If you were to visit a Friends (A.K.A. Quaker) Church, you may notice a strange time in the worship service where a hush falls over the congregation, and then after a while a person (usually not the pastor) walks up to a microphone and shares something they feel the Lord has for the congregation that day. This may be referred to as a time of “open worship.” Though there are a few other terms for it, this one seems to be the most widely known. This strange little time was once the very heartbeat of Quaker worship and extended throKughout the whole worship service.
In our North American expression, due to the rapid growth of the church during westward expansion of our country we adopted the pastoral system. Many lament this as the death of real Quakerism, but this is a mistake. Quakers simply needed to adapt to their circumstances in a time and place far different than where the movement was birthed, i.e. in a well established empire with many people growing up within the movement. In the “wild west” with many new people from various faith traditions or no tradition, silence was simply not enough to meet the discipleship needs of the day. The Gospel needed to be preached as well as lived, the Bible needed to be taught, and the pastoral system became the norm. It is not my intention here to argue for “putting the genie back in the bottle,” though this romantic notion is often expressed and eloquently argued. I am not here arguing against the very system that has shown me how to be equipped to live out my call of service. Without the pastoral system, what would a person in my shoes actually do, besides wait around for someone to ask them to serve?
We Quakers often throw around very strange words like programmed and unprogrammed (or even semi-programmed) worship, in reference to this very thing. In my experience, if you substituted the word “noisy” for programmed, it would mean basically the same thing. The relevancy of “silent worship” and “vocal ministry” (when someone shares) is often disputed in our day. Some argue that people are far too ADD or over stimulated these days to benefit much from the experience of corporate waiting in silence. Others see it as alienating to newcomers or those unfamiliar with Quakers, or risky because it is regularly abused by some. Many simply see it as a bizarre way to waste time together. In this post I want to argue for the validity of corporate open worship. I see it as a unique and valuable contribution to the gathered body that we are challenged to steward in accordance with our rich heritage. Let us first examine the pros and cons of this strange practice we have inherited as 21st century Friends:
A.D.D. No spiritual discipline is easy for anyone, but some are easier than others for certain people. Many people struggle in silence with an uncontrollably wandering mind. For some every attempt to practice this discipline may be a fruitless experience with frustration, like fasting often is for me.
Alienating/Uncomfortable. Some people have grown so accustomed to being a spectator at church, that for something not to be physically “going on” can be unnerving. People from another ecclesiastical background, or especially newcomers generally have no experience with corporate contemplative practices and will often be confused, with little else than a PowerPoint slide or small pamphlet to guide them. Since we do not seem to teach or introduce these things well, people are put in a position where they cannot ask questions and they are baffled at what is going on around them…for what feels like an eternity.
Boring. Often the debate centers around the idea that silence will just “lose the congregation.” In our sensory overloaded culture, it is feared that church people will just whip out their smart phones and text, plan their afternoons, or surf their FaceBook or twitter accounts in desperation instead of hearing “the words of life.”
Waste of Time. This is similar to boring except it is a more negative assessment of the experience. This is where a person may decide to remove themselves from the community because they have suffered the effects of boredom too long, finding it no longer worth the effort to show up for it.
Risky/Abused. Often people will speak when they are not truly compelled to share something by the Spirit. Perhaps they like to hear themselves talk, or desire attention. Sometimes, in a kind of gray area, people speak “too long.” By this I mean after they have shared what God led them initially to say, they begin to become aware of where they are and what they are doing and begin to take their prophetic roles too lightly. Other people regularly use up the time and do no let others have the opportunity to speak. One complaint is that the same people cycle around, usually the extroverted among us, and are the only ones who ever share…
Popcorn Testimony Time. This is similar to the previous point, but in it one person’s story dominates the entire time. Often people with great zeal for God, (who may be wrestling through a call to ministry alone and without much discipleship,) unload in open worship their entire life story or a kind of Damascus road experience. They might unconsciously be gossiping under the guise of asking for prayer, or reveal a lot of information that would be better reserved for an intimate setting. Often these testimonies reveal once again how poorly we have stewarded discipleship in our congregations, and then it seems “the Lord does not leave much time for open worship” for a few weeks until the passionate people have lost interest, or eventually embrace Pentecostalism down the road where their prophetic gifting will be recognized and aided.
Spiritual Formation and Discipleship Opportunity. Open worship is a great place to take a hard look at the tension between doing something for God versus God doing something through us. As we are “gathered” in silence, those who learn to seek God in this time are learning to put themselves under the tutelage of their Present Teacher, Jesus Christ, the Light Within. Likewise, those who engage in vocal ministry put themselves before the community in ways that can be encouraged, confronted if necessary, or partnered with.
A Level Playing Field (Anti-pedagogical) Often we give lip service to the idea of a priesthood of ALL believers, yet in practice we are very class oriented, with pastors and missionaries a part of a “priestly elite.” The pastor is seen as some superhero figure who does all the spiritual work for us as a congregation. Like Moses, the pastor ascends to the mountaintop on behalf of the congregation to come down with God’s oracles for ourselves. Contra this, open worship is itself an act of radical egalitarianism, which in the face of this false division, points out that the ground at the foot of the cross truly is level. Every person, young and old, male or female, pastor or walk in, can and does have a dynamic relationship with God. And not only a relationship that is one way, with us firing off prayers without experience of God’s presence, but a two way relationship with actual give and take; a relationship where we can truly hear from God mystically in the present moment. And this not only for the pastor, but truly anyone, from a new believer or a young child, to a person who has walked with the Lord for most of their life. We desperately need this step away from the “professionalization” of ministry, in which only the pastor is “the Lord’s anointed” who alone goes up the mountain to experience God for us.
Allows People to Find a Place for Vocal/Proclaimational Ministry. As a person who found my call to preach in the context of open worship, one in which I felt God nudging me to share a word with the congregation despite much fear and trembling, it is hard for me to emphasize this enough. Many people feel called to serve in proclaimational ministry, and we have a strange system in which it almost seems like you just have to wait around for someone to ask you to exercise your gifts. People often have no idea what to do as they discover their calls. At least open worship provides a place to notice people with proclaimational gifting, to come alongside them and equip them to serve in tangible ways.
Allows Expression of Another’s Experience/Perspective. In the church, like every other organization involving humans, there are clicks along demographic lines. Older people and younger people usually do not have a chance to see the world through each other’s eyes. In fact, we self segregate and bypass any place where intergenerational mixing could begin to thrive. This is unfortunate because we do not encourage true eldering and mentoring relationships. Open worship, however, allows us to see how the experience of God transcends our difference and points of cultural reference. This of course is not the primary purpose of open worship, but a wonderful side benefit of its stewardship in the life of the congregation.
Reminds Us that God is Presently at Work Among His People. We forget that God is moving and doing things in and through our bodies, especially if no expression of vocal ministry comes outside the pastor or leadership of the church. Open worship is a good reminder that mystical experiences with God’s grace are not only for Saint Francis and various other dead people, but that God is truly the “God of the living” who has a “great cloud of witnesses” among us. The church is not the place you come to pretend you have everything figured out. We need to know each other and the struggles we face together. We need to see the failures, victories, and the gospel “rubber meeting the road” among us. Otherwise we are little better than the rotary club. We are simply a benevolent social organization that does good things in the community, and not the church of the Living God.
The Fullness of Silence. Opposite of empty silence, which is characterized by boredom and time waste, full silence is one where the true presence of Jesus is known among us. Not only is this a personal experience, but a corporate one, a focal point of the intersection between God’s love and His church that does not require words to share an intimate union together. When one engages this on a regular basis, many fruits blossom within us, sowed from seeds of silence.
Practicing Discernment. Open worship provides the framework for corporate discernment. If we do not know stillness and silence and hearing from God in our weekly meeting, when serious business of discernment is needed, how will we as a body rise to the occasion? How will the young Friends be equipped to carry on the decision making process their future will best be served by? If we do not train ourselves in these things, we will lose them and become just another body that uses Roberts Rules of Order and divisive voting where winners and losers stew in animosity, or leave when their voices are not permitted to be heard.
Decompression from a Noisy World. While this is not the primary purpose of open worship, our busy lives could often use a break from all the noise, media and clamor. To be invited into silence –while alien to our culture of touch screen distractions and social media infatuation– is an invitation offered nowhere else. To grow and meditate in silence and share in its counter-cultural practice, is something very rare in our day. We would do well, even if this were the only benefit we received from the messiness of wrestling in silence together.
Can Be the Highlight of Worship. For many in the Protestant tradition, the proclamation of the Bible is the highlight of worship. In other traditions, especially more ancient ones, the highlight of worship was communion, a ritual abused heavily during the time Quakerism came into being. This ritual is largely interpreted symbolically among protestants with the bread and wine representing physical reminders of Jesus’ death. Not so with the Quakers, who like the Catholics, believe in the true presence of Christ, though without physical bread and wine being required. While it is hard for many protestants to understand that some people might not come to meeting to hear a sermon, that is often my experience having been taught the fundamentals of preaching and liturgy. I simply don’t go to church to hear a sermon anymore, and that is just being honest. For some people, especially older ones who have walked with Christ longer, the highlight of worship is this mystical experience with God together in open worship, the Quaker expression of communion.
Grows a Desire for God. Open worship grows a desire for God. Like fasting, or other spiritual disciplines, open worship points out what controls us. This tyranny is often in the form of time; a tyrannical focus so heavily oriented toward the future that we miss the present moment with God. Open worship can reveal this in us and help us to thirst for God; to long for His presence to fill our emptiness. It can help us focus on living as human beings instead of trying to be human doings. In order for this longing to develop we must learn to break through the things that distract us, in order to reconnect to our longing for God.
Suggestions for Avoiding Pitfalls in Living this Out
- Often what seems to work best is splitting the open worship time into a first half of encouraged silence, and then a last half with an invitation to share. This avoids time domination and helps people to still have an opportunity to really center and listen before the opportunity of vocal ministry.
- One commenter pointed out that a short time for “Joys and Sorrows” before or after open worship can help clear the air and remove the temptation to use the time of silence to share these things. Some people may likely wait to share them during the time because they may think it is appropriate. Giving a place and permission to do this seems a very wise way of guarding the time to allow the congregation to be gathered.
- Leading queries or reflections can also discourage abuse and give the uninitiated a point of reference to begin their journeys into this discipline.
- If a person does abuse the time, it should be seen as an opportunity to teach them how to discern rightly what the Lord is saying. We do each other little good by failing to confront abuse or correcting people who speak too long. There is simply no substitute for going directly to the person in love. Fear of doing this is likely the cause of most of the abuse that echoes through the time and makes people fear or dread open worship. We need to steward this ourselves, not waiting for others to do the difficult things for us.
- Often Literature and PowerPoint slides help communicate the purpose of the time and act as a lifeline for the initial confusion of the experience, while these do not go nearly far enough, they are surely better than pushing someone into a strange setting where they will not feel free to ask questions like “what the heck are we doing now?”
- If it seems like people begin to merely “riff” off the sermon, or praise the pastor or community, moving the open worship time to before the message is also an option. This may help people stay in the frame of mind that they too can hear God on their own, and do not merely refract or reflect back something the group has already accepted as God’s message for them. It hopefully also may help people see that God may have something unique or unexpected, totally unrelated to the morning worship goings on, that He wants them to share with the congregation.
- Opportunities for extended silence in smaller groups outside the “worship hour” may also provide a place for people to go deeper in this discipline. A guided, but largely unprogrammed, meeting for Lent, or something along those lines can be a real blessing. Having an “expiration date” on this group may make people more willing to try something new in an unpressurized setting. Also, inviting an unprogrammed meeting during the Sunday school time could be a more permanent way to go deeper together on Sunday morning.
What is your experience with open worship and vocal ministry? In what ways might you improve on what is written here, or how have you lived these things out in your community? Please comment below. I would love to help facilitate a conversation about how to steward authentic Quaker worship in our time and place. I by no means have all the answers or am an authority on these matters. In the words of George Fox, “What say you about these things?”