Meeting for worship is the primary setting for the fundamental experience of the Divine Presence. Early Friends took literally the recorded words of Jesus: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). They understood that the Light Within could be experienced without the help of trained clergy and liturgy by all who seek it. God spoke to them and through them in the silence. Any— and all— of them were ministers of the Word of God, spoken and unspoken. They chose a form of worship that nurtures the direct encounter with the Divine. Such worship centered in stillness has endured for over 350 years.
Each experience of worship is unique, and each worshipper approaches worship in a personal way. Friends understand that worship is continuous and each person who enters the meeting room joins in quietly, settling into the silence. In the deepening stillness, worshippers let go of thoughts and distractions, open their hearts to the Light Within and listen for what truth God might give them. Sitting together in silence has been called “expectant waiting” by Friends. Even in times of spiritual emptiness when unity and fulfillment seem distant, Friends find it necessary to be present with others in worship. Vital worship depends on a deeply felt longing for God.
Friends find that meeting for worship:
- Draws the community together out of our shared hunger to know the Christ Within and to care for one another;
- Clears a space in our lives for God to enter, speak, heal, teach and lead;
- Enfolds us in God’s infinite love and everlasting peace;
- Gives us grateful awareness of our profound connectedness to one another and the natural world;
- Opens us to repentance, forgiveness and guidance;
- Renews us and prepares us for service;
- Sends us forth with inspired vision and commitment.
As Robert Barclay observed:
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 into the same life, there is more to 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.
There is no guarantee, however, that the movement of the Spirit during worship will proceed smoothly and without difficulty. Each Friends meeting is encouraged to examine its spiritual condition periodically in order to reveal any obstructions to which the meeting is prone. (See Section VII. General Queries and Guidelines for a Spiritual Self-assessment of the Meeting.)
At the close of the meeting for worship, we shake hands in acknowledgment of our commitment to one another and to the Light Within; and we go forth with renewed trust in the power and reality of God’s grace and love and of God’s presence in the world.
Some meetings complement meeting for worship with a variety of practices before or after worship. Such activities include singing hymns, reading one of the General Queries, “afterthoughts,” news from the children’s program, sharing joys and concerns, welcome and introductions, and announcements.
Preparing for Worship
The worship experience is enriched when individuals come to meeting with hearts and minds prepared for worship through thoughtful reflection and listening to the Inward Teacher in the course of daily life. In support of their worship experience, Friends use a variety of personal spiritual practices such as daily prayer, meditation, Bible study, journaling, and gaining familiarity with the spiritual journeys of others. Additional practices include: mindfulness meditation; breathing and/or walking meditation; yoga and other forms of movement and sacred dance; contemplation of art, music and literature; and immersion in the natural world. These preparatory experiences, beneficial in their own right, often produce a quieting and a dropping away of concerns of the ego and prepare Friends for the living stillness that is meeting for worship.
Such is the evident certainty of that divine strength that is communicated by thus meeting together, and waiting in silence upon God, that sometimes when one hath come in that hath been unwatchful and wandering in his mind, or suddenly out of the hurry of outward business, and so not inwardly gathered with the rest, so soon as he retires himself inwardly, this power being in a good measure raised in the whole meeting, will suddenly lay hold upon his spirit, and wonderfully help to raise up the good in him, and beget him into the sense of the same power, to the melting and warming of his heart; even as the warmth would take hold upon a man that is cold coming in to a stove, or as a flame will lay hold upon some little combustible matter being near unto it.
— Robert Barclay, 1678
Direct communion with God constitutes the essential experience of meeting for worship. Fresh insights may come to anyone out of the living stillness. Some insights are purely personal, providing guidance and inspiration to that individual. Other insights seem meant for the meeting as a whole.
Friends find that vocal ministry:
- Can arise in anyone who is present at meeting for worship;
- Manifests itself in the individual as a “call”, described as an uncomfortable quickening or a profound silence before speaking and a sense of relief or release afterward;
- Arises from the heart rather than the head;
- Impels the worshipper to rise and share the message received from Spirit;
- Does not break the silence but adds to it;
- Takes many different forms, including prayer, song, story, testimonial or dance;
- Cannot be readily reconstructed afterward by the one who responds to the call;
- Is a conduit for God’s love and work in the world;
- Is a call to faithfulness.
Those who are hesitant should feel the meeting community’s loving encouragement to give voice to the message that arises within them. Friends who are frequent speakers in meeting for worship serve the meeting best when they, like all others, wait patiently for the prompting of the Inward Teacher. Friends need time to absorb each message, so it is important to allow space between messages.
Friends are encouraged to welcome the movement of the Spirit in ministry. A given message may resonate differently among worshippers or become clear with time. Individual messages may converge toward a single, vital theme that becomes evident during the meeting; at other times, apparently unrelated messages are later discovered to have an underlying unity.
Deciding in advance to speak or not to speak; feeling a duty to provide balance between silence and spoken word; or crafting a message to appeal to guests, children or some other audience interrupt the movement of the Spirit. We are reminded to trust the Spirit: even if not a single word is spoken, meetings for worship can be profoundly moving experiences for all present.