By Tony Lowe
Fancy Gap Friends Fellowship began as a Bible study/discussion group in the summer of 2004 with a dozen or so folks that met weekly at our house. A few months later, we began meeting for worship on Sunday mornings as well, partly because folks who had previously been part of a church still felt the need for a Sunday gathering, but also because they wanted a deeper worship experience than the Bible study. Some folks then chose to only attend the Sunday meeting for worship while others due to schedule conflicts or other things could only commit to the week night Bible study. Then one of our teenagers started a weekly meeting on Sunday afternoons for young people, so we soon had three separate groups meeting. In order to create some sense of community, we tried to have a picnic or some other kind of fellowship at least once a month so folks in the various groups could get to know one another.
This idea like most of our basic format came directly from a conference I had attended in Richmond earlier that year on simple churches led by Doug and Wendy Biehr. Their presentation was really about gathering friends and neighbors as a way of starting new unprogrammed Friends meetings, but it seemed to me it could work in what I would call a semi programmed setting as well. So we kept the idea of meeting in small groups in a home setting, but I (or occasionally someone else in the group) would share some Scripture and reflect on it as a way of leading the group into worship. For me that meant condensing my remarks into a no more than fifteen minute time frame and leaving things more open ended, making fewer statements and raising more questions for folks to wrestle with in our time of open worship.
We also did a couple of service projects. We got the names of several needy families from Social Services at Thanksgiving and shopped together and then delivered baskets with turkeys and all the works they would need for a traditional Thanksgiving meal to each household. We were also in contact with a military chaplain in Iraq who was involved in the “balls instead of bombs” campaign, and we bought and packed boxes of soccer balls, baseballs, footballs, dolls, stuffed animals, and other toys to be distributed to Iraqi children. When Christmas came, we once again adopted a couple of neighborhood families through social services and provided toys, clothes, and food for their holiday.
Along the way it became clear to us that we were no longer just a Bible study group, but had become a real faith community doing everything we thought a church should be doing. Our original group had five or six folks in it who had been a part of a Quaker meeting in the past which is why we had the word Friends in our name. Most of the others had no strong ties to any particular church, but really liked the way we did worship and the service aspect of our fellowship, so they were comfortable with the idea of becoming a Quaker worship group. Since a number of us were or had been affiliated with North Carolina Yearly Meeting -FUM, in April of 2005 we asked to become a preparative meeting under the care of the quarterly meeting in closest proximity to us.
Making the transition from a fellowship to a preparative meeting was relatively painless. We were already basically using Quaker business procedures and we had folks in the group who volunteered to be our presiding clerk, recording clerk, and treasurer. Thus far we have had 4 presiding clerks, 3 recording clerks, and 3 people serve as treasurer, none of whom are the same, so virtually everyone in the fellowship has served in one capacity or another. We have even had two of our Young Friends serve as presiding and recording clerks.
Although we are somewhat different from the more traditional programmed pastoral meetings that make up most of North Carolina Yearly Meeting, we feel that we have much in common with early Friends. Quakers from the very beginning have understood the church to be the people in whose hearts Christ dwells by faith rather than a building or some other gathering place. Our fellowship has embraced this concept as a way of breaking down the barriers between sacred and secular space since God is everywhere. With this goal in mind, we have purposely chosen not to have a regular meeting place, but instead gather in homes, parks, coffee houses, restaurants, even at overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway for worship and fellowship.
We also feel very strongly connected to the “emerging church” (the word is Convergent among Quakers) and identify very closely with the characteristics of this new movement, some of which are not new to Quakers at all, like the idea that worship should be experiential and interactive. In addition to the traditional Quaker period of open worship, during our “preaching time” folks are also free to raise questions, make comments, and share their own observations and illustrations (some of which are often better than mine) as we work through a passage of Scripture together. We always end our Sunday worship with a communal meal.
We also relate to the emergent idea of “being the church” rather than going to church. Our treasurer came to me once with a note of thanks from someone we did not know. It turned out that a couple who had not been able to get to worship for a couple of weeks because of their work schedules had heard about a need in their community and just gone out and bought groceries and other necessities and showed up at the family’s door and told them they were from Fancy Gap Friends Fellowship. Some of our folks have gotten together in teams of two or three to volunteer at local food pantries. A group of youth and adult volunteers spent most a weekend last summer installing new shelving, repairing leaks, and sorting and shelving food in the food pantry run by our local Red Cross.
Because folks are constantly taking on these kinds of projects, we do very little in the way of programs. Most of the folks in our fellowship have pretty demanding jobs (teachers, mental health counselor, chaplain, real estate agent, etc) so we don’t try to add on additional responsibilities but encourage them to be salt and light in the places God has already put them (something Jesus said about making disciples as you go). At this point there is no one on our fellowship who wasn’t invited to come by a family member, friend, or co-worker. And since we don’t have a building to maintain or programs to support, we are able to put most of our resources to work in our community, either through help given directly to individuals and families or by supporting the local food banks and other community agencies.
We’re a user friendly group. We don’t have it all together, and we don’t pretend to have all the answers (we don’t even have all the questions yet). We’re just a group of folks on a journey together, learning as we go, encountering God along the road in ordinary people, places, and situations in ways that make them all extraordinary which is verily, verily awesome.
Tony Lowe is a recorded minister in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM). He is a graduate of Houston Graduate School of Theology and Carolina Evangelical Divinity School. After serving five years as a pastor in more traditional Friends Meetings, Tony became the pastoral minister of Fancy Gap Friends Fellowship. In addition to his work with Fancy Gap Friends, Tony is very interested in Convergent Friends and enjoys traveling among different groups of Quakers to promote mutual respect and understanding.