If you are new to Friends you may have many questions about who we are and what we do. Well, we have answers! And sometimes, we have more than one answer to these kinds of questions! That’s because there are many different varieties of Quaker. Though we work hard to be united in Christ, and very much believe God seeks to guide us together, we come from different places, have different experiences, and express our individual faith journeys in diverse ways. These responses to some “frequently asked questions” reflect a general perspective of those of us in Friends United Meeting, but are not intended to express an “authoritative answer” for all of us.
Yes, we do still exist and probably very near you! Sometimes to our detriment, Friends are not very outgoing when it comes to outreach. We tend to trust God to do the best job of calling people to a life of faith and into a spiritual community. But we are here—eager to embrace any and all who are interested in pursuing a life of faithfulness and obedience to the Living Christ. Though there used to be many more of us in Europe and the United States, the vast majority of us now live in East Africa and South America. Forgive us if it feels like we are hiding in plain sight. That is not our intention and we would love to get to know you!
Every day! In fact, at our best, Friends are in worship and service each and every moment—believing Christ is always with us and willing to guide us wherever we are! We believe we are called to seek and embody God’s will on earth because this is the highest and best form of worship we can offer. When it comes to times when the community gathers for more formal worship, this generally takes place on Sunday, or as some Friends would call it, “First Day” (since it is the first day of the week). In some places, however, you will find Friends meetings and churches who gather on a weekday evening or Saturday night.
This is not generally true. Occasionally, you might wander into a Meetinghouse where people sit in absolute silence for an hour. Even then, it would be our expectation that God is speaking and those Friends are doing the careful work of listening!
Among Friends, there are three general forms of worship. One is often referred to as “waiting worship” or “unprogrammed Meeting for worship.” This form of gathered worship is usually an hour long. Friends will come in to the Meetinghouse and settle into silence, turning their attention to God and seeking to be united in the Holy Spirit. Trusting God’s ability to teach us together and call different ones to share a message, Friends may rise and offer vocal ministry. What is spoken is intended to reflect what the person has heard the Spirit speak inwardly and led them to share with others in the fellowship. In a Meeting that is particularly “gathered,” it is common to hear very powerful, prophetic ministry where several Friends have been led to give complimentary messages the build on each other.
A second form of Friends worship is often called “semi-programmed.” This form of worship usually includes a healthy time of silence (15 minutes or more) that is combined with singing, a sermon/prepared message, announcements, readings, etc. Usually in semi-programmed gatherings, the time for waiting worship in the silence is understood to be the heart of worship and the place where Friends experience their deepest communion in Christ and with one another.
The third form of Quaker worship is referred to as “programmed worship,” and will often look like a more typical protestant-evangelical worship service. Being a Friends gathering, it will almost always include some silence, though it may be brief.
Regardless of the form, Friends operate from the perspective that it is God who is directing the worship service. Within an unprogrammed Meeting, this direction is understood to happen without any pre-planning. Within the semi-programmed or programmed tradition, there is an awareness that God is able to lead us in advance, as we plan and prepare to be together in God’s presence.
Many local Friends communities do have pastors. These are women and men who have experienced a call to serve within the Quaker fellowship. Often, they will have had some theological and biblical training to go alongside the unique mix of gifts and experiences each one brings to their particular church. Quaker pastoral ministry has many forms. Some pastors are released to serve their fellowships “full-time” being completely supported by the congregation. Others will work part-time or bi-vocationally. Especially throughout the developing world, bi-vocational service is the norm.
Pastors teach, preach, counsel, and help administer the work of the church. They often focus on developing the spiritual growth, outreach and service work of individuals and the entire congregation. Typically, Friends pastors get involved in the wider community, finding opportunities for service, helping to promote peace and justice, and sharing the good news of the gospel with those who interested. While sensing a call from God to this role and often being specifically trained for service, most Quaker pastors adopt an attitude and approach based on servant leadership. Released by the community to serve and equip the church for service, these ministers understand the work of God is to be carried out by everyone in the fellowship. Therefore, “ministering to the ministers” is more of the approach by Friends pastors, than being the only minister that is recognized or authentically equipped.
Here is one of those places where context and culture probably shape us more than anything. Generally speaking, Friends are pretty informal and are unlikely to comment on what any new person might wear to worship. Depending on the place, you might find shorts and t-shirts or suits and dresses. In Africa, you will find traditional tribal clothing, khakis and three-piece suits all in the same community. In most places, people wear what makes them comfortable and pay little attention to dressing in a way that seeks to impress others. If it is your first Sunday to visit a Friends Meeting or Church—come as you are!
Worship is not a time to impress others, and we suspect God is much more interested in the condition of our hearts than the style of our dress. Typically, Friends opt for simplicity of dress, believing our attention, time, and treasure ought to be devoted to the things that matter much more than what we wear.
One of the common misunderstandings about Quakers is the idea that we reject two of the most important sacraments within Christianity—communion and baptism. While this is not the case, the fact that there is confusion about this just might mean Friends have some explaining to do!
It is true that most Quakers do not practice the outward rite of water baptism. Throughout the history of the church, fierce battles have been waged over how this sacrament should be administered and who is authorized to perform it. Among Christians who view it more as outward declaration of faith and entrance into the community of the faithful, there have been severe disagreements over when this should take place. Quakers have taken the position that the essential baptism comes from God, who is able to transform our lives by the purifying and animating power of the Holy Spirit. All of the water in the world and every form of ceremonial washing is not sufficient to do this necessary work within us. Quakers do not argue that water baptism is in any way wrong—it is simply insufficient.
A similar perspective shapes our view of communion or the Lord’s Supper. What was initial a community meal and time for remembering the Presence of the Risen Christ among the church in the New Testament, quickly took on a great deal of formality. By the time the Friends movement emerged, the celebration of the bread and wine seemed to have lost much of its meaning and transforming power. In an effort to find the root (literally, the radical or essential reality) of communion, Friends focused on what it means to live in ongoing communion with the Holy Spirit and how within the gathered silence of community worship we are able to feed on The Living Bread that sustains us and share the New Wine that gives us life.
Behind these, and other special “sacraments,” Friends have sought to understand all of life as a sacramental encounter with God. Each and every moment, if we are able willing to engage it, is an opportunity to receive and reveal the grace of God in and through our lives.
The Bible has a unique and special place in the life of our community. Along with being the story of God’s intimate interactions with others throughout history, the Old and New Testament give us a written account of the teachings, doctrines and examples that shape and direct our individual lives and our life together.
In their Essential Truths, Rufus Jones and James Wood said it this way:
The Holy Scriptures were given by inspiration of God and are the divinely authorized record of the doctrines which Christians are bound to accept, and of the moral principles which are to regulate their lives and actions. In them, as interpreted and unfolded by the Holy Spirit, is an ever fresh and unfailing source of spiritual truth for the proper guidance of life and practice.
Practically speaking, this means we take our study of the Bible seriously, believing it helps us know what is true (orthodoxy), but just as essentially, also helps us live faithfully into the truth (orthopraxy). Just knowing what is good and right is not sufficient—the truth must be a lived reality
Because the Bible is a book written over many centuries, by several different authors, and in cultural contexts far different from our own, we also recognize and take seriously the challenge of interpretation. While much of the Bible offers clear and consistent guidance, some teachings are more obscure. Sincere followers of Christ can disagree on the nuances of particular doctrines and/or the practical application of a biblical idea.
For most Friends, the authority of the written word of God is best revealed when we rely on the authority of the Living Word of God to teach us and guide us into all truth. Believing that Christ continues to speak to us and seeks to direct our lives and life together, we study scripture as eager students, under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit. When our interpretations vary or we confront an issue not addressed in the Bible, we rely on leading of the Spirit to direct (and often redirect) our shared understanding of what it meant and how we are called to live. This can be very challenging work, indeed! Each of us bring assumptions and biases to our study of the scripture. We are all constantly learners, even though we continue to mature in the faith. None of us, on our own, have a complete and fully–accurate understanding of God. We absolutely need one another and our Present Teacher, Jesus Christ, to grow together in faith, understanding, and obedience.
It is not too uncommon for Quakers to be misidentified with the members of the Amish community. Probably, this confusion traces back to the fact that Friends were, at one time in our history, known for our “plain dress.” Quakers of an earlier era (and a small subset of Friends to this day) adopted particularly simple clothing as a counter-cultural, outward expression of our spiritual commitment to simplicity. Amish wear similarly plain clothing for this reason and many others.
Though there are similarities in Amish and Quaker spirituality, they arose at different times and with unique emphases as renewal movements within the broader Christian tradition.
Early Quakers quickly gained a reputation for honest dealing in business. They believed it was a matter of integrity and honest to offer a great product or service at a fair price. Rather than bartering they established set prices that were not aimed at taking advantage of the buyer and provided a living and reasonable wage for themselves.
The well-known “Quaker Oats guy” is not an actual person. The image is a creation of a business that has never had any connection to Friends. Since the late 1800s they have been using an image of a Quaker to identify the company and the product as one promoting the Friends’ values of honesty, integrity, purity, and strength. Quakers have not always appreciated the company’s use of this logo (even if they love the oatmeal!).
For the most part, Quakers seldom pay attention to titles or formalities. In the pastoral tradition of Friends, the pastor plays a unique role in the life of the congregation but not an elevated role. Most often, a Quaker minister will recognize she or he is released by the community to “minister to the ministers,” by encouraging, equipping, and teaching them toward a life of faithful service. Usually Quaker pastors are known by their names rather than any title or degree they may hold..
To his first followers, Jesus gave a simple invitation: “Follow me.” Since that time, the path of discipleship has been understood to be our trusting response and yielding obedience to God’s gracious initiative. Recognizing our need for God, we turn from our way and become enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit to walk in a new way.
For early Friends, this process of deep spiritual transformation was known as convincement. It was an often fiery and painful process of truly knowing our need for God, for forgiveness, and for renewal on a personal and cosmic basis. As Friends came through this process, however, they regularly experienced new-found liberation, joy, and peace.
Faith, from the perspective of Friends, is not a one-time event. Rather it is an ongoing encounter with Christ. It is moment-by-moment attention to God and our willingness to walk in the way we are shown. This—more than taking on the name Quaker or becoming a member of a local Meeting or Church—is what “becoming a Quaker” is really all about. It may begin in a moment in time, as one turns inwardly to yield to Christ, and it carries on through time as we seek to know and follow our Teacher and Guide, Christ Jesus the Lord.
Faith and the process of spiritual renewal, however, is never fully accomplished in isolation. We are, in fact, called to become “the people of God” every bit as much as we are invited into a personal encounter with God. For this reason and many others, immersion into a life-giving fellowship of Friends is essential to “becoming a Quaker.” It is in community that we best learn to attend, discern, and mind the leading of the Spirit. Within the classroom of community, we practice the daily lessons of sacrificial love, forgiveness, mutual accountability and support, generosity—habits which often take a lifetime to learn. In the laboratory of community, we experiment with our God-given gifts, make a start on understanding our particular life calling, and attempt our first forays into ministry. In the safety and nurture of a healthy Quaker community, we become prepared to be ministers of reconciliation and light in the darkness.
Within our history, and among some members in the present, there have been very strict standards around events and activities that seem frivolous, that might lead to vanity, impurity or pride. For some Friends, at different times, dancing was one such activity.
More commonly nowadays, a less restrictive approach is generally accepted. Especially as our community has widened to include much more expressive cultures—as in the case of East African Friends—dancing in worship has become part of our practice.
So, do Quakers dance? As with many things the answer lies in who you talk to!
No—or at least probably not. With a population of only about 450 people, the country known as “Vatican City” has an overwhelming number of Catholics. At last count, no Quakers are known to live there. The country of Tuvalu—with less than 10,000 inhabitants—may also not have any Quakers.
Having said that—there are Quakers in lots and lots of different places. Sometimes, our fellowships are small and isolated—but we are around and eager to get to know you!
As one of the historic “peace churches” Friends have an earned reputation for being “against war.” More positively and important, Friends are clearly “for peace.”
But aren’t most of us? Only a small handful of people in the world really want war. The vast majority of us are decidedly in favor of peace and wish for it, pray for it, and will sometimes actively work for it within our families, local communities and governmental relationships.
What is remarkable about most Quakers is our sense of conviction that the work of peacemaking is integral to our faith. From a Christian perspective, we take seriously the teachings of the Bible and the example of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount and the command to love even our enemies are for us the way of faithfulness. In addition, our recognition that there is “that of God” (a spark, a glimmer, a very real aspect of God’s creative presence) in each person means we see the immeasurable worth of every individual. Taking the life of another is, for most of us, both a grave offense against God and God’s creation.
In Colossians 1, the Apostle Paul testifies to the fact that God is at work reconciling the whole cosmos through Christ. Redemptive love is the means by which this reconciliation is taking place. Evil, including the ongoing horror and trauma of war, results in a never-ending cycle of further violence and devastation. The suffering love of Christ is the one power able to vanquish evil, and Friends have chosen to adopt this strategy as the faithful way to participate in the ministry of reconciliation that God is carrying out.
In our experience of knowing and living into that reconciliation in our own lives, many Friends have come to echo the sentiment of George Fox, who recognized that there is a life and power that takes away the occasion for all war and violence. For this reason, many Friends have chosen to become conscientious objectors, non-violent resisters, and active promoters of peaceful alternatives to every form of violence.
Check your local business listings—or at least search the web to find a location near you. Several “Quaker Finder” sites exist to help you locate a Friends meeting or church in your area. Some of these links include:
Lots of our meetings and churches have Sunday School or First Day School. You will find a wide variety of activities, Christian education, and sharing that takes place. Some churches and meetings have mid-week gatherings for youth and young adults, as well.
As much as you will find Friends gathering in their Meetinghouses for worship, you are just as apt to find them out in their communities expressing their faith in action. Increasingly, new people are finding their way into our fellowship by connecting through shared service instead of first entering through the door to worship.
The best way to find out how to connect with Friends in other ways is to give your local Meeting or Church a call. Ask the contact person or pastor about ways they are serving in the community—whether it is in the homeless shelter, prison, Habitat for Humanity, peace and reconciliation work, or some other way. Many Friends also host small-group Bible studies, alternative worship gatherings, book groups, and workshops. You will likely find a list of activities on their local website, too.
An ideological or theological commitment to peacemaking and non-violence always has to be fleshed out in the practicalities of everyday existence. Generally speaking, Friends speak about peacemaking rather than "pacifism," because being “pacifist” this is often wrongly misunderstood to mean being passive. We choose not to run away from conflict or violence but instead choose to engage it and resist it using non-violent means.
Friends vary when it comes to the practical limits of non-violence. Many refuse any means that would physically, emotionally, or spiritually harm another person—even in the face of a personal attack. When it comes to protecting the welfare of others, most Friends would seek a way to intervene or involve themselves for the sake of others without resorting to lethal violence. In many instances, Friends have chosen to “get in the way” of two sides opposed to one another, hoping their intervention might lead to a reduction in hostility and an alternative to violence.
Most Friends also recognize the right of localities to police themselves and protect their citizens from those bent on doing harm. The same is true for nation-states. In these instances, many Quakers feel it is our responsibility to encourage peaceful relations between groups and to consistently promote healthy dialogue, limits to arms production, and creative conflict resolution that does not rely on threats of violence or actual warfare.
Early on in our history, the people known as Quakers or Friends were called many things. Sometimes—especially when George Fox and others were ruffling the feathers of religious and secular authority—the names were not particularly nice!
Actually, the name “Quaker” was first used by others as an insult. They found it strange that members of this renewal group would sometimes tremble in the Presence of Christ. What was meant to disparage, however, was soon embraced by those quaking saints, as they genuinely sought to live in and live out of a very real encounter with God.
Another common name for the group was The Religious Society of Friends. Unlike other traditions at that time, early Friends did not lay claim to being the only true “Church.” They believed authentic followers of Christ were found within many traditions and so did not feel clear referring to themselves in this manner. As a society of Friends, however, they found unity and purpose in being focused and rooted in a life of friendship with and obedience to Christ. (John 15:14—“You are my friends if you do what I command.”) “Friends” became a shorthand way of reminding us who we are and how we are to live.
Over time, the two names—Friends and Quakers—became the most commonly used titles for the growing movement. Though essentially synonymous, some branches of Quakers/Friends feel more at home with one name over another. Depending on the group or individual you meet, they might be more apt to use one phrase more than the other.
Nearly every Christian faith tradition acknowledges Christ as “head of the church” and agrees that God, not any particular person or group of persons, is ultimately the source of all Truth.
Friends, in an effort to practice this belief as faithfully as we know how, have generally avoided religious hierarchies that give too much authority to any one person. For this reason and others, we do not have a “pope” or single spokesperson for “what Friends believe.”
Instead, we sense that we best understand the leading of Christ when we seek it together in community. Whether it is in trying to articulate who we are and what we believe, in discerning congregational decisions, or in offering a response to some social issue, our practice has been to seek, discern, and mind the will of God in community.
Along the way, we will look to the Bible for guidance and we may call on experienced and spiritually mature Friends (sometimes called “weighty Friends”) for guidance. Such Friends may or may not have a particular leadership role in our community. Instead, they are known for their wisdom, the careful way they listen to the Spirit, and the reliable counsel they offer to others.