Worship Sharing and Vocal Ministry

July 9, 2018 § 13 Comments

Yesterday, my meeting got a lot of personal sharing and basically no vocal ministry. My judgment, of course, though I know I am not alone in feeling this way. It wasn’t really a meeting for worship as much as a large worship sharing session. This is a decades-long trend among liberal Friends.

What is the difference between worship sharing and vocal ministry? How might meetings and worship and ministry committees in particular make the distinction between these two kinds of spoken message more clear, for they are clearly somewhat confused in the minds of many of our worshippers?

Worship sharing is sharing; vocal ministry is ministry; that is, it is service, which is the root meaning of “ministry”. Traditionally, vocal ministry is service to God, or the Spirit, if you will. But also service to each other, and to the worshipping community. I’ll talk about what I mean by “service” shortly. But back to the difference between the two.

Worship sharing starts with an “I” statement by definition. In meeting for worship, it usually stays with I until it ends. While it comes from one’s self and is about one’s self, worship sharing nevertheless does foster a “We”. This We is a community more deeply bonded through a shared understanding of the “I” who has spoken. Worship sharing builds community.

Vocal ministry starts with “You” and it stays with You until it ends. While the message may pick up personal elements along the way, from its initial impulse to its final words, it has a direction out from the self toward one’s fellow worshippers and/or toward the community as a gathered body. It, too, fosters a We, but this We is a community more deeply bonded through a deeper experience of the Spirit. Vocal ministry answers that of God in one’s fellow worshippers. It brings spiritual blessing to the community.

The language of the message carries practical indicators of which kind of message it is. A worship sharing message virtually always starts with the pronoun “I” and it doesn’t lose this first person singular perspective until, perhaps, the very end. For such a message often comes with a lesson of some kind at the end, and it is this lesson that I suspect feels to the speaker like a potential blessing that would qualify it as vocal ministry.

Very often, if we had just heard the lesson without its personal and often anecdotal preamble, it would have felt much more like Spirit-led vocal ministry. So why quibble about it? Because, by the time we get the lesson, it is so saturated with “I” that it has trouble lifting off the ground to transform the We. Our consciousness has been so deeply drawn into personality that it hinders the transpersonal character we hope for in vocal ministry.

More importantly, though, the worship sharing message has no real direction toward the We. It is self-reflective. It projects a mirror out from the self to show us more of the self. Even the lesson at the end is often just a final reflection of a personal take-away, a sharing of what the I got out of the experience recounted, offered in the hope that it will be inspiring to others, as well. Which it often is. We listeners often can take something away from the account for our selves. That’s the power of worship sharing. But that doesn’t make it vocal ministry, in the traditional mold.

Vocal ministry will certainly pick up elements from the I, from the personality of the speaker and/or from their experience, but it starts somewhere else and its going somewhere else. It starts from an inward depth, a motion whose roots run deeper than mental reflection on an event, which is the form most of this sharing takes, or from mental musings. Reflections and musings live in everyday consciousness. You don’t have to go deep to get them.

More importantly, though, vocal ministry doesn’t stop moving. It rises up from somewhere deeper within us than everyday consciousness, it may pick up some of the I on the way, but it’s headed out and it doesn’t look back.

It’s a service. We have been waiting, as a waiter waits in a restaurant until a patron needs water or their food, and when it’s ready, we bring it to them. And while we are serving, our focus is entirely on those whom we serve.

We meet their needs, we answer that of God within them, in our own style, of course. But our job is to feed the sheep, to deliver the bread of life, to offer living water. Not to share an anecdote and the nugget we took away from its experience.


§ 13 Responses to Worship Sharing and Vocal Ministry

  • friendviv says:

    Thank you, once again, Steve. This blog explains quite well the reason for my decreased attendance on Sundays at the meeting of which I am a member, in preference for attendance at another nearby meeting. And, perhaps, on a broader scale, it explains the reason for my sense of spiritual famine in the regional body of which it is a member.

    What role does one have to reorient what the majority finds comfortable? Especially when folks hold tightly to that comfort for years? When those with care of worship have been known to say they are not inclined to offer eldering?

    • Bill Samuel says:

      I eventually decided that I shouldn’t be trying to change things to what I thought they should be, since that wasn’t what most others at the meeting wanted. Instead, I decided I wasn’t a liberal Friend but that’s what it was important to them to be, so rather than trying to get them to change I should leave and find something more compatible with my own understanding. If I had been in another part of the country, I might have been able to find that within Friends, but not where I live.

  • […] learn (eventually, when summer travels are over, perhaps) what Friends at Gunpowder Meeting make of this blog post by Steven Davidson about the differences between Vocal Ministry and Worship Sharing.  Mostly, it […]

  • Bill Samuel says:

    Maybe shows a need for more explicitly sharing opportunities at the meeting.

  • […] Wor­ship Shar­ing and Vocal Min­istry […]

  • Howard Brod says:

    The issue you are presenting actually centers on the need to deepen the spirituality of our meetings; and the related need to change each of our hearts. However, too many of our meetings address this need by “developing guidelines” or “writing pamphlets”, or “controlling worshippers” through petty eldering of behavior.

    Unlike these above listed surface solutions, deepening the spirituality of the meeting community takes time, lots of patience, and unconditional love – it takes years if it is to be real. But first there requires a communal discernment that such a deepening is needed and would be beneficial eventually. And it takes courage to agree that Friends should take this communal journey together.

    This spiritual deepening can only occur through regular (i.e., weekly or more often) opportunities for Friends to share intimately in group and casual conversations regarding spiritually deep topics that have value towards daily living. Also helpful is the creation of a meeting environment where natural and unforced offerings of spiritual advice between individual Friends occurs due to a non-judgmental delivery at the time another Friend would find the advice helpful and valuable.

    Although this sustainable approach can take years to bring about, it does indeed work if there is a consistent desire and effort to make the meeting community a spiritual place that everyone values.

    I have seen that when a meeting does the hard work of investing years to create such a deeply spiritual place, the whole meetinghouse and its grounds pulsates with that spiritual energy, and visitors who simply step on the grounds or walk into the meetinghouse door can feel the spiritual deepness immediately. And extending that energy into the worship hour just happens; the worship is most always deep.

    In today’s world, creating any type of “guidelines” or providing an unwelcomed “eldering” action rarely works to bring about a change of behaviors for something as subtle as vocal ministry. To those we attract to our liberal Quaker meetings, surface actions (guidelines, eldering, etc.) are often misinterpreted as one more type of church intrusion; just a hierarchical effort from one person or group to control another. If your meeting never retains new ones who visit, consider if perhaps your meeting is stuck in the past that no modern seeker wants any part of.

    As with most issues in this world, the answer is an ever-present modeling of the core of deepened spirituality – unconditional love in action. There is no place better to offer that than inside our meetinghouses. However, for us humans, such a simple answer is apparently hard to embrace because first it requires a change in our own hearts.

    • I agree that deepening the spirituality of the meeting is a key to solving this problem, and that eldering as conventionally understood in terms of correction can be counter-productive. On the other hand, we should be ready to protect our worship, and our fellowship, from behavior that can damage it. Such threats don’t in my experience occur very often and when it’s just a one-off instance, a meeting can usually absorb such messages without much harm (though one shudders to think how it’s affecting people visiting for the first time).

      But there’s a grey area where the individual instances of inappropriate messages don’t quite reach the level of “threat”, of needing some kind of real-time intervention, but are sustained over time. Meetings can sometimes suffer from a member or attender who speaks regularly and inappropriately, but not in a way that others in the meeting might feel ready to elder. This can damage the worship through attrition, creating a cycle of negative feelings that becomes its own problem, and sometimes driving other Friends away. In my experience, worship and ministry committees often (usually?) have trouble dealing with this kind of situation. I know my meeting’s committee does.

      But back to the need for deepening spirituality. I like your focus on love. But there’s another option, too, I think: spiritual formation programs. Another way to deepen the meeting’s level of spiritual maturity is to achieve a critical mass of spiritually mature members.

      You touch on this with your comment about “natural and unforced spiritual advice.” I am suggesting expanding on that by a more proactive approach to spiritual nurture, by eldering in the aspect of engaging with each other to help each other find and mature into a personal spiritual discipline that works for each person. Even “generalized” spiritual formation programs for groups would help. For example, a presentation on Foster’s A Celebration of Discipline that exposes participants to the broad range of disciplines available in our tradition. But the ideal thing would be to take this more personally and, at least for those Friends who are interested, “customizing” the eldership to each member’s needs, experience, circumstances, and temperament.

      • Howard Brod says:

        I like your thoughts here Steven! I think this type of spiritual maturing is the solution indeed.

        I have seen from my meeting that once we made a conscious choice to depend less on formal committees (and other formalities), so that the Spirit could act upon any of us to bring forth leadings to our community for further discernment, we eagerly developed ways to change our meeting culture over several years so that we truly ministered to each other constantly when at meeting and outside of meeting. We discovered that their truly is that of God in everyone!

        This first required a more deepened spiritual maturity among us, where defensiveness and echo-centric behavior all but disappeared (We didn’t even realize before how much of that behavior was crippling our spirituality as a community).

        We eventually began to immediately accept first-time visitors as one of us and encouraged them to immediately join in our ministry to each other(often during their first visit with us). This eldering by everyone has become a large part of our culture and has created a noticeable spiritual energy that is experienced on our grounds and within our meetinghouse.

        Long-time “weighty” Quakers at the meeting began to bow to Friendly eldering from newcomers; and therefore newer ones were more receptive to Friendly eldering as a result. The whole climate of the meeting changed and for the first time we grasped what the very earliest Quaker communities experienced before formal Quaker organization and hierarchy was introduced by George Fox as the movement grew larger.

        We are in a different world than George Fox was, with different challenges coming from the culture surrounding us. In our world, church hierarchy, traditions, and control are absolutely becoming despised, compared to Fox’s world where these were generally respected to at least some degree. Quaker spirituality, especially liberal Quaker spirituality where an inner mystical experience is cherished, is in a great position to respond to the needs of modern seekers. But we MUST be willing to let go of our traditions that inhibit unbridled spituality from developing. We must stop acting like a church with unnecessary and petty controls, clickishness, and committees that act like pastors or church elders. This is the continuous revelation for Quakers in our day that we must accept if we are to survive. We must Trust the Spirit.

  • Francis Xavier OHara says:

    I get true value from your blog are there other blogs you might reccomend?

    On Mon, Jul 9, 2018, 9:40 AM Through the Flaming Sword wrote:

    > Steven Davison posted: “Yesterday, my meeting got a lot of personal > sharing and basically no vocal ministry. My judgment, of course, though I > know I am not alone in feeling this way. It wasn’t really a meeting for > worship as much as a large worship sharing session. This is a dec” >

  • macoafi says:

    John shared this on Facebook, and I said I understand it, but the language is different than I’m used to. Worship sharing, as I’ve always heard it, involves a predetermined topic. There might be meditation on an advice. Answering a query would be worship sharing in the language I’m accustomed to.

    I think of most of what happens in a liberal meeting as being testimony. People tell stories that show God’s work in their life, but with the odd twist of not necessarily saying “God” in it.

    Yesterday, after leaving the meeting I was visiting, I googled “church sunday 1 pm” and the nearest town. I found a nondenominational church. That was far more spiritually rewarding than the not-ministry heard in meeting.

  • This is beautifully put, Steve, and I’d like to see this post printed up in the form of a tract on the difference between vocal ministry and worship sharing that both newcomers and old-timers might pick up off a table in the meetinghouse lobby – and then talk about.
    It occurs to me that one reason we might get so much worship sharing during the hour of waiting worship – where some of us gather in hopes of silent communion with God, possibly broken by vocal ministry, but not by worship sharing – is that liberal unprogrammed Friends have no tradition of mutual confession. We have no regular venues for hearing the solemn reflections on what’s on one another’s hearts, and (for those of us who believe we are empowered to absolve sins in Christ’s name) to offer absolution where we sense it’s being asked for. All that, we say, is for the psychotherapist to handle.
    We’re also so dreadfully polite to one another that we dare not express an opinion on whether Friend Joe or Friend Mary has abused the privilege of speaking in meeting. All that, we say, is for the Holy Spirit to rebuke, or let pass. But we may express our disgust by ceasing to come to meeting, to the impoverishment of the Religious Society of Friends.
    So it may be that Friends may both need to be more clear and explicit about what’s acceptable during the hour of worship, and also more thoughtful about what venues for mutual listening need to be provided for Friends’ hearts to find relief.

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