Should we not grow our meeting? Why are we here?

Further to the piece on Richard Rohr’s summary 10 points of emerging contemporary christianity copies of Philip Gulley’s 2010 book If the church were christian are starting to circulate in our meeting.

Described as “the voice of small-town American life” Gulley is a Quaker pastor and writer of several books and the Plain Speech blog.

Being called “pastor” places him in the US Quaker tradition which practises “programmed worship”. Bath Quakers, in common with British Quakers and many Quakers abroad, practise unprogrammed worship. Our commitment to equality leads us to make no distinction between lay people and pastor (for us, there are no lay people; there’s something of god in everyone and we’re all ministers). Nervetheless there is much in common in language and principle between the traditions.

Philip Gulley preaching- image from The Chautaquan Daily

In a book full of powerful observations one passage is particularly resonant for a meeting such as Bath Quakers, which has shed its building and is always considering its scope and purpose. Gulley writes of taking up work as pastor with a small Quaker meeting in urban Indianapolis. founded by Lyman and Harriet Combs.

In my nine years there, I would encounter persons who’d once attended the meeting. Their assessment was universal – “I attended that church when I was really down, and they helped me.” When people would learn I pastored that church. they would tell of stumbling upon that Quaker meeting after a divorce, the death of a loved one, or some other painful experience, and finding comfort, strength and hope.

As gracious as the people were, I was often frustrated by their seeming indifference when it came to church growth. On one occasion, frustrated that the meeting wasn’t growing as quickly as I’d hoped, I asked Harriet why that was.

“I guess it was never our goal to have a large church,” she said.

Our denomination spent considerable resources trying to attract new attendees to our congregation, so I was taken aback by Harriet’s response, which contradicted our denominational priority. I was also young and energetic and harbored a not-so-secret desire to pastor a growing Quaker meeting

“Then why are we here?” I asked Harriet.

“To love,” she said, smiling. She didn’t elaborate…

from If the church were Christian by Philip Gulley, published by HarperOne

This book is rich in anecdotes, mostly anonymised, about how churches in small-town America might switch thir emphasis from judgement, guilt division and sin to reconciliation, forgiveness, equality and redemption. The scope of his vision goes right back to the historic context and Biblical writings of Jesus, but his language and argument has a consisently light touch.

His latest book is Unlearning God: How Unbelieving Helped Me Believe (see review here in the US Friends Journal). All highly recommended new year reading. And there’s a five-minute video interview with him here.

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