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Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Quakers challenged to embrace outreach; what should Unitarians do?

I was intrigued by the opening quote in a recent article in “Quaker News (Winter 2011, No 81):

“As Quakers, we don’t do outreach … when people need us, they will find us”.

I have heard similar remarks amongst Unitarians. We say that as a free and open faith we do not proselytise and never have done! (Well actually we have done but that is history).

The article, by Alistair Fuller, recognises an ambivalence amongst Quakers to outreach and also that to be truly effective, outreach needed to be an integral part of how Quakers live, both as individuals and in community.

“Effective, enthusiastic outreach flows from a meeting that is vibrant, rich, warm and welcoming, involving Friends who are deeply rooted and nourished in their own faith”.

So it is more about how one lives as much as what one says. Quaker meetings are more successful in attracting, and holding, attenders and enquirers when they have paid proper attention to the quality of their life together and have similarly together thought about and planned their outreach.

Quaker Week is a national initiative with a focus on local activities which has now been running for five years. The impact appears to have been in two ways; meetings have been bolder and more imaginative in findings ways to be more visible and accessible and they have been more effective in outreach when Friends are excited by their own Quakerism and more confident to share it. “This relationship between inreach and outreach has been the most significant piece of learning as a result of Quaker Week”. Nationally the Quakers plan an outreach conference in January 2013 to explore and develop this thinking.

This rightly confirms my own thinking that the quality of experience offered by Unitarian communities is in the end the vital factor of whether people who find us will actually stay. Raising our visibility nationally, and as importantly, locally is crucial but what the Quakers call inreach is so important. What would it be like to enable us to truly say that our congregation is vibrant, rich, warm and welcoming?


  1. There's a difference between proselytising, evangelism, and interfaith dialogue.

    There's nothing wrong with saying "I've found a good thing and you might like it too" (a mild form of evangelism).

    There is something wrong with saying "you're damned unless you see the world the way I do" (proselytising).

  2. A Unitarian friend spoke about being disenchanted with an inward looking congregation. This person wanted to belong to a community that was socially and spiritually active and innovative as well as being supportive to each other. They wanted the word to get round so that people would be saying, 'I want to be part of what's going on there!' I said you just have to be that example on your own. I feel most wander in the wilderness without a promised land to dream of or a Moses to lead - those who find this lost tribe usually do so by accident - but mostly they have found their own tribe!

  3. From a USA UU perspective, but also appropriate to Unitarians in the UK I think, is the need to be "on the radar" when people begin to search and consider changes in their religious journeys. To me this requires a degree of coordinated evangelism. In its absence, other sources will rush in to fill the void, writing our narrative for us, often in a very misguided or unfair manner. When this is the primary message the seeker hears or reads, it makes our work of "sharing our good news" all the more difficult just to overcome the misinformation that has preceded us. In other words, I don't see an alternative but to engage in mature, respectful and, yes, enthusiastic outreach. The visible pride we radiate about our faith-communities will say as much as any words.