What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Vocal Ministry
November 8, 2013 § 6 Comments
Taking people to G*d—the role of vocal ministry
In theory, we only speak in meeting for worship when prompted to by the Holy Spirit. In practice, I think that most of us most of the time are not so sure what—or who—prompts us to speak, and would hesitate to claim we speak for God, even thought that’s exactly what our forebears thought for centuries. Yet we each have certain signs, certain criteria that the experience of prompting must meet before we rise. We take speaking in meeting very seriously.
And yet, if you’re like me, you have the sense some of the time (maybe a lot of the time) that Friends place their bar a little too low, that “vocal ministry” has devolved into “speaking in meeting”, that the Spirit-led prophetic Word need only be “heartfelt” and “uplifting”.
But who’s to say? While I completely trust my general sense that much of our vocal ministry is superficial and not likely to pull the meeting into the depths of divine communion, I agree that we must beware judging any specific message or messenger. How many times have I sighed inwardly at some message, only to find out later how deeply it has affected someone else.
Thus I war with my judgmental self while I wish our vocal ministry was more nurturing and I constantly seek ways to deepen it, in myself and in the meetings I attend, without offending my fellow worshippers or quenching the spirit that might be working within them.
All this inner foment we experience over vocal ministry is one of the reasons why many Friends and attenders are so nervous about speaking that they just don’t speak; they quench their own spirit. And any “program” that would seek to lift up the quality of vocal ministry runs the risk of making this all-important service even more intimidating.
Nevertheless, for many reasons, paying better attention to vocal ministry, as individuals, as committees with oversight for ministry, and as meetings, could not be more important. For the purpose of vocal ministry is to bring people to G*d, to reveal the Light within them and to help kindle the kingdom in our midst. In addition to this essential role, vocal ministry serves G*d and the meeting in several other ways, as well.
Take outreach and the growth of the meeting. Meetings need to do three things to hold onto the people who come to meeting to check us out: a friendly community, a ready ministry for children and young families, and a certain depth to meeting for worship, some sense that the Spirit really is at work here. This latter depends on the quality of the silence, which in turns depends on that critical mass of Friends who know how to find their own center and help the meeting find its center. And it depends on the quality of the vocal ministry. Superficial, conversational vocal ministry not only fails to bring people to G*d, but gives the wrong impression about what the meeting for worship is for.
Or take the place of ministry generally in the life of the members and of the meeting. Vocal ministry is the training ground for ministry of all kinds: for individuals, it’s how we learn to recognize the true promptings of the Holy Spirit and gain the courage to faithfully answer it; for the meeting, it’s how we learn to take responsibility for nurturing, recognizing, and supporting our members’ ministry, and how we gain the courage to take responsibility for our worship—being willing to engage with our members to deepen their ministry and being willing to protect the worship from disorderly messages and messengers.
Or—back to my theme of the gathered meeting—vocal ministry is a key element in bringing the gathered body into the Presence at the center of our worship and fellowship. When each message calls us deeper toward that center within us and amongst us, oh how sweet is the water from that well! When messages pull us outward, into the thinking mind, or toward the surface with some personal story, some media content, or some worldly event . . .
And then there’s the call to vocal ministry, what Friends used to call “gospel ministry”. In the elder days, when meetings recorded ministers and took active responsibility for vocal ministry, Friends assumed that one could be called to the vocal ministry, that God could tap you on the shoulder for more or less regular service. We rarely think of it this way anymore. I think we should.
Many meetings (most meetings?) do have Friends who speak quite regularly. My meeting does. I am one. We each have our style. We each have a reservoir of personal experience that informs and colors our ministry. Some of us have found that there are themes to our ministry. We each have a calling. Don’t we?
Often our members do not recognize this pattern as a calling and neither do our meetings. We do not take responsibility for such callings, for the consequences of a Friend feeling led to speak fairly often. This inattention causes no trouble most of the time; we simply trust each other and most of the time, this works out fine. And there’s something to be said for, “first, do no harm”.
Unless, of course, one of your regular speakers does cause trouble. Then the committee with oversight of worship and ministry needs to act to protect the worship. This eldership role is fraught with difficulties nowadays, and that will have to be a subject for another post.
I am more focused here on those of us who feel a calling and are struggling to be faithful. In my own case, for instance, I feel called to a vocal ministry of teaching (among a handful of other areas in meeting life for which I carry a concern). I often take an opportunity, often suggested by some earlier vocal ministry, to expose the meeting to some aspect of Quaker history, faith, or practice—to do some religious education.
For one thing, it’s just about the only way to reach most of the meeting with the elements of our tradition that the meeting needs to know in order to function effectively and to carry the tradition forward. My meeting does have a pretty robust adult RE program, but it ranges widely across many topics and only occasionally focuses on Quaker essentials.
But doing this sometimes feels like I am lowering my own bar a little. I constantly question myself: am I really led—again—to do this? Usually the answer is yes. But it makes me nervous.
I would love to to have some oversight, a backup, a corporate haven to which I can return to test my discernment and my usefulness. Am I bringing people closer to G*d with my vocal ministry? That’s the question—and the role of vocal ministry.