Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Thoughts On Outreach

You may be aware that I recently posted some written ministry concerning outreach, asking why we are so quiet. I didn't mean in worship, of course; silent worship with contributions moved by the Spirit is at heart of the Quaker way. I mean how we are in the world beyond our little Meeting communities. I have written somewhat about this before, concerning the spiritual and moral imperative I see in outreach. It seems timely to put down some other thoughts on the matter.
I can understand a lot of reasons for reticence to engage in outreach. I can understand less the reticence I have seen among some Friends for others to engage in outreach, in general. You might be unsure of how to talk about Quakerism. You might not be generally socially outgoing. You might feel awkward at the idea of talking about your faith tradition as being a good thing. These are all valid. Some of them can be overcome, but none of them are things that you should feel you must overcome. Just because outreach is something that should happen, doesn't mean that everyone should be engaging in it. Indeed, I've sometimes seen people doing outreach who I would much rather weren't, but that's a whole other matter.
There are also reasons that outreach may be ineffective, which leads to a natural reluctance to try again. However, I would see it as a fundamental cognitive dissonance to believe in the essence of the Quaker message (however you might see that) and to think that outreach might be pointless. I have not come across many Friends espousing election, the idea that God has selected a group of people to be “saved” through true religion, though admittedly most who did subscribe to anything similar (though not quite the same) seemed to believe in particularly Quakerly versions of irresistible grace: all those suited to the Quaker way will find their way to it of their own accord. The very idea of that seems to dissonant to my experience of the Divine that I struggle to even articulate arguments against it.
In order to do outreach better, we need to know two classes of thing, which we do not necessarily know very well yet. We need to know what works, what effective ways there are to communicate; and we need to know what is counterproductive.
Now, there's a big caveat here. I'm not an expert in outreach. I don't have decades of experience organising it and seeing what has worked and what hasn't. I've done some, and I've tried to learn from other who've done more. What I present here is a synthesis of all that, some thought, some reflection, and plenty of discussion with a few Friends. I'm sure I'll have missed things, and I wouldn't want anyone to take this as some sort of handbook. These are my thoughts, and I'm sharing them.
The first important thing to note is that outreach, in order to work, takes time and effort (at least in the case of outreach qua outreach, that you've planned and set out to do – everyday incidental outreach is also important, but more on that later). Don't just say “let's go do a stall at a fair” and turn up with literature and a canopy. You need to work out what you're going to do, why, what you hope to achieve. From that you can produce a clear plan and supporting materials. If you were going to set out a stall to sell insurance – and that is a more apt comparison than many Friends would like to admit – you would have a clear plan of how to do it, what sort of things to say, what the message was. Don't go in thinking it's a breeze; you won't attract as many people in order to have conversations, and you won't have effective conversations with those you do attract.
Another key point is getting the right people involved. Not everyone is cut out to do deliberate outreach, just like not everyone is cut out to be an elder, or a trustee, or to help with Children's Meeting. You want people who are personable, who are knowledgeable without too much of a tendency to get didactic, who have – or can readily develop – a clear idea of what sort of thing they will be saying. The “right people” will also be different depending on what sort of outreach you are doing. Some people are suited to speaking to a group of people all at once from the front of a room, and some are suited to talking to people one at a time at a stall or similar. Some aren't suited to either, and that's fine. Some people are suited to more creative, novel or outlandish ways of doing outreach, and that's fine as well – and those people wouldn't usually expect all of us to join them.
You also don't want everyone involved to be too similar. All women isn't too bad, thanks to society's unconscious biases, but all men is a less productive choice – thanks to those same biases. People of all genders, regardless of sexual orientation, tend to find a group of all women to be welcoming and friendly, while a group of all men will likely put off a lot of people. If there's just one person manning a stall, their gender is less important. Similarly, presenting a diverse appearance, inasmuch as that would be in any way representative (more on that below), will make more people feel that this is something they could be involved in. Note that I'm not just talking here about visible ethnicity; it's also really important to not present a homogeneous group in terms of style of dress. The days of “Quaker plain” dress are long gone in most Meetings, but you certainly see some where a new uniform has developed – a uniform of cardigans and billowing sleeves, sleeveless jumpers, semi-casual shirts and blouses, long skirts and dresses, semi-smart trousers, sensible shoes. Now, there's nothing wrong with any of those things, but people do make judgements, often unconscious, when they see people's choice of clothing. If they see a whole group with very similar clothing, they will make those judgements about the entire body of people being represented, and thus what their organisation is like.
I don't believe I need to labour this point when it comes to age. Suffice to say, if you would like to attract more young adult enquirers and attenders, potential young adult Friends, make the ones you do have visible. If you don't have any, at least try to get the nearest thing you have to young adult Friends out there. Middle aged people will seem less off-putting to young adults than people past retirement age, and older teens will prove that you aren't all over 40. Pre-teens probably won't help attract most young adults, though.
Personalities and preferences matter. If someone really doesn't want to do outreach, you don't want them doing outreach. If someone is uncomfortable talking to people, don't try to persuade them. They might choose to do this as a way of stretching their boundaries, and someone might encourage them in that direction, but any such encouragement should be for the benefit of the Friend in question. Don't use it as a tool to get numbers.
When you know what you want to do, and how, and who, make sure you prepare appropriately. Do you have enough of your literature? Do you need to print/order leaflets? Does everyone who's going to be talking to people know what sort of answers they should be giving? Briefings, cheat sheets and so on are not an admission of weakness; use them. Just try to avoid reading directly from them when talking to people.
Do you have all the equipment you need? If it's a stall somewhere, do you know if you need to provide the table or canopy? If it's a talk, do you need a data projector? Have you prepared posters, slides, PowerPoint presentations? Don't script yourself completely, that ends up stilted, but do prepare thoroughly so you are making the final decisions on your feet, not the fundamental ones. If you expect there to be Christians in the audience, be prepared to answer questions about commonly discussed Christian theology – like life after death, or the role of the trinity. The Quaker attitude to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, is something people should be ready to talk about. If you expect there to be non-Christians, be prepared to talk about how Quaker faith and practice can be founded on other faith backgrounds – but don't try to minimise our Christian roots.
One area that our outreach often falls down on, especially for the more liberal of liberal Friends, is a lack of clarity. We have no creed, little in the way of clear unifying beliefs, so when we talk about our faith and our practice we can end up getting more than a little woolly. “People can believe what they like” is not only misleading, it's going to be off-putting for a lot of people. Those who have existing religious beliefs but might be interested in Friends will be glad to know that we don't expect them to change, but they also want to know what's different about our faith tradition.
You don't need to claim to speak for all Quakers. You don't need to caveat everything. You can just say that Quakers have a range of beliefs, but here are the common themes, here are some of the more common belief positions. Maybe have something ready that simply describes the common 'core' of Quaker belief, if you can find one everybody involved is happy with. I produced such a simple statement of common Quaker belief as written ministry not long ago, and you're welcome to use that.
One good way of actually telling people things in ways that make sense to them is to make it a conversation, not just you telling people things. They might ask you such an apparently simple question as “what do Quaker believe?” and we all know that's not easy to answer. But you can give an initial answer, and then ask them – in an appropriate and sensitive way – about their own beliefs, and refine your answer by relating it to theirs. When you've explained something, try and get them to react to it. This guides your responses, and also makes it a much more meaningful conversation for the other person.
Using specialist language is often off-putting. It doesn't matter if you explain it as you use it – the vast majority of the time, they don't need to hear it in these initial conversations. There are some exceptions, of course, that it would be hard to talk about Quakers without using. The biggest would be “Meeting for Worship”, of course. But discernment doesn't need to be mentioned. Our peculiar meaning of concern can be entirely avoided. Talk about these things in terms you can reasonably expect people to understand, and don't even mention the specialist terms in initial conversations.
This is equally true of specialist language that isn't specific to Quakers. People don't need to hear about Arminianism or election, prevenient grace and irresistible grace. They don't need to hear about the tension between immanence and transcendence of the Divine. These are all fascinating things – to some people. The average person on the street isn't a theologian.
Of course, knowing one's audience plays a part. There may be outreach contexts where people will actively want to talk about these things, and even some where it's appropriate to proactively talk about them. Outside of that, don't worry about it. If an audience member or person coming up to your stall wants to bring them up, you can disclaim knowledge about such things – or tell them you could talk about that, but the rest of the audience might not share their interest. Or, if there's the time and you won't be neglecting other people, you can get right into it, if you're comfortable doing so. Sometimes not doing so is wasting perfectly good curiosity.
What you should be is direct and clear. To do complete justice to the richness of our faith might seem to require a certain amount of obscurity and ambiguity. I would argue that it it does, in fact. However, you don't need to do complete justice in initial conversations. Tell people what they want to know, as simply and directly as you can.
One of the big barriers to outreach, however, is our homogeneity. This affects our ability to be plain and clear when we do outreach, because so many of us have advanced educations, and talk like it. I know I write like it, except when I carefully set out not to. When people used to writing in a fairly high-brow manner try to stop, they can tend to end up patronising, or even engage in cringe-worthy excessive use (or misuse) of the vernacular.
A lot of more homogeneous Meetings would like to be more diverse. I think in many cases this is a widespread and sincere desire, well-meant and worthy. However, wishing doesn't make it so, and our lack of diversity makes it more difficult to develop more diversity.
There's a limit to how much you can do about this, but at least try to mitigate its effects. Don't put the most stereotypical Quakers on a stall for the general public. Don't talk like you expect everyone to have a postgraduate education. Be personable and relate to people as they are. Don't be obviously more comfortable about talking to people who would appear to “fit in” with your existing Meeting community. Don't pretend we're more diverse than we are, but for goodness' sake don't make our lack of diversity too painfully obvious.
One thing that can really draw people's interest is talking about the positions that we take, the causes that we support, that flow from our faith. Support for marriage equality, opposition to militarisation, support for refugees, support for economic justice – all of these things might attract people from a wide range of backgrounds. Yes, they will put some people off, but it's probably best for everyone if people who are rigidly opposed to such cherished positions are put off sooner rather than later. If you present these positions in a sympathetic, conversational way, people who are less hard-line in their opposition may not be so put off. It's just those people whose minds can be changed by interaction, including interaction with faith and with the Spirit.
At the same time, don't just talk about these positions that result from our faith and our spiritual experience. We're not a political action group, we're not any political party at prayer. Talk about these things as they relate to our spirituality, not our spirituality as it relates to these political and policy-related concerns. Definitely, definitely do not just talk about these concerns without bringing spirituality into it at all. People coming to us, coming to our meetings, trying to be part of our community because they agree with our politics, but with no interest in spirituality, does no-one any favours.
On the other hand, making initial contact with people through some shared interest is a great way to get an audience for outreach. We let our lives speak, we live our faith, but both our work in the world and the way it speaks for our faith are enhanced when we talk about it. We can help refugees all we like, but we also have to tell people why we do it. We can campaign for changes in the law, but that works better when we work with others – and tell the world what we're doing. That enhances the work itself, but also opens up a conversation about faith.
By that same token, we can hold public events as a way to spread the word about our work – and incidentally about our faith. We can have Friends who are involved in work with refugees talking to interested people about what they do, why it is important to help people, and how our faith plays into that. Not everything we do in the world needs to be something we talk about, and not every time we talk about it publicly has to be a chance for outreach, but much of it can be, if we choose. We can even invite people for discussions on some aspect of faith, and they will learn more about Quakers. They may not be interested in joining us, and in that case they will still learn something interesting and arguably worthwhile. On the other hand, we may pique their interest, and they will want to learn more.
The thing is, if you just talk about the great time you had as an ecumenical accompanier or a Friend in residence somewhere, the audience will learn a lot about Israel/Palestine or whatever – but not a lot about Quakers. That's fine. Maybe you want to get people to understand the situation there in the eastern Mediterranean. That's laudable, and I've nothing to say against that. But it enriches the understanding of the audience to know why you have done things, and it allows your activity to act as outreach.
If you don't do that, then don't claim that the work we do in the world is outreach. Outreach doesn't have to be about convincing people they want to be Quakers. It does need to be a bit about what Quakers are, about our spirituality, otherwise it's just “hey, look at this cool thing we did”.
Of course, many Friends are reluctant to do anything that even smells of proselytising – of telling people that they should believe and practice as we do. I fully agree with that reluctance. However, the fear of crossing that line causes many to refuse to even approach it. If we never talk about our faith, we cannot be seen to be forcing it on others, it is true. But if we never talk about our faith, no-one can ever realise that our path is for them. A balance must be struck between saying nothing and saying too much; I would say that balance can be maintained even while saying how much we get from our faith tradition, how good it is for us. We can speak of its virtues without telling everyone else that they should share in them. We can let people know they would be welcome among us without telling them that they should take us up on it. Whether they do or do not take us up on it, they learn more about us. Not just about our theology, or our practices, or what it drives us to do, but about our passion and our faith as a real thing, not an abstract theory.
There is, of course, one other major channel for outreach, beyond events that are aimed specifically at outreach, or events where outreach is part of the goal, but not the whole of it. That is the entire rest of your lives. Live openly as a Quaker – not parading it per se, but not keeping it an unmentioned, unseen part of your life – and people will ask questions. Many of them will be silly, like those about hats or porridge (or oatmeal, if they are American), or those confusing us with the Amish or the Mormons. They won't all be, though. Some will be incisive, insightful, even spiritually stimulating. Some will want to drill into great detail about how and why we do things, and if you've got time this is a great opportunity to answer those questions you might not during organised outreach. Some of them will lead to a growing interest, and to a person finding themselves wanting to try Meeting for Worship, and some of those will find a home among Friends.
I know that for a fact. I am one of them.
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