Why I Love Semi-Programmed Worship
Be still and know that I am God. Psalm 46:10
One of the things that is distinctly Quaker is sitting in silence waiting to hear the voice of God. Friends believe that everyone has direct access to the divine, and that we can hear God speak within ourselves and through others. So traditionally, Quakers sit in worship facing each other, waiting in silence for God to lead someone in the room to give a message. This is our communion with the Holy Spirit.
Quaker meetings do not all approach this silent waiting worship in the same way. For some, the entire worship takes place in this silence—we call this "unprogrammed" worship. Friends will sit for an hour or more in silence, with no introduction, and close with a handshake (and announcements).
I love settling into an hour of unprogrammed worship (or extended meeting for worship—which lasts even longer—when I can find one!). But many of the unprogrammed Quaker meetings that I have been to do little to explain our practice to newcomers ahead of time. The expectation seems to be that newcomers will research our practices before coming, or they will learn by osmosis in the silence.
Most Quakers around the world have "programmed" worship, which looks much more like a church service that you would find in other denominations. This worship often has a short time of silence and listening as a community, and includes other ways of worshiping, like singing hymns, prayer, and a prepared message.
I love worshiping with Friends in programmed worship—joyful singing, earnest prayers, and a prepared message that is full of the Holy Spirit. I especially enjoyed worshiping with Friends in Kenya, who sang and danced their praise. But I find myself longing for longer periods of silence to listen for the voice of God together.
My favorite kind of Quaker worship is "semi-programmed" worship, which combines elements of both. In part, this is my favorite because I first came to Friends in a semi-programmed meeting. The practice at my home meeting, Freedom Friends Church, is to sing a few songs, speak gratitudes and prayer requests, and then sit in expectant silence together.
But more than that, I love semi-programmed worship because I think it is the most welcoming form of Quaker worship. In semi-programmed worship, someone in the community explains each part of the worship, and everyone knows what to expect next. If someone is new to the Quaker practice of sitting in silence, they hear an explanation of what we are doing and how long it will last. It may still be uncomfortable, but at least they know what is going on!
We begin our worship with a welcome from one of our pastors and encourage attenders to follow along the Order of Worship posted on our Facebook page. Then we sing a couple of hymns.
After the singing, we settle into a time of centering worship, which usually lasts for 3-5 minutes. This is a time of quiet and calm. We invite people to use this for meditation, prayer, or simply to come into focus.
Out of the centering worship, the person bringing the message will read the scripture and give a prepared message. This person may be one of our pastors or a guest preacher. Someone will start the livestream of the message for our Facebook page. Our sermons are usually 10-15 minutes.
Then we settle into a time of open worship in the Quaker tradition, which lasts for 20-30 minutes. This is a time for us to listen for the voice of God together in silence. Anyone may feel led by the Spirit to speak, and we encourage those who feel so led to share a message.
We close open worship with a hymn and then have a time for prayer as a community, asking those present to share joys, gratitudes, and prayer requests aloud, and we close with a vocal prayer
Then we take an offering, passing a basket to support the church expenses. Everyone is invited to donate as led, but no one is required to give.
We end worship with a few brief announcements.
Finally, we hold hands in a circle and invite each other to go in peace.