John Michaelis, University Monthly Meetin, Seattle, USA
We all know that our membership and the number of attenders and associates are shrinking. The rate we are shrinking is exponential and a primary cause is aging and death.
The total number of Australian members and attenders is about 2000. This means that for every Quaker there are about 10,000 Australians who are not Quaker. We are a fringe organisation. Most people in Australia will never have a meaningful conversation with a Quaker in their lifetime.
I find it useful to make a few comparisons with other parts of the world. In the United States the ratio of Quakers to non-Quakers is about 1 in 3,600 – that includes programmed Quakers. In England, the ratio is about 1 in 3,000. In Bolivia and Kenya, the ratio is about 1 in 260 – nearly all of them in programmed Yearly Meetings. In New Zealand, its 1 in 5,000. At the height of Quakerism in England, the ratio was 1 in 37.
The New Zealand YM has taken an unusual step in forming an Outreach Committee. I have been part of the several US based YM’s. To my knowledge none of them has or has even considered having an Outreach Committee. I have shared what New Zealand is doing with Quakers in the US and members of at least three US YM’s are monitoring the initiative with interest.
In addition to aging, there are other factors that contribute to our reduction in numbers.
- Fewer of our young people continue as active members than have done in the past.
- If you look round Quaker meetings in Australia it is obvious that most of us are no longer fertile! That means there will be very few Young Quakers as time progresses.
- Young people flock to where other young people are. As we have fewer Young Friends and JYFs, so our ability to attract young people is waning, as is our ability to hold the attention of the few young friends that we have – they are attracted to opportunities to be with young people outside Quakers.
- Even though Quakers punch above our weight in our country and our communities – to use an inappropriate metaphor – there are not many out there that know about our values, our lack of creed and our openness to different belief systems.
I became aware of how ignorant the public is about Quakers when we were walking under a Quaker banner in a peace march in Sydney. A group passed us and one of them said “Oh Quakers; they’re the UFO (unidentified flying object) people”.
- We must not let our stand against proselytizing become phobic! I believe there are many ways we can and should share who we are without crossing proselytizing line.
Advertising and talking about what is important to you can be done in ways that are not proselytizing – A standing joke among AVP (the Alternatives to Violence Project) is that nobody knows about AVP is because we learned how to advertise from Quakers. New Zealand has been brainstorming catchy phrases to attract outsiders. One of my favourites is “Why be weird at home alone? Come join our Quaker meeting. You’ll fit right in.”
- The name “Quakers” isn’t a name that attracts. The name “The Religious Society of Friends” is no better! I have spoken to many outsiders who believe we are odd simply because our name is odd. Also, we indulge in various forms of Quaker-speak – some that is not that clear even to insiders.
Australian society continues to become more secular. The word ‘religious’ today is a turn off. It begs the question “Would ‘The society of friends’ be more enticing to outsiders?”.
Regardless of the name, as Australians move away from religious tradition, Quakers become quite attractive, or would if people knew of our values and non-theist approach.
If we want to overcome the barriers to entry for new members, then as a society we need to place Outreach on our local meeting agenda on a regular basis and consider whether to follow the lead of New Zealand’s Yearly Meeting and form a YM Outreach Committee. Members of their committee are travelling to, and meeting with every local meeting in NZ listen to and share outreach ideas and strategies. Some local meetings in NZ have already formed local Outreach Committees. Quaker facilitated public meetings focused on matters affecting local communities are attracting response from outsiders.
We may need to look hard at some old habits and even some processes that are near and dear to us if we want to attract new blood.
The degree to which we are willing to be involved in Outreach is an open question for each of us individually, our local and regional meetings and our yearly meeting. I believe we must act at all four levels if we wish to grow. The alternative is to submit to the ongoing and rapid decline.
I know of no formal study, but I believe there is a large body of people who would become Quaker if they only knew about and trusted us because they resonate with our beliefs, values, and openness to non-theism.
My own story is that I was a Quaker for many years; my values were Quaker but had I no clue that here was a society that believed as I did. I was aware about Quakers, but thought they were a little odd!
Had I known what Quakers were like and what they stood for, I would have joined much sooner.
I believe there are many out there like me and I hope and pray that we will find ways to reach them.
John Michaelis is a long-time member of New South Wales Regional Meeting who has recently moved to Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Editors’ note: This, we believe, is a vitally important topic, and the very existence of the Society in Australia may depend on our response to the challenge. Please make your views known by adding a comment to the on-line version, or sending a letter to us at firstname.lastname@example.org for publication in a later printed issue of The Australian Friend.