It’s time to flip our meetinghouses. Again.

I am by trade a teacher – former in employment – always on my heart.  There was a movement a number of years ago – I must admit I’m not sure where it stands now, to create “flipped classrooms” The basic concept was to center the rote learning and and standardized content delivery as the “homework” – and more efficiently use the student-teacher shared time for creative explorations and individualized instruction.  The “flip” was controversial – the success of the  “sage on the stage” model of learning (rather than “guide from the side”) was ingrained as fact, and there was considerable reluctance in risking change to a new model.  For those creative educational communities that experimented fully, it was often successful.

I’ve been thinking about this monumental shift in terms of pour Quaker meetings, especially today.  It appears we have shifted from weeks and months of debate about use of technology in many meetings, to an immediate shift to Zoom and other platforms.  A virus has forced us to rethink connecting in this time.  Many Quakers have adjusted to the basic technology – but long term questions remain about the viability of this medium, and how it might support our faithfulness in new ways.

Here in the United States, as the country considers reopening permissions in certain places, there are many factors still to consider.  In a community filled with people with higher risk factors for illness – even with official permissions it will be hard to include children, elderly, etc in our gatherings.

In a recent video conversation around churches – Bruce Reyes-Chow offered an interesting take.  What if rather than saying “when we get back to in-person worship we will do these things again” – we just assumed this video gathering is the new way to “do church”, for at least a year or more?  What is the rush to get back to what was? Is this a time for innovation and experimentation?  Can we just relax and lean into a world that is being reshaped around us, and be responsive and accept this as the new tool for these times?

This comment was the “aha!” moment for me – and reminded me of the pushback to flipped classrooms in terms of significant change and risk. We Quakers, I believe, have been here before.

The first Quakers of long ago were very clear that the Spirit could arrive to any of us, at any time, without mediation by clergy or need for a “steeplehouse” (church).  Much of the preaching was disruptive in those spaces, and was encouraged firstly by Friends sitting in prayer in fields and homes.  The learning happened experientially out in “the world” and the meetings for worship were time to reflect, to grow, to hear messages from the Lord rooted in the human faithful experiences of those gathered.  The disruption at the churches was just a reminder to the culture and to others that access was “out there” in the world, carried in the hearts of each one of us, and not in the building, the preacher’s learning and training, and the rituals.

So here we are in 2020.  We love our history.  We love our beautiful meetinghouses.  We have our special seats on our favorite bench, our tried and true potluck recipies, our 40+ years of service on committees, week after week.  We know each other.  We have an understanding about rules of engagement (often unwritten, just understood).  I wonder if culturally we have fallen into exactly the habits and comforts that those early Friends rejected?

All that gathering, our own sense of created ritual, is now turned upside down.  There’s no more “going to meeting” in that way.  And yet, our direct access to the Spirit, discerned and supported in community of worshippers, is still happening.  Sometimes it’s on zoom. Sometimes it’s in small home groups.  Sometimes it’s in conference calls, or on the couch with our own extended families. 

I hope we don’t lose the gift of having our routines disrupted in this way.  A deep re-examination of where the Spirit meets us, and how we learn and grow and are invited into transformation is happening in unexpected places.  We’ve “flipped” the encounters back into the day to day, the streets, the Life all around us.  We used to say it was never about our buildings – now it’s another clear invitation to lean into that understanding.

Some of those spaces of support will be digital.  Some will be in social media.  Some will be with our next door, not-Quaker neighbors. Geography will matter less, as we gather to share experiences and worship with those from all over the world.  We will have a shared sense of Spirit – but very wide and varied human experiential perspectives.

(Photos of “The Meetinghouse” – 2017 , Mark Reigelman, Kennedy Greenway)


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