Silent communal worship goes back to the earliest generation of Friends.
Successful worship feels good. Often, people become more clear-headed with worship. It helps them in their lives.
Prayer reportedly changes things.
Group worship is often more effective than individual meditations. Individuals often wander and lose their way.
Apocryphal stories about Friends worship
A visitor came into a Friends meeting one First Day and sat down. After a few minutes, she was perplexed that nothing was happening. Finally she turned to the woman next to her and whispered, “When does the service begin?” The second woman whispered back, “Right after the rise of meeting.”
In one story, a young man named Henry was sitting in meeting and felt a strong urge to stand up and say a certain message. Henry fought the urge successfully. A couple of minutes later, an older man sitting next to Henry rose and gave a message which was almost exactly what Henry was going to say. At the rise of the meeting, the older gentleman shook hands with Henry and told him, “The next time, Henry, say it thyself.”
Good meetings for worship have a “covered” feeling, that the worshipping group is covered and guided by God’s Spirit during the worship. Generally, people in the meeting sense a unity, often about an issue that has been discussed in worshippers’ messages.
In another story, an old-time Quaker preacher felt called to go to a certain far-off meetinghouse and preach a certain message. When he arrived at the meetinghouse, he found the building to be quite empty. Undeterred, he preached to an empty building.
Later that day, a stranger approached the preacher. He had been considering suicide that very day. By chance, he had come upon the meetinghouse, had been listening unobserved through an open window, and the sermon had changed his mind.
During the time of the Revolutionary War, the Easton, New York meeting was in worship when an armed group of Mohawk Indians walked in and joined them in worship. These Indians had been bent on killing all settlers, but found that they couldn’t attack the meeting of worshipping Friends because the Friends had no fear at all. The Mohawk warriors later joined the Friends for lunch.
Types of Worship
Unprogrammed meetings for worship
Unprogrammed meetings for worship typically last an hour on First Days (Sundays). They are almost completely silent. Perhaps zero to five people at the meeting for worship will rise and speak in that hour.
Sometimes worshippers will start quaking, from inner turmoil over whether to speak or not. This is the source of the term “Quakers”. Sometimes people are propelled to their feet to start speaking despite their own efforts.
Music within an unprogrammed meeting is generally spontaneous. This tendency goes against the planned nature of most of the world’s songs.
A number of useful features have been developed for First Day meetings for worship.
–Most meetings have a greeter outside the meeting room, who makes people feel welcome, who explains things to newcomers, and who helps to minimize noise outside the meeting room.
–Many meetings have their children worshipping for 15 or 20 minutes with the adults. The children and First Day School teachers all leave (or all arrive) at a specific time.
–Many unprogrammed Friends’ meeting rooms have benches or chairs arranged in an oval or in a square, fitting the shape of the meeting room. This design is meant to show that all Friends are participating equally in worship. Other meetings have only one or two benches on one side, named the facing bench and the back bench, facing all of the other benches. Facing benches are remnants of days when all of the meeting’s elders sat on the facing bench and back bench, to keep an eye on the other parishioners. The facing bench arrangement was also useful for a clerk’s conducting business meetings.
–No rule says that a meeting needs to last an hour. Occasionally a meeting for worship will continue past its ending time, often because people are drinking in a profound message, or because someone spoke at the last minute and people need to re-center themselves.
–Usually someone is appointed beforehand to start shaking hands, to signal that the hour is up. That person is generally appointed to ask if there are any visitors to the meeting, who will usually say their names and where they’re from, and will point to people who wish to make announcements. Sometimes Friends speak afterthoughts that they wanted to say during the meeting for worship. Often, Friends will go around the room saying their names. Friends should try not to get too heavy or too wordy during this period just after worship, so as not to mar the centeredness within everyone.
–Other events are often scheduled around the meeting for worship. A fellowship hour with snacks often follows worship. Most meetings have occasional potluck lunches. Political or religious discussion groups are sometimes scheduled before or after worship. Meetings for business and committee meetings sometimes follow snacks or potluck lunches.
Pastoral meetings for worship
Friends mixed somewhat freely with Protestant denominations in the 19th century. Some Friends meetings are pastoral in the Protestant tradition. These Friends’ pastoral meetings often incorporate unprogrammed periods of open worship into their program of worship.
Grace before meals
A table of Friends will sometimes hold hands and have a minute of silent grace before a meal. At potluck meals, Friends will typically take hands in a large circle and have silent worship for a minute. At large religious conventions, entire dining halls of Friends will fall silent at a certain preplanned minute, 12:00 noon to 12:01 for example.
Meetings for worship with a concern for business
Friends sometimes try to stay as deeply as possible in worship while conducting consensus process business meetings, and have historically tried to do this also.
Worship sharing is a mixture of worship and talking. Friends meet in deliberately small circles. Generally everyone can talk at least once in an hour in a worship sharing circle.
Come to meetings for worship already centered. Get a head start on centering. Indulge in centering activities before worship. A few meetings sing before worship. Your presence can then help less fortunate Friends to become centered more quickly.
Learn what stills your mind, and practice it.
When someone else speaks, listen. In doing so, you honor the speaker.
If a message comes to you, you can wait on it. Take care before speaking in meeting. Discover whether the message in your mind is given for yourself, or is meant for one other person after meeting for worship, or is for the whole meeting. When in doubt, speak in meeting only because the message can’t wait.
Stand to speak, unless physically unable. Speak in a clear voice, as some people are hard of hearing. At a Quaker religious conference, stand and wait for a microphone to arrive.
Occasionally certain less experienced speakers start speaking with power, then lose their focus and start to ramble. When speaking, take care not to outrun your Guide.
Allow plenty of silence at the start of every meeting for everyone to become centered. Allow a period of silence after every speaker, that their message might be accepted and digested with grace. Because of the value of silence, a brief message from your lips is generally better than a long message. Silence is as important to the meeting’s fabric as vocal ministry.
If someone else’s message grates on you, do not answer directly. First, ask yourself why it grates. Second, consider whether you should let God answer.
Do you seek to develop the next generation of Friends? Do you accept cheerfully the early attempts of new seekers at speaking good messages, recognizing that their spirits will grow with experience? Do you help the meeting’s children to experience depths of worship?
Are you called to take on certain tasks to make meetings for worship better for everyone?
Are you rushing to meetings? Are you rushing from meetings? Are you bringing as much centeredness to the spirit of the meeting for worship as you would like the meeting to have?