This is a guest post written by Chad Stephenson a Quaker from San Francisco. It is a response to the Friends Journal article “Bringing Children to Worship” and my follow-up article found here. This article comes largely from Chad’s work with children as a librarian as the San Francisco Friends School. He’s a good friend of mine and I’ve always appreciated his insights and thoughts, I think you’ll find the same is true for what he’s written here.
Meeting For Worship is a Muscle
As a Quaker working in a Quaker school which mostly educates non-Quakers and those who have a “Quaker affinity”, I am in perpetual awe of how in my school’s teachers are deliberate, thoughtful, and clear about teaching our Quaker meeting practices to their students. Many come from other faiths, yet they see the value silence has in education and strive to deepen their students’ practice. They do the work of making Quakerism’s implicitness explicit, which, in my own Meeting in San Francisco, is often left to parents.
Starting in kindergarten, students are given a chance to sample meeting for worship in the small setting of their classroom. The teacher may read aloud Benjamin, the Meetinghouse Mouse as an introduction or begin by asking students to notice the parts of meeting for worship: entering quietly, settling in, hearing people speak, then the closing handshakes. Previewing what will come next helps ease their minds and set a schedule which helps more active or nervous students know what will come next.
In school, tools are often used for younger ones to help them settle in. Teachers offer a lit candle in the center can help present a real and symbolic vision of the Light we all share. Drawing or coloring quietly is allowed as well as quiet reading.
Looking at how we sit in Meeting can also be a helpful exercise. Are our backs straight or slouched? Where do we keep our hands? Our feet? All of these contribute to our sense of attentiveness and alertness and influence our Meeting itself–why didn’t Quakers sprawl on the grass in the open fields in the sunshine? It would be much more relaxing!
Silence is Active
For younger students, teachers create lists of things to consider during meeting for worship: a time during your week when someone was good to you, a time or event when you felt connected to someone special, someone’s actions you admired, or thoughts or words about the passing of a relative or pet. I like to let older students know that the silence is actually active (rather than just waiting for recess!). Some consider it meditation, but I remind them that Quakers practice it as a time of listening, of receiving, and possibly participating by speaking about a moment of insight. Often, we remind students regularly of the testimonies Quakers share and how they may relate to their own lives, so topics that are shared are of a Quakerly nature.
When meeting rises, one of the blessings of a school is there can be a chance to debrief about the experience. Instead of saying, “did you like it?”, good teachers know to expect the best and ask for observations and reflections such as “what did you notice about today’s meeting?” or “what was challenging?” or “how did you feel?” or “were there any surprises for you?” to kick off a conversation. Sometimes I’ll admit that I couldn’t settle my mind well and let them know that even adults are challenged by the experience of meeting yet I often end by reflecting on what I’ll try next time to help me improve. To continue the conversation, asking, “what would make it better?” can also lead to deeper discussions of why Quakers worship they way they do which is distinctive from other faith communities. I like to remind young people that Meeting is a muscle that we’re exercising each time we come together. It is faith and practice which we are experiencing in the silence together.
Many new families come to our school’s once-a-month community meeting for worship, where the entire school sits together for thirty minutes in unprogrammed worship. Often, I hear them leaving saying, “I can’t believe what just happened–425 young people sat together for that long in silence! I can’t get it quiet for 5 minutes at dinner time at our house!” I try to let them know that this didn’t happen right away and that they probably missed that my students were playing hand-games with each other out of their sights, thank goodness!
Tools for Meeting for Worship
As parents who bring our children to our own Quaker meetings, previewing the regular routines helps them to settle in–why is the room quiet when we enter? what if we are first? who will close the Meeting and how will they do it? Imagine not having a clock or knowing how to read and how scary or long or confusing meeting would be! Letting them know a routine will happen encourages better behavior, builds confidence, and treats them with respect to their age.
In our meeting, tools we can use can include offering a children’s bible with shorter picture stories, pencil and notepad for scribbling, or a fiddle-toy (squish-ball) for those who fidget. Sitting upright in a chair is a must, but a cuddle with a parent is wonderful. Children in our Meeting often leave for their own program after fifteen minutes, since adult ministry may not be as meaningful.
Parents providing activities and conversations at home about attending meeting also help children to bring their best to meeting for worship. Reading aloud the meeting newsletter can let students into the deeper complexities of the community. Letting young people know that there is variety in meeting–choosing a different spot to sit each week or helping a newcomer to feel welcome.
At Meeting, young people enjoy being given meaningful tasks that help build a meeting up–passing out items or getting a drink for an elderly member. Even breaking up ways we worship helps–I witnessed a meeting where students were asked to add a Lego to a common piece as they shared a piece of worship to illustrate how our worship builds something together–brilliant!
Often Quakers lament the way teens or young adults drift apart from their Meeting. In our school, it is in middle school when choice and freedoms to decide that meeting is “boring” is met not with an “oh-well, that’s adolescence” but with a call to better engender education. Practice through using silence as an opening to class, to meetings, and even actually teaching what good worship feels like and what good ministry sounds like articulates what Quakers believe in an accessible, developmentally appropriate way. Curiosity, scaffolding, and engagement will build the muscle of worship.
I am encouraged by the possibility of education as one way to stem this tide among Quaker youth. Young people who have learned well and practiced regularly will know its value, whether they choose to use it now or later in their lives. One teacher colleague spoke in ministry recently of how a student who grew up going to Quaker schools years ago but hadn’t attended a meeting since leaving had asked her to share silence with him when they met just to have the experience again.
Quaker meetings provide the element of faith and practice which schools can only touch upon. The power that we are offered in Meeting should be offered to youth in developmentally significant times, so they feel included and valued. Roles for them in leadership, finance, care for other children, and other capacities bring them into closer practice and ownership of the Meeting. As we hold them closer, they will take a closer look at how Quaker values of “that of God” in everyone is a both unique and powerful way of worship that they can join us in.
Chad Stephenson is a member of San Francisco Friends Meeting, a teacher-librarian, and is the father of twin girls. He has written about Quakerism, coffee, music, books, and fatherhood among other sundry things, and posts once in awhile at 27wishes.wordpress.com.