J. 

With the remedy in view, let’s look back at the American Society of Friends, to gauge the implications. 

One word sums them up: dire. 

Overall, U.S. Quakers flunk the formula test on both counts. Our fertility is very low, and our retention record ranges from tepid to dreadful. 

On the one side, liberal Friends have for years been under the sway of an eco-orthodoxy that, stripped of softening verbiage, basically regards having children as a sin against earth. For instance, the leading Friends environmental group long offered grants for Quaker men to have vasectomies, and urges fertile Friends to consider adoption rather than bearing children themselves. (Vasectomy; Adoption) Clearly, from their perspective, one of the many crises facing the world is that there are too many Quakers, and they are eager to help us eliminate ourselves. On the other side, our religious ed programs are, to put it kindly, mostly unpersuasive, and often mainly a flimsy faith in osmosis. 

The record among most pastoral groups is, if possible, even worse, though perhaps for different reasons. The Clerk of a pastoral yearly meeting that was once one of the largest, but has shrunk to half the size in a generation, summed their situation up for me this way: “We’re too male, too pale, and too stale.” 

They also fit the latest research, that Chaves only alludes to, which shows that most evangelical groups have definitely lost their mojo on the formula front: not only are birthrates down, but despite frenetic effort, they are hemorrhaging young adults, the fabled Millennials, legions of whom are voting with their feet against the spirit of rightwing obscurantism and repression that largely reigns among their churches. (91, 99f; Barna). 

For both wings of Quakerdom, fertility is being further suppressed by the ongoing economic drag of the current economic depression: births in the U.S. have fallen for each of the past four years. (CBS; CDC) So for many younger Quakers today, starting a family is seen as too great a financial risk. 

Well. In light of this bleak survey, what is to be done? 

The great economist John Maynard Keynes liked to speak of “animal spirits” as a mysterious source of “positive decisions”, be they “moral or hedonistic or economic.” They involve trust, confidence, optimism, and a sense of adventurous courage, all of which can be affected by many environmental factors. (Keynes) 

Clearly, American Friends could use a major boost in their “animal spirits.” Those in their fertile years could begin seeking one by rethinking (and rejecting) the propaganda that stigmatizes producing Quaker kids as treason against the planet. Older Quakers could encourage them in this overdue reappraisal, then focus on the retention side, supporting young parents, and helping create and staff the “denser social webs” that knit meeting communities together and keep youth (among others) engaged. For pastorals, it would also help to cut out the “Christian” Right malarkey. 

I’m well aware that these suggestions are easy to make, but hard to execute, for a myriad of reasons, both internal and external. The temptation to avoid dealing with them, and instead send a committee running after the latest outreach/evangelism nostrum is understandable. But to paraphrase the Catholic teachers of my youth, extra ecclesiam, nulla salus: outside the Guaranteed Formula, there is little hope in sight. 

Chaves does not mince words: “The religious trends I have documented [of the past 40+ years] point to a straight-forward general conclusion: no indicator of traditional religious belief or practice is going up . . . . If there is a trend, it is toward less religion.” (110) 

Given the record amply documented in this compact, eye-opening survey, our respective status quos and their self- limiting orthodoxies are also a recipe for continued Quaker decline, or worse. 

Keynes was no Quaker, but his words still resonate: “Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive, the full consequences of which will be drawn out over many days to come, can only be taken as the result of animal spirits – a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities.” 

I’m not an economist, but I suspect that if Keynes had been a Quaker, his rendering of “animal spirits” for us today would be what they used to call, “Grace.” 

Other Works Cited: 

Barna Group, “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave church,” September 28, 2011, http://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/528-six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church 

CBS News, US Birthrate drops for fourth year; http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-501367_162-57524932/baby-bus t-continues-us-births-down-for-4th-year/ 

CDC report on birthrate: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr61/nvsr61_05.pdf 

Keynes, John M. (1936). The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. London. Macmillan. pp. 161-162. 

QEW: Quaker Earthcare Witness, ‘Men-4-Men,” Vasectomy grants: http://archive.quakerearthcare.org/Publications/Pamphlets/PamphletPDFs/M4Mc.pdf ) 

———-, Adoption: http://www.quakerearthcare.org/Publications/Pamphlets/Pamphl etPDFs/Adoption.pdf. 

Rankin, Russ, Lifeway Christian Resources, “Southern Baptists decline in baptisms, membership, attendance.” June 9, 2011. http://www.lifeway.com/Article/Southern-baptists-decline-in-baptisms-membership-attendance 

Stepp, Laura Sessions, “Why Young Evangelicals Are Leaving Church,” Special for CNN, December 16, 2p0011. http://www.cnn.com/2011/12/16/opinion/stepp-millennials-churc h/index.html 

2 thoughts on “Quakers & Membership: The Ifs, Ands, & Butts”

  1. Britain YM, to which I belong, has a ‘paper’ membership of about 13000, not including attenders, but they did a random spot check a few years back and on that particular Sunday there were about 5000 actually at meeting.

    Ohio YM, to which I used to be affiliated, seems to have a large number of birthright members who no-one ever sees. I was told by a member that the ‘active’ membership numbers about 100.

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