fellowship, Quakers, Spirituality
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Why Do Friends Worship?

This blog post grew out of a very brief conversation during a workshop that I recently facilitated. That workshop, “The Time to Be Tender” – making space in community to show up for God and for each other – was part of an ongoing series on Quaker Testimonies to Mercy, facilitated by Baltimore Yearly Meeting Friend Windy Cooler. I cannot recommend Friend Windy, or the series, highly enough. Please check out the series here and join the online conversation exploring how God is calling Friends to courage, to faith and to open hearts here .

I have a love-hate relationship with celebrity pastors.

Okay, to be fair, I don’t actually know any celebrity pastors, so I guess I should say I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of the celebrity pastor. I believe that any model of ministry in which so many people – often thousands – are focused so intently on one individual to teach, preach and prophesy is intrinsically dysfunctional, a perversion of the Good News, which calls the Church to be a living testimony to the reality that God’s Spirit has been poured out on all people, not just on one person.

But, man… when I just want to hear some good preaching, there I am on YouTube, scrolling through sermons by Francis Chan or Paul Washer or even T.D. Jakes. See, these sermons have everything. They’ve got biblical exposition – how educational! They’ve got thoughtful illustrations – how inspirational! They even have a few jokes – how entertaining! These guys have found a winning formula for their sermons, and it’s reliable. And it’s layered on top of the form and structure provided by the service as a whole, with hymns, readings and prayers following a regular and predictable rhythm. With these guys – and they are, in fact, mostly men – you pretty much know what’s being served. If you like the flavor, it’s easy to keep coming back for more.

Friends’ meetings for worship, especially our unprogrammed meetings, aren’t like that at all. Sometimes there’s singing – but often there isn’t. Sometimes there’s a reflection on scripture – but often there isn’t. Sometimes there’s a meditation on life or the Spirit – but often there isn’t. Sometimes there’s prayer or humor or a few minutes of teaching – but often there aren’t any of those things, either. In fact, sometimes, there isn’t any speaking at all – just an hour and change of sitting quietly together, followed by snacks and coffee of highly variable quality in the fellowship room.

It reminds me of the movie character Forrest Gump’s famous observation about life being like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get. In the case of Quaker worship, where anyone can stand and speak about anything – and I do mean anything – you can’t even be sure that there will be chocolate in the box! It might be breakfast cereal or rice or a pair of gym shoes instead.

So when Friends who are otherwise involved in a meeting’s life and business begin to make a habit of skipping meeting for worship, their common rationale – “The worship doesn’t feed me” – is understandable. After all, sometimes what’s in the “box” of meeting for worship is a regifted sweater, which doesn’t make for a very good meal.

When we treat meeting for worship as primarily being about our personal enjoyment and individual enrichment – like a painting class or tango lessons – it makes sense that our attendance is contingent on how elevated we feel after the experience. After all, we have many different options for how to spend our time. It is only right that we should act as wise consumers, shopping carefully for the most enjoyable, uplifting or useful experiences. Maybe that includes meeting for worship; maybe it doesn’t.

But here’s the thing – Friends don’t come to meeting for worship just to be fed. We also come to be formed. Friends have traditionally believed that meeting for worship is a primary means that God uses to shape us into the people He created us to be – both as individuals and as gathered bodies of Friends.

We see this in the words of Robert Barclay:

“…when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up; and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed…”

We see this in the words of George Fox:

“We need no mass for to teach us, and we need not your common prayer, for the Spirit that gave forth the scriptures teacheth us how to pray, sing, fast, and to give thanks. The true faith changeth not, which is the gift of God, and a mystery held in a pure conscience. Our faith, our church, our unity in the Spirit, and our Word, at which we tremble, was in the beginning before your church-made faiths, and our unity, church and fellowship will stand when they are all ended.”

We see this in our Books of Discipline:

“In our life as a religious society we have found it true that the spirit of man can come into direct contact with the Spirit of God, and can thereby learn of God. A man who has experienced the sense of contact with the Spirit will not only wish to listen for himself to what God may say, and in the secret of his own soul speak with God, but he will become conscious that fellowship with other human beings, especially if they be seekers like himself, will strengthen and deepen the sense of communion. The way of worship through silent communion, in which there is freedom for spoken prayer or ministry, springs from the fundamental experience of the Society of Friends, and is a constant expression and working out of its central principle.”

Expectant worship is a powerful technology for deepening our spirituality, heightening our awareness of the voice of God and strengthening our love for each other. In worship, we are empowered:

  • To grow in goodness and holiness as the Spirit ministers to us in the silence. Friends’ waiting worship is not silent for silence’ sake. As George Fox said, “Christ is come to teach his people himself.” In worship, we consciously set aside our activity to let God shape and teach each one of us directly – independent of distractions and free from the limitations of our human perspective.
  • To practice listening for the voice of God in the “gym” of worship. As Friends, we believe that God is generous with His guidance and that we can live and love in new ways if we mind the Light of Christ. But amidst the demands and busyness of life and work and family, that kind of focused attention inward is so hard. Meeting for worship lets us practice listening for the voice of God in a space where distractions are minimized. Over time, we build up our “God muscles,” increasingly taking the ability to listen and respond to the Spirit out into the world with us every day.
  • To learn patience and wisdom through the silence and vocal ministry of others. Sometimes, the vocal ministry we hear in worship speaks directly to our spiritual condition. Sometimes, it seems silly or vapid. Sometimes, we might dismiss what we hear as vague and superficial, on the one hand, or overly dogmatic and prescriptive, on the other – only to find that it spoke powerfully to others. The ministry we hear in open worship teaches us humility and patience as we learn to welcome what nourishes us and to hold in grace and tenderness what doesn’t.
  • To enjoy each other’s presence and company. Part of being in community is celebrating each other and delighting in each other’s company. The hugs, jokes, and stories are among the pleasures of fellowship. We’ve been given each other to love and care for. We should enjoy it!
  • To know each other well enough to help keep each other on the right track. For most of human history, we lived, worked and worshipped side by side with the same people. If someone was a cheat or a gossip or a liar, others would find out quickly and could confront them. But in our day, it’s easy to have one face at home, another at work and yet a third in our faith community. Regular contract helps us know each other well enough to help each other live lives of integrity.
  • To create a community that cares for its members’ needs. Just as we need to know each other well to help each other live into our calling as Friends, we also need to know each other well to care for each other effectively. Do we notice when someone’s affect is off, when the conversation between spouses is chilly, when the children don’t have their usual energy? In order to care for each other’s needs – financial assistance, prayer, a networking connection, or just a listening ear – we need to build enough knowledge and trust in each other to know when to ask “Is everything okay?” – and to feel confident giving an honest answer.
  • To identify, lift up and support each other’s spiritual gifts. The Bible says that those who follow Christ shall be “ a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.” These are all words that point to the importance of building up each and every individual in God’s love and wisdom and power. “Royal priests” are not born but formed and trained over time. We can’t help form each other unless we know each other well – not just socially, but spiritually too. We need to see how the members of our communities love each other and help each other and uplift each other to understand how the Spirit is leading each us into fullness and maturity for the good of the community as a whole.

Worship is powerful and necessary – even when it doesn’t always give us the “right” experience. It’s not a “nice-to-have” add-on to committee service and business meeting; it is a doorway into the mystery of individuals being knit together in God’s infinite love and holy purpose. If your meeting or church has consistently shallow worship over time, it should be treated as an emergency, the spiritual equivalent of a five-alarm fire. I am happy to share resources on deepening worship. (Friend Patricia Loring’s Listening Spirituality and Friend Christopher Sammond’s writings and workshops are a great place to start.)

But I encourage us all to reject the mindset that would insist that worship cater to our own desires, our own wishes, and our own notions of what an “uplifting spiritual experience” should be. Worship is so much greater than that. God is so much greater than that. And we can all be part of that greatness when we choose to stop trying to control our experience of worship and instead lean into the mystery.


  1. There is much wisdom in this message. But my current experience is not what you describe (i.e. “I’m staying home because I don’t or won’t get what I want”). Instead I get the sense that it is not the will of God for me to worship with this particular Quaker community. I believe God is telling me that what I have and who I am cannot be helpful to the worship experience of this Quaker community — at least at this point in time.
    Such an idea is profoundly humbling. Above all it suggests that I need to change, seeking Divine Guidance in grappling with some of my limitations. Until I do that, I am not in accordance with Divine Love if I try to attend worship.


    • Holly White says

      Helene, I felt your reply here stir in me the core of so much about Quakers: the way Spirit goes to us deep and calls us to conscience against common advice. I listened for the consistency of Spirit in your comment–that you are humbled in the call to be outside of meeting at this time. I am challenged to trust this because it takes you away from others who might learn about guidance. And then, here you are! Witnessing in public about this separation!

      I bear witness to this choice to heed this message and trust that you are refreshed. May your meeting hold you–and you them–in this time of separation.


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