When I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up; and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed; and indeed this is the surest way to become a Christian....
– Robert Barclay, Apology, 1676
We approach the meeting for worship confidently, listening to the still, small voice within. Each worshipper is a listener. In active waiting, we strive to dissociate the mind from distractions and to focus inwardly. As each of us helps and strengthens others in this process, worship becomes a corporate experience.
And as many candles lighted, and put in one place, do greatly augment the light, and make it more to shine forth, so when many are gathered together into the same life, there is more of the glory of God, and his power appears, to the refreshment of each individual; for that he partakes not only of the light and life raised in himself, but in all the rest.
– Robert Barclay, Apology, 1676
Direct communion with God—experience of the Holy Spirit—makes observance of sacraments unnecessary, and for some even a hindrance. Guidance from the Spirit can take place anywhere and at any time under any conditions. No place is particularly holy, and all places are holy.
We do not say that to observe the sacraments is wrong, but that such observance is not essential to wholehearted Christian discipleship and the full Christian experience. We do not judge our fellow Christians to whom the outward sacraments mean so much. Rather do we wish, by prayerful fellowship with them, to be led unitedly with them to a deeper understanding of what underlies those sacraments, and so to share a richer experience of the mind of Christ.
– Gerald K. Hibbert,
Quaker Fundamentals, 1941
Meetings for worship may be programmed or unprogrammed, structured or unstructured, pastoral or nonpastoral. The components of programmed worship, such as music, the sermon, reading of scripture, vocal prayer, and silence, draw the worshipper into the presence of God. A hymn may express deeper feelings than can its words alone. A sermon may challenge, support, sustain, and encourage us. A message specifically for children may offer insight to each of us. Giving an offering may make us aware of how gifts to the meeting can be used in God’s service. In programmed and in unprogrammed worship, our awareness of the presence of God has much to do with what we bring to meeting. When we have meditated and prayed throughout the week, we are more prepared to feel the workings of the spirit in meeting than if we come anticipating that the pastor and others will have done our preparation for us. In unprogrammed meetings there is no set order of worship and no appointed leader; in programmed meetings the appointed pastor helps find a spiritual focus. Either form of meeting calls us to be fully engaged in worship.
Let us listen tenderly to all messages, even those that may not seem to speak to our condition. The call to ministry may come to any worshipper, and the more we listen, the more we ourselves become aware of—and are able to follow—spiritual leadings, including those to speak in meeting.
When you come to your meetings ... what do you do? Do you then gather together bodily only, and kindle a fire, compassing yourselves about with the sparks of your own kindling, and so please yourselves, and walk in the “Light of your own fire and the sparks which you have kindled”? Or rather, do you sit down in True Silence, resting from your own Will and Workings, and waiting upon the Lord, fixed with your minds in that Light wherewith Christ has enlightened you, until the Lord breathes life in you, refresheth you, and prepares you ... that you may offer unto him a pure and spiritual sacrifice?
– William Penn,
“A Tender Visitation,” 1677
In gathered or covered meetings individual separateness recedes, and we become more of a community under divine guidance. Words offered by different speakers may relate to a common theme and echo the unspoken worship without seeming to break the silence.
Here indeed is a service of worship that demands that all believers be their own priests. For in the Quaker meeting for worship, the members must still their bodies, still their minds, must attend to the presence of God, must thank and adore God for being what God is, must feel the incongruities of their own lives that are out of keeping with such a presence, must long for their removal and forgiveness ....
– Douglas V. Steere,
On Listening to Another, 1955
Thanksgiving, confession, calming of fears, forgiveness, reproof, chastisement, awareness of our many blessings, instruction, exhortation, support, comfort, challenge, and openness to joy and truth are some aspects of worship we may meet.
But there will be times for all of us when worship will not offer us comfort, uplift our spirits, or speak to our condition. At times we may feel distant from God and our fellow-worshippers; faith and perseverance are necessary to bring us through these dry spells. At other times the spoken ministry may be pointed, prophetic, or disturbing. Worship offers us the experience of the power of the Spirit, but that power is not tame, and our lessons from meeting are not always those we expect.
Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.
– Revelation 3.20 (NRSV)
Vocal ministry in the meeting for worship should arise from inward prompting, an experience that may come at times to all earnest worshippers. Ministers who can speak at length and maintain a genuine spirit of prophecy are rare and appreciated, but the experienced speaker should be watchful not to speak too often or at undue length. A simple thought, briefly expressed by a timid speaker, may be the message most needed; the shy worshipper is encouraged to speak, however haltingly.
When one rises to speak in [a gathered] meeting one has a sense of being used, of being played upon, of being spoken through. It is as amazing an experience as that of being prayed through, when we, the praying ones, are no longer the initiators of the supplication, but seem to be transmitters, who second an impulse welling up from the depths of the soul. In such an experience the brittle bounds of our selfhood seem softened and instead of saying, “I pray” or “He prays,” it becomes better to say, “Prayer is taking place.”
– Thomas R. Kelly,
The Eternal Promise, 1966
The most satisfactory ministry in our meetings arises when we speak with discipline about an insight that we find when we wait silently upon the Lord.
Is this a genuine moving that deserves expression in a meeting for worship, or had I best curb and forget it? May it have some real meaning for others, and is it suited to the condition of the meeting? Can I phrase it clearly and simply? If it passes these tests, I regard it as something to be said, but I am not yet sure it should be said here and now. To find out how urgent it is, I press it down and try to forget it. If time passes, and it does not take hold of me with increased strength, I conclude that it is not to be spoken of at this time. If, on the other hand, it will not be downed, if it rebounds and insists and will not leave me alone, I give it expression.
– N. Jean Toomer,
An Interpretation of Friends’ Worship, 1947
Once I sat in meeting for worship absolutely certain that I had a message which needed to be shared. However, I felt no leading whatsoever that I was the one to give the message. I waited and waited, feeling I would burst from the tension, until a woman across the room got up and gave my message much better than I could ever have given it. What was happening here? What did this mean in terms of the movement of the Spirit in our lives?
– Shirley Dodson,
“Theology for Each of Us,” Friends Journal, 9/1/80