Monday, August 11, 2014

The Last Shaker

This past week I listened to a fascinating interview on Public Radio about a Christian denomination which has very nearly come to the end of it's life.  The denomination is known as at the "Shakers" or "The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing" (in long form).  If you have never heard of the Shakers, perhaps you are familiar with their contributions to innovation and technological advancement.  The Shakers are responsible for the invention of the clothes pin, the circular saw, the washing machine.  The Shakers invented the oval box, and the straight broom.  They were also a source of great creative energy once, writing many of the hymns and songs we now sing today - "Simple Gifts" (later made famous by Aaron Copeland), is the best example.  The Shakers were once a prodigious and foundational force in England and America.

Today there are, get this, just three Shakers left in the world.  Their names are:

Brother Arnold Hadd - 56 years old
Sister June Carpenter - 72 years old
Sister Francis Carr - 85 years old

These three remaining Shakers live on the Sabbath Day Lake Farm in the state of Maine.  The Shakers were once a strong and vital denomination in the United States and world, and numbered around 6,000.  Asked why the denomination had been having a hard time attracting new members, Arnold Hadd commented that the required life of celibacy was a challenge (no kidding:-).  Ironically, Hadd mused, "celibacy is not the largest reason that Shakers have had a hard time gaining new followers.  The biggest problem has been the separation that is required from the world.  If you are going to be Shaker, you have to remove yourself from the world."

As I listened to the interview of these three remaining Shakers in the world, I had another thought.  All Christian denominations have the potential to die.  I, myself, am a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and it's membership has had a fairly consistent rate of decline for at least the past 50 years in the United States.  And, as I consider the largest single reason that the Presbyterian Church has been dwindling in membership, I think it is similar to the challenges that the Shakers experienced.  We too, more often than not, are separated from the world.

Let me make a large, and bold statement.  Christians that separate themselves from the world, in sequestered, removed faith communities, almost always have difficulty in maintaining vitality and growth and life.  Many Evangelical Christians, in my experience, also separate themselves from the world.  Quite literally, many Christians don't live in the space of the world anymore.  They don't have non-Christian friends, they don't read non-Christian books, they don't send their children to non-Christian educational institutions, they don't listen to non-Christian radio.  Everything in their lives is about separating form the world, removing themselves, taking themselves away from, not connecting with the world.

One of the things that I love most about starting a New Church Development (Mission Street Church) is its constant and regular connection to the world.  I am now writing this blog post in the church office, in a downtown public office building.  Outside my office door are five other employees who also rent our office space (an attorney, a social worker, an insurance adjuster, and two public accountants).  There is the potential for a good joke here, but I can't think of one right now.  Quite literally, this church, the one we are starting, is right in the business space, the market place, the space of the world.

As churches develop, very often the tendency is to remove themselves step by step, to be further and further away from the actual world.  The progress of a church often looks something like this.  A church begins in a public space (a school or movie theater).  Then the church builds a building, which is far away from the business world.  Then the church builds an even bigger building, because the old church was spilling too much out into the world.  Then the church finds issue with theological quandaries in it's mother denomination, or has issues with one thing or another, so it moves to a different denomination or it starts a new one.  None of these movements in and of themselves is a problem in and of itself.  Sometimes definitional boundaries are important in an organization.  Buildings and faith statements are important things.  However, the tendency to pull away from the world in which we were created to live in is a great temptation for many churches, and almost always leads to their demise.

The Shakers have left the world an incredible legacy of inventions and innovations.  Unfortunately, it appears that this once great denomination will one day, soon, be no more.  When Brother Arnold Hadd was asked on Public Radio to make a pitch for why anyone would want to be a Shaker and join his community he said, "Well, because we are here…."  Sadly, in a few years, even that existential pronouncement may not be the case for the Shakers.

Or other Christians, like you and me, who do not intentionally live in the public space that God gave us to live within, and to minister to.

All For Now,

1 comment:

  1. Graham,
    Thank you for your message today. I found it very insightful and convicting. Blessings with your new ministry.