A couple of weekends ago I went to the ‘Catching Light’ conference, a gathering of British Quakers focussing on what in other churches would be called evangelism, but Quakers call ‘outreach’.
After a fun time networking and facilitating small discussion group, I came away with the strong impression that we are collectively inarticulate in describing Quakerism. We don’t have the language to describe our own experience in ways non-Quakers can easily understand, and we are inhibited from speaking about Quakerism as a tradition beyond the individual’s understanding of it. As a tutor at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, it’s my job to be articulate about Quaker thinking, and in such a climate of terminological confusion I feel I need to set out my thinking on how we speak Quaker.
Geoffrey Durham, one of the excellent keynote speakers at the conference, spoke compelling about explaining Quakerism in a way that was transparent rather than opaque. To do this, he playfully suggested we abandon the term ‘outreach’ and its odd counterpart ‘inreach’. I find these words dissatisfying in a number of ways, and I feel we already have several words at our fingertips that can do the job better: testimony, ministry and evangelism. ‘But we already have uses for the first two words’ you might say, ‘and the third one is not the sort of word Quakers should be using’. In response, I would like to propose that:
- What most Quakers describe as ‘testimonies’ are better described as values.
- We use ‘ministry’ in a confusingly flexible way, either assuming it to refer only to words spoken in Meeting for Worship, or using it to cover a whole host of activity.
- ‘Evangelical’ is seen as a negative term, synonymous with proselytising and abusive fundamentalism. It is very easy for Liberal British Quakers to talk negatively about Evangelical traditions, ignoring the fact that there are many shades of Evangelicalism, and that most of the world Quaker family is Evangelical.
I feel we can use these three words in a more meaningful way, providing us with powerful replacements for ‘outreach’ and ‘inreach’.
It is very common for Quakers to speak of the ‘testimonies’ as a list of values that Quakers share. Speaking of the testimonies in this way began relatively recently in Quaker history, appearing in print in the 1940s.
Such a list makes it easy to describe what Quakers value, but in my experience it miscommunicates Quakerism in several ways. It makes newcomers feel inadequate – ‘I don’t think I can live a simple enough life to be a Quaker’ – and suggests that our Quaker identity is found in our commitment to such values. I believe that being a Quaker is not about being good, but about being faithful. It’s not the simplicity of our homes, or the peace marches we go on that make us Quakers, it’s our faithfulness to the Spirit as discerned by the gathered Meeting.
Speaking of these values as ‘testimonies’ is also an obstacle to using ‘testimony’ in a much more authentic way, to describe living out our faith in the World. ‘Testimony’ and ‘witness’ are closely linked. When we testify, we proclaim what we have witnessed, allowing our ‘carriage and life [to] preach among all sorts of people, and to them… answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.’
Testimony is a movement outwards, beyond the Quaker community. When our witness inspires or challenges others, ‘answering that of God’ in them, it is doing the job of outreach, but with a clear rootedness in our spiritual experience. We are communicating what we ourselves have witnessed. Whereas ‘outreach’ may be suggestive of handing someone a leaflet, ‘testimony’ offers a much more powerful word, rooted in powerful experience.
I have heard ‘ministry’ used to refer to many things, including what I’ve just described as testimony. Just as I feel ‘testimony’ is better understood when partnered with ‘witness’, so ‘ministry’ becomes a more useful word when partnered with ‘service’. When we minister to one another, we are serving one another. As ‘testimony’ is a movement outwards, ‘ministry’ is a movement inwards. I feel ministry is best described as the offering of our gifts to build up the worshipping community. Vocal ministry is one such gift (and some are more gifted at it than others), but it is not the only gift. Our ministries are as diverse as the individuals who make up our Meetings. The Apostle Paul wrote to the early church in Ephesus that ‘the gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ’ [Eph 4:11-13].
When we speak of ‘inreach’, an odd Quaker word used only as the opposite of ‘outreach’, we would do better to talk of ‘ministry’ – what we do in service to our Friends to build up the community and foster our collective growth towards spiritual maturity. ‘So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church’ [1 Cor 14:12].
I realise this is a difficult word for many Quakers. For those of us who have negative experiences of Evangelical churches, the word can carry a lot of baggage. I feel we should not allow such experiences to rob us of a rich and useful word.
We may also associate evangelism with aggressive proselytising. I’d like to draw a distinction between these two words. Proselytising is about self-replication. In saying that Quakers do not proselytise we are saying that the purpose of the Quaker tradition isn’t to make more Quakers. The point of a Quaker Meeting isn’t to keep itself going. I agree! I’m not interested in proselytising in the slightest. I am however very interested in evangelising.
To be an evangelist is to literally be a messenger of good news. To use this word presents us with an immediate challenge. What is the ‘good news’ of Quakerism? What is the Quaker gospel? We are challenged to articulate our individual and collective story. In what way is the Quaker tradition good news for you? In what way is the Quaker story good news for others, particularly the poor?
For me, ‘outreach’ is an insipid, opaque term, that doesn’t really communicate what we’re trying to do, either to others or ourselves. Testimony, ministry and evangelism may be trickier, less comfortable words, but I believe they are powerful tools for articulating our purpose and our methods. We just need to reclaim them.