Something to Say About Silence…

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?”   


About jtower11

Hi there! I am James Tower: A husband, father, dreamer, visionary, thinker, poet, mystic, metal-worker, and scholar. I have served College Avenue Friends since 2013. I like to describe the way God has been at work in my life by saying that "He has been creating in me the heart of a pastor, the mind of a scholar, and the zeal of a missionary." I have an extremely nontraditional background as Jesus has given me freedom from the slavery of addiction to drugs, and my journey to faith came later in life after an overdose in 2000. I graduated with a M. Div with an emphasis in biblical studies from George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland Oregon in 2016. I have a love for teaching and revealing the historical and doctrinal context from which the biblical text arises, and connecting its redemptive message to life today. Other interests include teaching a leadership class based on the Friends Testimonies at William Penn University, writing, and metalwork such as blacksmithing, a passion which I enjoy teaching others as a way of discipleship. View all posts by jtower11

42 responses to “Something to Say About Silence…

  • Christina

    Be human doings… Clever brother.

    It may be helpful to add the chart thing about when to share if you can find it.
    I miss programmed worship. I recognize both as important for my spiritual growth.

    Outside of the Quaker tradition I have experienced something that touches on some of these aspects, but it is more of a sharing time. A time when people are encouraged to share what God has been doing in their lives, and to ask for prayer. I have been blessed by this opportunity. As a side benefit, it takes some of the pressure off. During this time, I am able to speak without the tension of, “did this come directly from the Lord?” this may sound bad, but no one expects that every utterance will be thus saith the Lord, and that is nice too.

    That said, I think it is important to have that tension from time to time. I think we should have a time when we expect to hear from the Lord, or wait in silence.

    An additional pitfall, might be when people piggyback off of each other, or worse in my opinion, spring up as soon as someone has shared to share something else. Of we truly believe what someone is saying may be of the Lord, why are we not taking time to digest it and seek the Lord on the matter ourselves? Part of a solution may be instruction, but it would also require pastors and the congregation together committing to listen as long as the Lord chooses to speak through people. I think we feel a “speak now or forever hold your peace” sort of urgency, so we do not wait and it detracts from the fullness of the experience as it does away with a great portion of the silence.

    • jtower11

      True Sis. I think there is a real pressure to rush through the time. If you feel moved to speak and you hesitate at all, the worship team winks and you would have to yell stop or something or they will close off the opportunity…

      • Christina

        Yes. And so we either rush it, or do not voice our utterances. I still value the time, and the practice, but I can see why some people wish for the unprogeammed back. When we program 5 minutes to hear from the Lord, it causes some issues. Especially since it seems we are all on some level disturbed by silence for any prolonged period of time… God must be done, time to sing now… : )

    • Mackenzie

      Some Friends Meetings will have a “joys and sorrows” time afterward (I’ve seen this at both Bethesda Friends Meeting and Takoma Park Friends Meeting in Maryland), for Friends to share requests for loved ones to be held in the Light, good news, bad news, etc. so that they are not tempted to do so during Worship.

  • Max Peccator

    Great article, James. I haven’t spent much time in this sort of environment, so it is fascinating to hear your inside wisdom on the matter. Help me with this one, though, when you say that open worship often allows for different perspectives and cultural experiences, does this also sort of tacitly admit that what they are offering may not necessarily be from God but rather their own feelings? On what level does God’s prophetic message transcend these individualized perspectives and on what level does he use them?

    • jtower11

      First off Matt, I just want to thank you for your feedback. I wish more Quakers would have engaged this as you did. My comment about different perspectives and cultural experiences goes hand in glove with any expression of God’s Word, written or otherwise. I believe that even Scripture is a combination of both the human and the Divine, much like the incarnation. Therefore what is true about scripture, i.e., that it speaks from a particular time and culture even as it transcends it, is also true of the spoken word despite its subjectivity. Moreover, feelings are conveyed in any communication, because communication occurs on many levels, therefore feelings do not necessarily mean that that part of what someone says is not from God. I mean, Jesus or Jeremiah weeping did not exclude the expression of emotion from Scripture or nullify their message, so why would we reject the emotional connotations of a message and stick only with the denotations? I am not sure I could express the way in which a person speaks from their ineffable experience of God aside from a few generalities, like “from God, not really from God,” and “mixed.” I am not even sure I could find a consensus of people in a meeting who would agree in unison that which parts were genuine and which were not. I am not really trying to dodge your last question. After more thought I will write a “part two” to attempt to crystallize my understanding. Thank you so much for getting me thinking in e new direction!

      • Mackenzie

        I’d add in that there may be different messages given to different Friends, because they need to be the one to give that message, or because another Friend was given the prompting first but resisted it, or even because one of them has the right words for the topic. (I don’t know about you, but I don’t get messages as a string of words in English-sentence-order… I have to interpret it into English, and I could totally see the case where someone else could better interpret it, so they get the message instead)

  • Zachary Brigante

    James, you seem to have covered all of the pros and cons nicely, summed up the issues and the environment. You said to mention when I have experienced these things and I have. The Quaker church I went to had silent worship after musical worship and the sermon, this encouraged people to treat silent worship like it was comment on the sermon time. I found it rather frustrating because even though I wanted to be centered, I was distracted by the human utterances of those who wanted to put their two cents in. Not to mention it was typically a round robin of the same people who seemed to be the more comfortable, extroverted types.

    The one time the church had the quiet time after musical worship but before the sermon, God was strangely silent and I felt myself smiling during most of the worship. That being said, when it moved to it’s previous location I found the comment time even more unbearable.

    I like the idea of having a half and half time, where the first 5 or more minutes are spent focusing on what it means to be centered, and the rest of the time being messages from God, where messages are heard in the silence rather than in the mind. Don’t try to ask yourself if God has a message, but let it flow naturally.

    As for the ADD issue, I think that needs to be confronted directly. Most people are willing to admit that their attention span could use to be longer and that having a short one is a result of the culture they live in. Practice makes perfect.

    • jtower11

      Hey Zach! I like your encouragement about even the ADD issue finding its place eventually, with time and practice. I hope that is practical for most in the end. I am also frustrated when open worship boils down to comment on the sermon time. I think often we are in such a race to get through this time because of its awkwardness that people who may be feeling led to speak feel like if they don’t hurry up and get to it, the time will pass them by. At South Salem Friends the Silent time is before the sermon, and at Silverton it is after. In my experience this hasn’t been as big of a factor where it is, with slightly more comments on the sermon at Silverton. At North Valley they always have it after the sermon almost as an application time. For some reason it seems to flow well there in that community, but I do see wisdom in having it before as well. I do think that the round robin thing would not be as big of a factor if we did not feel as much pressure to close off the time. The introverts would likely chime in more with less pressure…

      Thank you for your thoughtful engagement, and also your honesty Zach!

  • Pat Pope

    I served in an evangelical meeting and offered a silent worship group on Wednesday nights when our classes meet. I had a description laid out near the room entrance so people new to the group and/or to silent worship would understand what we were doing, Of course, when I started it initially, we talked through what would happen and the guidelines. After that, mostly the same people showed up each week, but I left the handout out for anyone new to the group. I would also usually have some material that people could use for meditation.

    The way the group was structured, as we came into the room, there might be a brief conversation or I might call their attention to the reading for that week, if there was one, and then we would descend into silence. People were free to use the time as they saw fit and most times speaking was reserved for the end. Some people would read the Bible, some would pray or meditate. For some weeks, it was just a nice respite for me as I served as an elder and was quite busy.

    • jtower11

      Hey Pat!

      Talking through the experience beforehand is often what is lacking in a worship service context. I was a part of an especially meaningful group through lent one year that was a similar oasis in my week. Friends of old may have frowned on the use of meditative material (they did not usually bring their Bibles to worship), but I think in our context we are better suited for using text to help us center. Do you have any input on text you found especially useful, or the ways to share that text in that setting? Was it a random assortment of things or did you have something new fairly regularly? I like your comment on people in your group feeling free to use the time as they see fit. I wonder how to encourage that freedom more. You got me thinking… Anyway thank you for sharing your experience in living this out. There is a lot of wisdom to glean from how you structured this group and how it functioned.

  • Jim Schultz

    I attend an unprogrammed meeting on LI, NY. I find it a necessity in a meeting where you are open to seekers of different backgrounds. Providing a time for people to access God/the divine though their soul while minimizing the distractions of a particular creedal viewpoint allows seekers to come to God at their own pace. Meanwhile vocal ministry does allow such seekers to have outward confirmation of what they think they have been hearing. Of course if people don’t think it’s possible or don’t want to hear from that of God within them they are wasting their time at such a meeting and if the meeting doesn’t have a spirit led vocal ministriy and leadership everyone’s time could be better spent anywhere else.

    • jtower11

      Hey Jim,
      I fear in our programmed settings we struggle with providing enough time for the meeting to be fully gathered. I am not sure I understand your comment about emphasizing a particular creedal viewpoint. If you could elaborate more on this I would be very grateful. Do see a sermon as the devise of a particular creedal viewpoint, or could it be that it is just another form of vocal ministry? I am of the persuasion that a sermon comes from the same sort of process of being gathered and listening, only that this process is not necessarily contemporaneous. I think the programmed setting does allow for people who either do not yet know it is possible to hear from God, or else do not want to, to be present alongside those who understand the manner of Friends. My experience comes from a sort of shared space of common ground. I think programmed and unprogrammed friends are equally spirit led, but perhaps that is naiveté… I imagine your experience and mine are radically different. Thank you for sharing your understanding and expanding mine Jim. Very thoughtful post!

      • Jim Schultz

        Having come from a Roman Cathoilc upbringing, having spent several years each in Pentacostal and Evangelica churches, I have found that 99% of sermons I have heard have been aligned with the accepted beliefs of same. This might be why Jesus said no man is greater than his master. Right now I am concentrating on taking each thought captive and interrogating it on where it came from – God, Devil or some church’s doctrine. 🙂 All of us have our own belief’s formed by past associations. The trouble I have experienced is even those beliefs that are true are not transforming unless I have, as George Fox said, experientical knowledge of them.

      • jtower11

        Hey Jim, good thought. We really do choose our teachers in a sense. It is all too easy to just gather around those who are willing to tell us what we want to hear, or articulate our own interpretational vision. I do think though that doctrine is very important, just because some church cares about something enough to teach it does not make it either right or wrong. Our beliefs and past associations are a part of a tradition, and tradition does not have to be traditionalism. Someone once said that without individuals nothing would get done, and without institutions nothing would ever last. I think Christ’s church is a holy vision meant to last, and that unless you are taught what that means (by Christ, or others). Living these things out is far messier than most people are comfortable with. Having a faithful community who helped fox discern his leadings alongside him was very much a part of his experience. I doubt very much that early Friends were without a core of beliefs that was not only taught inwardly, but lived outwardly in community. We sometimes limit the experiential to the personal only, and this can be dangerous in my view if not held in a healthy tension somehow.

    • jtower11

      Hey Mackenzie!
      Your experience of ADHD is a perspective I really hoped would be represented. It gives me great hope that unprogrammed worship has an almost therapeutic effect. I hope your experience is a shared one. At my wife’s church they do a joy’s and sorrows time before open worship, and I would be willing to bet that it is helpful in “clearing the air.” That is a great insight I completely forgot to mention. I will likely add this as an option to keep us programmed Friends on track. I think it is interesting your meeting has it afterwards, but it likely serves the same purpose either time. Your insights about people sharing the same message is also helpful. I have felt moved to share something it felt like another person resisted, but have never thought about someone else having the right words. My experience is often one of pictures and not of words in either order. I intend to write a part two about the discernment of vocal leadings, would you mind if I share your insight there? Thank you so much for your wisdom and willingness to share your experience so different from mine, yet also so similar. Very thoughtful response!

  • Mackenzie

    I have ADHD, and I find that unprogrammed worship, for me, is just something I need to practice. If I skip Meeting one weekend, it’s going to be harder to center the next weekend. However, I consider it valuable to stick with it. I think it helps my ADHD to force myself to slow down for that hour.

  • Howard Brod

    I attend an unprogrammed liberal Quaker meeting in Midlothian, VA. After 25 years of practicing the spiritual discipline of silent-waiting worship an hour each Sunday morning, I still find it takes A LOT of discipline. I find if I spend the time in purposeful ‘listening’ for that Voice of the divine from within, I am more successful at staying focused. When I simply meditate, self-reflect, ‘center’, or think of testimonies to relate; I don’t have those life-changing experiences that I suppose early Friends had during worship.

    If your programmed Friends church/meeting is large enough, you might want to try having a full hour of silent-waiting worship mid-week. If you can’t support that frequency, do it once a month at a time other than the usual Sunday morning. I find having an hour of this type of worship deepens both the experience and the vocal ministry that arises. I would expect that those who attend this mid-week worship will become “energizers” for the 20 minutes or so of Open worship during the regular Sunday worship time – and your whole church will benefit. They will become teachers by example of how to go deep into silent worship for life-changing results.

    I often think it would also be good for unprogrammed meetings to do the reverse; i.e., have a mid-week worship with a Quaker leader speaking about spiritual topics (although I could not imagine any unprogrammed meeting calling such a time ‘worship’, Still it is what it is.). But, this would be harder for an unprogrammed meeting to pull off every week, since they will not hire leaders (pastors).

    Wouldn’t that be remarkable if we (unprogrammed Quaker meetings) did your thing mid-week, and you (programmed Quaker churches) did our thing mid-week? Kind of like we are meeting in the middle for a shared religious practice. It could be the beginning of common ground, besides just a shared heritage in early Quaker history.

    • jtower11

      Hey Howard,

      Your vision of unprogrammed and programmed meetings learning from each other is a vision I would love to be a part of. You really got me thinking about ways to connect to unprogrammed meetings in my area. I have yet to share in a fully unprogrammed experience. I am sure I would enjoy it and would learn a lot. I am not sure money would be that big of a factor in attempting this sort of thing. I, as well as many other programmed Friends, do not usually take money for speaking. I do not turn it down, because that would be a lack of humility to do so, but I, and many others would likely jump at the chance to be a part of what you describe. Kind of makes me wish we lived closer to your area… Thank you for your unique and thoughtful contribution to the conversation!

      • Howard Brod

        James, I recall two occasions that my meeting has had a church leader join us regularly for slient-waiting worship. The first time was about 15 years ago, when a local Lutheran minister’s wife began visiting us for worship on a lark. Her husband’s church had worship earlier than ours – so she was able to do both. She immediatly added value to our worship on occasion. She brought a depth to us that we all embraced. She was soon nominated to be part of our Spiritual Nurture committee that oversees the spiritual life of the meeting. After her 3 year term expired, she was then nominated to be on our Care and Community committee that serves the pastoral needs of Friends. Unfortunately, after 10 years, she move out of the area. And we still greatly miss her.

        The other occasion was only about one year ago. We’ve had a minister join us regularly for worship who used to have her own church to pastor for quite a few years. Upon getting her doctorate in theology, she learned much about Quakers and decided to visit us. She too has added much to our meeting, and has also been nominated to our Spiritual Nurture committee. She is such a grounded Friend who brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to us.

        Most unprogrammed meetings would welcome your presence and insights. My particular meeting is very quick to embrace a spiritual person even if they are not grounded (through experience) in our liberal Quaker traditions and sensitivities. We are not concerned about people becoming members of our meeting before they serve and minister to us. And we also are not concerned if they also attend another church (Quaker or not). Not all unprogrammed meetings are this open to accepting leadership from someone not fully committed to their meeting and unprogrammed (liberal or conservative) Quakerism. But all are welcoming to anyone’s presence and participation in worship. It might be fun for you (and educational in your quest to be a Quaker pastor) to discover what makes your local unprogrammed meeting(s) tick. It would certainly enrich your leadership abilities when you pastor a Quaker church. If you don’t care for one meeting, just try another.

        We need more inter-mingling between programmed and unprogrammed churches/meetings.

      • jtower11

        I agree wholeheartedly. I know of one church that has an unprogrammed meeting during their Sunday school time. I will have to do some digging to find closer unprogrammed meetings in my area. They likely do exist, but for some reason I never hear much about them. We have a Quaker women’s theological conference that is very diverse. We have yet to start something that I would feel comfortable attending that makes a bridge between our perspectives. Thank you for showing me how something like this might look.

  • roland heath

    i stole this for the Atlanta Friends Meeting Facebook page. we make time for joys and introductions after meeting and toward the end of meeting time for folks to hold people in the light. also , i know about some people who want to hijack meeting for their own purposes. we have had to deal with it. sometimes with more patience than i really have.
    we are an unprogrammed meeting
    thanks a very good article

    • jtower11

      Thank you Roland,
      Any practical advice for confronting meeting hijackers?

      • Howard Brod

        There is a worship etiquette among unprogrammed Friends that tends to prevent hijacking. So, surprisingly, it rarely occurs. In 25 years I’ve seen it happen maybe 3 times.

        First and foremost, at least several minutes of silence between speakers is considered proper, and usually much more time between speakers occurs – like 10 minutes or more. Keep in mind that a completely silent worship occurs often in most unprogrammed meetings. So this in itself lets new folks know that the silence is valued and very important to unprogrammed Friends.

        At least in the liberal Quaker tradition, speakers tend not to speak too long because sermonizing (lecturing) is frowned upon. This is because there is such a diversity of belief in a liberal meeting. Intellectual rationalization to promote a belief during worship is not valued as coming from the Spirit. Things of the Spirit can be expressed concisely and briefly, and happens only after some inner reflection and inner quaking (yes, thus the nickname “Quakers”) that verifies to the speaker that the message is from the Spirit and not their own mind. It’s amazing how quickly new ones catch on to this aspect of unprogrammed Quaker worship.

        And finally, it is considered monopolizing the worship to speak more than once. So, if you are going to do that, you best be sure that all or most worshippers would agree that the Spirit truly moved you to do so.

        If there is a “violator” of this etiquette, he/she is usually tolerated for a bit (several occasions of this happening). However, if it seems to be a repeated pattern, the committee responsible for worship usually puts a notice in the newsletter reminding all Friends of the above etiquette.

        If the problem still occurs, the Friend in question would be spoken to by someone on the committee responsible for worship.

        If a serious hijacking occurs – such as someone taking up 10 minutes or so of worship with their sermon – then someone on the committee responsible for worship will use some tried and tested manuvers to quiet them. One very effective method is to gently interrupt the hijacker with a song. This usually works. If it doesn’t, then gently interrupting with a pointed message that the silence needs to be respected, will usually work. And if that doesn’t work, I really don’t know what would, because I’ve never witnessed the hijacking go any further after these manuvers.

      • jtower11

        Howard, This is very fascinating to me, and far different than my own experience. Do the correctors see themselves as a prophetic voice from the Light, or do they see this correction as an act of discipleship? Also could you speak more of the role of experiential theology in unprogrammed circles? If I felt moved to speak about a palpable experience of God’s grace, What sort of theological content would be seen as not from the Light? How are the roles of vocal ministry different? Thank you for helping me to understand you. I feel like I am beginning to see what makes unprogrammed Friends tick on new levels…

  • Dr. Bruce Arnold

    Reading the comments, I’m struck by something that I was taught by an older Friend when my gift of vocal ministry first began to manifest itself. He told me “if you don’t look for the leading throughout the week, you probably won’t magically get it on Sunday morning.” I think this applies to the practice of “open worship” as well, whether one ministers or not. Anyone who can’t take the time several times a week to experience some extended period of meditation and/or prayer – and by extended I mean at least 10 minutes at a stretch — isn’t going to suddenly have the ability to center down for an hour (or even 20 minutes) on Sunday.

    In the 12 Step meetings I attend, sometimes there will be a time when no one speaks for a while. When this happens, inevitably someone will say “Well I can’t stand the silence so I’ll speak up.” I usually take them aside afterwards and tell them “if you can’t stand more than 10 seconds, I guarantee you that your prayer life is inadequate to sustain your recovery.”

    That may seem brusque to some. In the 12 Step groups, it’s a matter of life or death. I’d give them mouth-to-mouth without a CPR mask if it was the only way to save their life, and I will tell them that they need a vital prayer life to save their life too.

    This applies, in spades, to Quaker worship. Those who don’t prepare for worship throughout the week will find that it is shallow, superficial, “boring”, lacking in vitality. The Spirit has its laws, just as the physical universe has its laws.

    Great article. Thank you so much for considering the depth and breadth of the pros and cons so well.

    • jtower11

      Great insights Bruce,

      I agree that our connections with God are not to be maintained once a week, but every day. As a fellow Quaker 12 stepper, I share a lot of your perspective, and see many ways the church would do well to learn from the principals of recovery groups (which modeled themselves after the church ironically). Coming prepared for worship simply cannot be emphasized enough. In wrestling though how to live that out in a meeting, I have to agree that the root of many of our problems and negative experiences come from this lack you so eloquently point out. Thank you for your perspective and for sharing about the connection between spirituality and recovery.

  • Steven Davison

    I have worshipped in unprogrammed meetings all my time as a Friend, though I’ve attended a numbeer of programmed meetings for worship. I think there’s a couple of things missing from this interesting discussion about open worship. One is the all-important aspect of time. A second is something you touched on and that is how the form of worship affects the dynamics of power in the meeting. And the most important, I think, is the essential, distinctive genius of Quaker spirituality.

    By this last, I mean the belief—the experience, really—that God calls everyone to a direct, unmediated relationship with God, and that God calls the meeting also to a direct, unmediated relationship, and that God is always revealing God’s self—in short that we are all potential ministers, and we become actual ministers when we hear and answer God’s call to service. The purpose of open/waiting/silent worship is, through radical simplicity of outward form, to strip away all the obstacles you can that would prevent you from hearing that call and being faithful to it.

    But the stripping away takes time. I think the Buddhists have it right when they say that it takes the tiime it takes to eat a meal (20 minutes) for the animal mind—Paul called it “the flesh”—to loosen its grip enough to hear the still, small voice of God, for the “silence of all flesh,” as early Friends put it, to deepen enough to hear the promptings of the Holy Spirit. This is why it is the convention in unprogrammed meetings to wait 20 minutes before speaking.

    So open meeting really takes at least 20 minutes just to START. Then you have to leave time for the openings God is giving God’s servants to mature and for the Spirit to overcome the deeper obstacles to faithfulness that we all feel in meeting for worship, some of which have been beautifully expressed here.

    The hour that unprogrammed meetings allow is, in fact, programmed worship because it’s programmed to end in one hour—rather than ending when God is done with the meeting. But at least there is a chance in an hour that God’s work will bear fruit in that time.

    Then there is power—though “power” is really not the right word. You briefly touched on this. Limiting the time when anyone in the congregation might try to be faithful to the call they have received to speak God’s word to some portion of five minutes, or whatever small time is allotted, this disempowers eveyone but the presiding minister. But I would put it more strongly: it quenches the Spirit. It is, I would suggest, a sin against the Spirit. To be as provocative as possible, it is actually Satan’s work to stand in the way of God’s word and its proclamation. And that is what such a limited time does.

    The only compensation, the onlly antidote to the quenching of the Holy Spirit, is that the presiding minister has time enough to bring seasoned gospel ministery to the meeting after all. But investing all your hope for God’s work in one person is rather like not allowing women to get an education: it denies the community—and God—the full breadth and depth of spiritual gifts that dedicated open worship would foster.

    Yes, there are “cons” to open worship. Giving it a whole hour doesn’t make them go away, though it does allow individual gospel ministers and their meetings room to develop a culture of eldership around vocal ministry that can help diminish the cons. But the real issue is the “pros”: doing everythng possible to invite the Holy Spirit to ignite a tongue of fire in ALL THE POTENTIAL MINISTERS in the meeting.

    • jtower11

      Thanks for your great post here Steve,

      In response I would say time really is the elephant in the room. Perhaps we programmed Quakers have “evolved” out of necessity, or are more comfortable or perhaps naive, but depending on the group I have felt fairly centered and gathered at around ten minutes. Don’t get me wrong, we usually don’t have much of a choice and so we have adapted. More time would be a luxury, one I would quickly embrace. In a programmed setting we are often forced into a sense of urgency (which I truly hate). In the groups I have been a part of it is a real mix of different ways to hear God.For some open worship is like their worst nightmare… Waiting worship is seen as one way to hear God among many, unfortunately. There are a lot of people in the meeting who have never had as much experience with silence as you regularly practice. Not a lot has changed from the “wild west” context that Quakers adapted to so long ago, at least in modes of worship. It is simply what we know. I do agree that things would be better if we were not as comfortable “quenching the spirit” and ending the time. You are right to point out that we all do this, whether in 15 minute or an hour. But we are in a community and how God responds to the needs of the community in our context are likely very different, just as they were historically. as I said it is too late to put the genie back in the bottle. We often talk past each other because our conceptions are so different. We do have a long way to go to awaken all the potential ministers in our meetings. I am hoping to build up this weakness on our end of the spectrum. But just as your meeting would not quickly change to something more programmed, our meeting will not embrace sudden and radical changes overnight. There will be many incremental baby steps along the way, and in the end it still might not look exactly like your experience back east. I am excited about our perspectives converging! I hope you realize though that programmed or unprogrammed Friends alike have vibrantly living relationships with God, they just have different contexts and ways those relationships are encountered and maintained. I think we could learn a lot from each other on either end. I for one am happily soaking in this wisdom from the other side. Great thoughts Steve!

  • Chris Nugent

    I’m an unprogrammed Friend and have only been to a couple of programmed/semiprogrammed meetings for worship. The values I encountered felt right, especially in the programmed meeting, but it was beastly hard for me to feel really part of a worshipping community. The ten minutes of silence seemed disconnected from the rest of the service. The semi-programmed meeting, oddly, was more off-putting; although there were only about five minutes of programming, I found it disconcerting to hear the same person speak several times in meeting. It was lovely, though, to have a Friend sing a hymn as the first vocal ministry. I don’t know if that was part of the program.

  • Dave Carl

    I also attend an unprogrammed meeting. I’ve never been to a programmed Quaker service, (outside of my own wedding, in which the only programming was the minister leading us through our vows!) as there aren’t any in my area. However, I occassionally go to a Methodist or Episcopal service for some liturgy and fairly well-informed or thought-out sermonizing to try to “put back” some of the content that has gone missing from modern liberal Friends meetings.

    • jtower11

      Hey Dave,
      I think what you are missing is the very reason there are programmed Friends. I have heard the differences describes as unprogrammed Quakers being a large collection of theological diversity banded together around a unified social expressions, and programmed Quakers being a large collection of diverse social expressions banded around more or less a theological unity. I do not know how true this is of unprogrammed Quakers but seems to describe programmed Friends very well. I think we may both be missing a piece. I resonate with both the theological and social groupings I have read of classic Friends positions. I am sure the grass is greener for some on the other side. Thank you for sharing your experience. I am still not certain I understand unprogrammed discipleship at all. Could you share some of your experience with that? Does such a diverse theology mean there is no “one way” or something more like no way at all? I am fascinated by your perspective

  • Howard Brod


    I’ll try to answer your questions to the best of my ability and experience, regarding the “correctors” (as you termed it) during a worship hijacking. Just keep in mind that although I’ve experienced conservative Quaker unprogrammed worship many times, I am a liberal Quaker and consider it my spiritual home. So my answers will reflect that tradition within Baltimore Yearly Meeting. The two traditions have much in common, and you would have to attend each for quite awhile before you become aware of the differences. This is especially true of liberal Quakers and either North Carolina Conservative Yearly Meeting or Iowa Conservative Yearly Meeting. From what I understand the differences between liberal Quakers and Ohio Conservative Yearly Meeting are more pronounced.

    I would say that the “correctors” see it more as a requirement of their role to oversee worship than a divine intervention through them. They know that other Friends present expect them to carry out this role. This includes making sure silence is respected. So they would intervene in something as mundane as someone outside the worship room inadvertently making noise that does not appear to be ceasing; as well as something more dramatic and purposeful like a worship hijacker. Likely, before intervening, the corrector would have prayed silently while the hijacking is happening for guidance from the Spirit on what to do.

    This particular committee of Friends acts somewhat in the capacity of a minister in a typical church, although the differences are striking, as well. Unlike with a minister, in a liberal Quaker meeting, you would not know who these committee members are unless someone told you or you witnessed them carrying out their duties associated with the worship environment and spiritual programs/sharing at times other than worship. It’s not that it is a secret or hidden from Friends. This committee is more of a facilitator for the meeting’s spiritual life than the spiritual leaders. Liberal Quakers take the idea of the priesthood of all believers to the extreme. Because outside appearances and public comments from individuals don’t reveal the inner heart, liberal Friends shy away from elevating anyone within the meeting as their “leader”. In fact, soon after the great Quaker schism in the 1820’s, liberal Quakers started limiting influential committees to terms of three non-consecutive years to avoid what they deemed as abuses from Orthodox Quaker elders before the schism. I would venture that truly they look to the divine as their leader, whether they term this as God, Jesus, the “Universe”, the Spirit, the Light, or some other label. To most liberal Friends, this divine essence IS what it is, and whatever label we use won’t change that. Mostly you will hear references to “the Spirit” or “the Light”. But you also frequently hear references to God. Basically, liberal Friends are reluctant to define this ultimate force in terms other than active Love. They are more into experiencing an ongoing relationship with it.

    From this relationship they strive to experience the nine fruits of the Spirit listed by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians. Basically, this is viewed as the essence or product of a spiritual life for a liberal Quaker. Nothing more and nothing less. All other ideas and beliefs may be interesting and fun to discuss, but they are view as just that: ideas, or as early Friends termed such conjecture – “notions”. The only theology that liberal Quakers really focus on is the idea that “there is that of God in everyone”. It is the experience of God that matters. Liberal Quakers are fond of saying “Mind the Light”, which aids them in living a life in relationship with the divine.

    If you were moved by the Spirit during worship to express God’s grace, certainly a testimony about your experience with grace would be welcomed and well-received. There are nuances that liberal Friends strive to respect during worship. In other words, in the example regarding God’s grace, is the message about God’s grace or is it about you? I think you likely understand from that question. There are no hard fast rules. Just an awareness to mind the Light when giving vocal ministry.

  • Bill Rushby

    Hello, James! I found your essay and the comments that followed very interesting. It would be nice if some who are experienced with the Conservative tradition were part of the discussion.

  • Mariellen Gilpin

    As an unprogrammed Friend who wandered into this discussion more than a year later, I will first say I have enjoyed the exchange of experiences. A few years ago, another Friend and I made a pact to arrive early for worship in order to pray for the quality of worship. I explained to my husband why I suddenly was leaving for worship an hour earlier than before. He reminded me of a cartoon we’d seen in the local paper–one of those several-cells-long cartoon strips, in which a dog is sitting and intently watching the eastern sky. When the sky is getting just the wee-est bit lighter, the dog starts barking. Cartoon-cell after cartoon-cell, the dog continues to bark, bark, bark, bark…until the sun’s rays come over the horizon–at which the dog sits there silent, with a very self-satisfied expression on his face: he has barked up the sun! My husband was reminding me that the quality of corporate worship is not something I am responsible for creating. Yet, there is some way in which I’ve come to believe that praying for the quality of worship does have palpable effects.

    I experienced something in worship yesterday that I want to share. I walked into the worship room only a little before others, sat down, and began centering. Shortly, it was as if I were invited to pray for each person who was already in the room, and each newcomer as he or she arrived. I am very cautious about such invitations — did it come from God, or did it come from ego? As far as I could tell, however, it was not that I had some little hidden agenda what I wanted to result from the prayers-for-each. I began by addressing God (silently) in this way: “Look, I’m not sure if this is thy leading, or mine, but I’d like to name each person in this room and ask You to bless and heal them by giving them each what they need most this day.” And then, I leisurely named each and repeated the request as I named the person. I may have been the most surprised by the effect: suddenly the silence deepened — not that the shufflings and snufflings and sneezings ceased, but they occurred in the midst of a shared awareness of a holy silence. I also noticed that there were just two spoken ministries — both from Friends who seldom speak in worship, and both of which ministries took us a little deeper, and a little deeper still.

    It’s like you said in your original post, James: there’s a Mystery at the very heart open worship, and none of us is–or will ever be–an expert. For me, it’s a matter of trying things in worship, observing the effects, and reflecting upon them…then trying something else…observing …

  • jtower11

    I seem to be having trouble following the link to your article, but would love to read it!

  • Something to Say About Something to Say About Silence | This was the true light… (John 1:9)

    […] recently stumbled across James Tower’s blog post of 2012 entitled Something to Say About Silence. Since his post and subsequent discussion was several years old, I have decided to make my comments […]

  • Something to Say…Part2:The Gospel, the Power of God | This was the true light… (John 1:9)

    […] post continues my series in response to James Tower’s blog post of 2012 entitled Something to Say About Silence. After re-reading some of James’ comments, on my previous post, I realized that I needed to […]

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