What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Worship

December 11, 2013 § 4 Comments

A reminder that the original post with the outline of my answers to the question “What is the Religious Society of Friends for?” can be found here.

Note on versions of the survey. After I first published this survey, some Friends with more experience in designing surveys suggested changes and I realized from a comment to this post that I would like to include a section surveying Friends’ own spiritual practice. So I have created a new version of the survey with these changes. But I have not changed the original survey because some people have already been taking it as it was originally published. Here’s the new version of the survey.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for: worship . . .

Give members the experience of direct communion with G*d that is our promise, by fostering deep silence, spirit-prompted vocal ministry, and the gathered meeting.

Many people find that their spiritual lives do not require community. But for Friends, the communal life of the spirit provides an indispensable context for their individual spiritual lives. And for us Quakers, the Quaker way of worship is the bridge between our individual spirituality and our communal religious life.

For, just as the faith and practice of Quaker ministry is the soul of personal Quaker spiritual life, the meeting for worship is the very soul of communal Quaker religious life. And in the meeting for worship, the two fulfill each other. The worshippers bring their vocal ministry to the community in the meeting for worship and, when the ministry is deep and spirit-led, it leads the community into the depths of collective communion with G*d.

Thus the purpose of the Religious Society of Friends is to foster worship “in spirit and in truth”, as the gospel of John puts it. And the purpose of the meeting is to do whatever it can to help its members and attenders find that Well, the wellspring within themselves and the Well at the center of the community’s worship together. The goal of the meeting for worship is to align itself with that Christ-consciousness, to sink into its arms, to rejoice in its embrace, and to follow its truth into peace and reconciliation, into new prophetic revelation, and into the world outside the meetinghouse doors.

Virtually all of us agree, I suspect, about how important the meeting for worship is, both for us as individuals and for the meeting as a whole. Yet I know a lot of Friends who are unsatisfied with at least some aspects of their meeting’s worship, who yearn for more spirit-led vocal ministry, in particular, and for the meeting to be gathered in the Spirit more often. It’s pretty common to hear Friends complain about the quality of their meeting’s worship. So what can we do about it? How do we foster “deep silence, spirit-prompted vocal ministry, and the gathered meeting”?

I’ve written elsewhere about the gathered meeting, how important I think it is, how to nurture it, how it is the fulfillment of the promise of Quakerism: that it is possible to commune collectively and directly with G*d when the meeting is gathered. But the gathered meeting, the deepest communion, does not just happen by itself—well, yes, it can come as unexpected grace. But it depends to a large degree on the depth of the silence and on the quality of the vocal ministry. The gathered meeting is much more likely to occur when the meeting commits itself to providing certain essential forms of support:

  • religious education that teaches the faith and practices of Quaker worship, vocal ministry, and eldering, so that everyone knows what they are doing when they gather to worship;
  • spiritual formation efforts that help the members find the spiritual practices that work for them as individuals, so that everyone knows how to seek the depths in their own way and with confidence; and
  • spiritual nurture efforts that help Friends mature in their practice;
  • a meeting space that is comfortable, welcoming, and conducive to centering;
  • a fellowship that is infused with love and emotional maturity, in great enough measure to transform conflict and to absorb or transform the inevitable occasional disturbances to worship; and
  • elders, Friends who have the spiritual depth, wisdom, and authority to take responsibility for nurturing and protecting the worship.

This last is controversial for some Friends, but I consider it very important.

Every meeting has a committee that is charged with the care and nurture of the meeting for worship and its ministry. Ideally, this committee comprises Friends who know our traditions regarding worship, whose experience of deep silence, spirit-led vocal ministry, and the gathered meeting prepares them to be spiritual nurturers, and who can act to protect and deepen the worship with the full encouragement of the meeting.

But how many meetings have the people they need to fulfill these responsibilities? And how many meetings actually encourage their elders to act on behalf of the worship, to be proactive about deepening it and protecting it?

Virtually every local meeting that I know is rather timid about this, at best. At worst, meetings are actually and actively allergic to any suggestion that something could or should be done proactively to protect or deepen the worship, never mind that someone should act toward these goals. In my experience, very many meetings are more or less paralyzed by a combination of factors and conditions that make action on behalf of deeper worship difficult. These include:

  • diversity of attitudes about proactive attention to worship and vocal ministry, in the meeting at large and also among those serving on the worship committee itself;
  • attachment to the status quo and resistance to change;
  • misplaced fear of leadership;
  • resistance to discipline as somehow unQuakerly;
  • strong personalities, especially when these Friends are either ignorant of or ingore-ant of Quaker tradition, or when they let their past wounds and their current baggage color their behavior;
  • a misplaced fear of hurting Friends’ feelings; and
  • the suppression of ministry, most often directed (in liberal meetings) toward Christians and ministry that is Christ-centered, evangelizing, biblical, or even just theistic; but sometimes also directed toward prophetic witness; ironically, this suppression often manifests as intolerance in the name of tolerance and exclusion on behalf of inclusiveness and diversity, out of a feeling that the ministry being suppressed is itself exclusionary or intolerant.

Also paradoxically and ironically, Friends often resist proactive attempts to protect or deepen the worship and the vocal ministry precisely because they fear that it will suppress the ministry they already have. God forbid that we should suggest that the messages we get are not spirit-led or not spirit-led enough. That would surely shut down those Friends who do speak, if not drive them away, and then where would we be?

It’s a problem. Even if meetings did not have to deal with the paralyzing factors I’ve described above, it would still be hard to know what to do. How do you try to deepen the worship without implying that it’s not deep enough, which seems tantamount to implying that the worshippers are not deep enough? Even though that may be true.

The only people who would want to hear such criticism would be those who desperately yearn for deeper worship, who know that deeper worship depends on them, and who know that they are not, in fact, deep enough, that they do need to dedicate themselves more faithfully to their own devotional practice. Well, that’s my condition, anyway.

The only way forward through these difficulties, it seems to me, is to have some open and frank conversations about our experience of worship, to get a reading on how well the status quo is serving everyone’s spiritual needs, as a prelude to talking about how to improve—or whether we can try to improve it at all.

Because it’s such a sensitive issue, it might work best to conduct an anonymous survey to start with, and commission some group or committee to gather the results and present a report. Ask some pointed questions and find out what the members and attenders actually think about their meeting for worship without putting them at risk.

If a significant portion of Friends are unhappy with the worship, it would be good to know. If they are unhappy, it would be good to know why. It would be good to know how many Friends are willing to tackle the problems, if they exist. And it would be good to know how many Friends are satisfied with the status quo, who don’t think there is a problem to tackle, who would resent any intrusion into a worship that works for them. After learning where we are, maybe we could have a good conversation about what to do next.

To this end, I have devised such a survey. It includes the questions to which I would like to know the answers. Please let me know what you think. Have I missed some questions that you think need to be asked?

I anticipate that even suggesting using such a survey will trigger some of the responses I’ve outlined. It is tantamount to suggesting that there is a problem with the worship, which some Friends are likely to resist. But what if we know that we are not alone in wanting deeper worship, that other people in the meeting feel as we do? Then we know there is, in fact, a problem. So there we are. It’s harder if we think we are virtually alone in our unhappiness. But maybe we aren’t alone? A survey like this is a way to find out.

These are just queries, after all. We use queries all the time to examine the quality of our religious lives. The only difference here is that these are a bit more pointed than the general ones we have in our books of discipline. But they have the same basic purpose.

If you bring this survey to your meeting, would you please let me know how it goes? I also would like to survey my own readers. Would you be willing? You can either download a Word doc of the survey, fill it out, and email it to me at sddavison@icloud.com, or you can click here to go to a web page that has a survey form. Filling out and submitting this form sends your answers directly to my database of answers.

And thanks!


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§ 4 Responses to What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Worship

  • barbarakay1 says:

    some of the survey questions give only yes or no as possible answers when actually Truth falls somewhere between. I seldom feel a call to vocal ministry in Meeting, but I DO occasionally feel it there. More often ministry for me takes other forms at Meeting, generally being more in the form of listening and serving….

  • Elizabeth Edminster says:

    This is very helpful indeed, and very relevant to our meeting (as I’m sure you already know).

    As someone with a lot of experience in survey-writing, may I suggest clarifying the answer check-offs? You might use something like Always/almost always, Usually, Sometimes, Rarely, Never/almost never. (And, as Joyce suggested, N/A.)

    To me, “occasionally” and “seldom” are very close synonyms, while “often” seems too weak to describe something like arriving on time, for example, which one almost always tries to do but doesn’t always succeed. I’m usually on time, but “very regularly” wouldn’t be quite honest, yet I’d hesitate to check “often,” which would seem like damning with faint praise: “Oh, I’m often on time to worship….”???

    Of course the other problem with sending surveys to Quakers is that they fear it will be taken as some kind of vote. I’ve used them with Quakers in the past, though mostly for more secular concerns like social hour. I think a survey would be appropriate for this use, though.

    My other question is how you would distribute it. Directly through the blog, which wouldn’t necessarily be representative? By distribution through NYYM (and/or other YMs)? No matter how you do it I think you could get some useful results, but it’s worthwhile thinking about how you are selecting your audience, because it will affect the applicability of the results.

    Thanks for doing this! I share your concerns, and as a member of M&W I struggle with how to address them. Work is afoot in our meeting that I hope will bear fruit.

  • treegestalt says:

    Yeah, not much to add! Except that I think “dissatisfaction with worship” in my own Meeting takes the form of visitors showing up and not coming back.

    “Disturbances to worship” are most disturbing when people think of worship as sometime we are each doing by ourselves, ‘being alone with God’ together instead of ‘being with God together’.

    Whether or not people are consciously thinking of their worship as ‘not deep enough’ and seeking to collectively ‘improve’ it by changes to the rest of the group — I still think it comes down to something one has to do with oneself and God: something to pray about — and then to respond with what one is given at each moment.

    The problem takes a sociological form, but sociological “solutions” tend to work like wallpaper over an open hole. Presence is what is needed, what one needs to find so one can welcome people in rather than chewing them out for not being there…

  • Joyce Holwerda says:

    Hi Steve, thank you for writing your articles. I find them helpful and thought provoking. I checked out your survey and wonder if you could add N/A to some of the items. Thanks, Joyce Date: Wed, 11 Dec 2013 15:10:22 +0000 To: joyceholwerda@hotmail.com

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