Preparing for Unprogrammed Worship in A Programmed (Quaker) Meeting

When I was hired as the pastor of Camas Friends one of the things that the elders told me was that they hoped to have unprogrammed (aka silent or open) worship quarterly. This was an attractive idea to me and I was glad they were willing to support this type of worship in our meeting. Well I have fallen behind in scheduling in these times. So recently when I mapped out the calendar for 2010 I made sure to plug in these quarterly worship services. This coming Sunday is the first one for the year and I’m really looking forward to it!

In the process I looked around for something to help explain what open worship is (my preferred wording) so that I could email it out to everyone early in the week to help with preparation, as well as put it into the bulletin for Sunday. I found a lot of helpful things written, but none of them had all the components and language I really wanted to see in a document of this sort. So, I decided to draw up our own. After I wrote this, I sent it to our meeting and posted it on facebook as a google doc. I got a lot of feedback from both groups. I have incorporated that feedback into this second draft. I consider this still a draft because I hope to get more feedback from those in our meeting, I want to know what is helpful and what is natural for our community here.

What I wanted to avoid was an understanding of unprogrammed/silent/open worship that was restrictive or too heavily bound up in process to be freeing. I do truly see this as worship that is “open.” Following Peggy Parsons, I would rather people err on the side of speaking when they shouldn’t than being too afraid to speak at all. We have a well grounded community here in Camas and some really great elders who I trust to handle any potentially awkward situations, so that helps.  And really, is awkward such a bad thing. Without any more rambling, here’s what we’re using this Sunday. Feedback is welcome, though it’s too late to change anything for this Sunday.

Open Worship // Camas Friends Church: A Quaker Meeting ((Full disclosure, this is not an approved document from our meeting. It is a draft and something we’re working with, but I should be clear that these are my words, which some are my own and many of which are directly “borrowed” from other Quakers and Quaker meetings. I have taken into account the ideas and suggestions of others here as well and while none of this is original, these are currently my words. Though we as a meeting may work to approve something like this in the future.))

Christians generally worship through prepared songs, prayers, and teachings on the Scripture. Early Quakers started their worship in silence and let these things flow out of the silence as people felt led to do so by the Holy Spirit. This was born out of a conviction that Christ is able to guide his followers if they are willingly to quiet themselves and listen to that guidance. Silent worship begins then with an expectant hope that God will lead participants to speak (or sing) out in worship, making this practice a fully participative way of worshiping together as the body of Christ.

Worship that begins in waiting silence is based in the conviction that Jesus Christ is among his gathered community and wishes to guide and teach us himself. We do not need expert teachers, song leaders or other programmed elements to be obedient to the spirit of Christ, or to learn from one another (though we surely can learn from these ways as well).  But we do need to come prepared to listen. This preparedness is something we practice throughout the week in a variety of ways, from living simplified lives, to carefully listening to others, practicing silent and seeing every moment as potentially holy and sacred. When we come to worship we surrender all agendas to God. In laying down ourselves we take up the cross of Christ that we might in the silence be formed into his likeness.

This form of unprogrammed worship has changed throughout the (almost) four-hundred year Quaker history, but basic convictions still remain: Jesus our resurrected Lord is among us when we gather, and speaks to and through any one Christ chooses regardless of age, life experience, gender, ethnicity, or education. No matter whether we are a seasoned member of this community or this is our first visit, the Light of Christ freely moves freely just as the wind.

In Open worship we wait in hope and expectation that Christ will speak to us, and move some of us to speak out of the silence for the benefit of the whole gathered meeting. We call it “open” rather than silent, because it is an open, or liberated space, where diverse gifts and experiences can be shared, where the reign of God which is truly liberating and life-giving enlightens all of us and gives us true freedom to be as we were created to be.

During open worship people may share something that they feel God has laid on their heart. Be sure to remain open to what is said, even if it does not seem applicable to your own life, it may be just what someone else needed to hear. After each message be sure to give a little time to allow everyone to ponder what was said and return to silent waiting.

Among all the things listed above Open Worship is:

  • A time of worship that creates a space, or an environment, where we as a community practice listening and responding to God.
  • It is a time where we all practice being ministers.
  • Creates a space where God can have a chance to move among us and teach us.
  • Invites participation from all present. As we listen silently, we listen together for the movement of God’s Spirit.
  • Invites a learning-while-doing mentality. We learn how to listen often by speaking back what we think we heard the other person say, and that person or others around us can help to confirm whether what you heard resonated with the group.
  • Based in a trust of the spirituality of people. It trusts that God interacts with all people and that everyone has something to contribute to the people of God.

Here are some helpful guidelines and suggestions for what to do during the silence:

Centering And Listening: Whatever helps you listen and to focus on Christ’s presence among us is appropriate here at Camas Friends. For you this may mean being quiet, reading Scripture, writing  out thoughts in a journal or a piece of paper, drawing, or even resting. These can all be good ways to help you listen and commune with Christ so long as you make sure that whatever you do does not take away from the silent worship for the people around you.

  • Sit in a way that is comfortable to you.
  • Breathing slowly and deeply can help calm yourself.
  • Enter this time of worship with the expectation and hope that God wishes to move within you and around you.
  • Work to surrender all thoughts and anxieties that may distract you to God.

Speaking in the Silence: Silent worship is an open space rather than a restrictive one, therefore we would rather you err on the side of sharing than on the side of remaining silent. We learn to listen and respond through speaking out in faith. If we are misguided those who are more seasoned in this way of worship will help guide you in the learning. If you feel like you have something to share consider these guidelines for your “vocal ministry:”

  • Make sure that it is said in a worshiping posture.
  • Be sure not to monopolize the time and space, we want others to be free to be led to share in ministry as well.
  • Will this statement help in bringing the people in the meeting to a more gathered sense of worship?
  • Is this statement for yourself or something the whole meeting would benefit from hearing?
  • Are there things you feel led to share besides speaking such as: a song, a prayer, a piece of art created during worship, a passage of Scripture?

Silence as Communion: Quakers believe that worshiping in silence, listening to the Holy Spirit, and attending to ‘that of God within each of us,’ is truly partaking in communion. Silent worship for us is our way of communing with Christ regardless of the day or time. Whenever we stop to listen and “center down,” we break bread with the living Christ and commune with God.  As the church we commune with God and with others and our communion with God is connected to how well we are able to be open and forgiving toward one another.

  • Have you areas that need to be cleansed by Christ as you enter this time of communion?
  • If you are thankful, share that thanksgiving with God in worship.
  • If the Spirit of Christ shines light on sin and brokenness in your life, practice confession and pray for God’s forgiveness.
  • If you find yourself in a place of woundedness ask God to carry that burden for you. Pray for healing for yourself and forgiveness for those who have hurt you.

Awareness of Others: Take this time to be aware of those sitting around you, those within your faith community and pray for them.

  • Pray also for the life of this world, for those all around the globe seeking shelter, and justice.
  • Pray for the earth to be mended and peace to spread across our world.
  • Pray for your enemies.

Queries: Queries are “thoughtful questions that remind people of the spiritual and moral values Quakers seek to uphold.” They are open ended questions meant to help you reflect on your faith and move deeper into Christ. They are narrative based inasmuch as they rely on you to reflect on your own life’s story and its intersection with God and others.

  • Focus on a query that stands out to you.
  • Prayerfully consider ways in which that query intersects with your life right now.
  • Write your own query to help you focus better on God’s movement in your life.
Queries For Worship:
  • How do we prepare our hearts and minds for worship?
  • Do our meetings give evidence that we come to them with hearts and minds prepared for communion with God?
  • Are our gatherings for silent communal worship held in a spirit of expectant waiting and communion with the Holy Spirit?
  • Are our gatherings for silent communal worship held in a spirit of expectant waiting for divine guidance?
  • Is there a living silence into which we feel drawn together by the presence of God?
  • How does the vocal ministry of the meeting contribute to our group’s spiritual life?
  • Are we sensitive to one another’s needs, and do we respond to the Spirit’s promptings to minister, whether in silence or through the spoken word?
  • Are we in harmony with the others in the room?  Can we hear another’s message even if it initially seems remote?
  • How do we integrate what happens in our silent communal worship into our daily lives?  Do we seek opportunities for worship outside of communal silence?

(This list of worship queries are from From Brent J. Bill’s, Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker  Spirituality,  pp. 124-126)

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.