Can Worship Be Taught?

When I first became a Friend, something I heard a lot was that Quakerism is caught, not taught. For many Friends it is a point of pride that our faith is acquired through osmosis rather than instruction.

I picked up most of my Quaker etiquette in this intuitive way. I noticed and imitated the tone of voice and forms of expression that were acceptable in meeting. I learned, both through my own mistakes and those of others, that you could break the unwritten rules of the meeting if you wanted to; but if you did, no one would take you seriously. You would not be a weighty Friend.

As a new Quaker, I learned that the silence of worship is intended to be a time of shared communion with God, and that sometimes the Holy Spirit inspires one or more individuals to speak. More experienced Friends encouraged me to pay attention to whether God might be giving me a message to share during this time. If I felt led, they told me, I should rise and share the message with the gathered body.

For a form of worship that is often referred to as unprogrammed, there sure were a lot of rules to learn! Here are some that I picked up quickly, mostly through observation: Never take photographs during silent worship. Do not sit on the facing bench – where recognized ministers and elders traditionally sat – without being invited first. When giving a vocal message out of the silence, stand first. In an hour-long meeting for worship, do not speak during the first fifteen minutes. Do not respond to or comment on messages that have already been given. Messages should be as long as necessary, but as brief as possible. Do not speak twice.

I learned these rules over the course of years in the community. I got tips and hints from established members, but I never encountered a handbook to unlock the unofficial rules of the game. Fortunately, most folks were pretty gentle with me, both because of my age and how new I was to the community. I could have gotten myself into a lot more trouble than I did.

Strangely, I find that most of Quaker etiquette has little to do with the actual process of encountering Christ in the silence. It is possible to obey all the outward norms of Quaker worship and still be speaking entirely from ego and self-will. The path to truly surrendering ourselves to the Holy Spirit is something that I have rarely seen explicitly taught in our communities. Why is this?

There are historical reasons for this lack of direct instruction. For centuries, Quakers were a sectarian group, with most Friends growing up within the community. The lived experience of participating in the life of the body, attending meeting, and reading Scripture together was enough for many to get the knack of being a Quaker without systematic teaching. If it tooks decades for the lessons of the community to sink in, that was not a problem. Nobody was going anywhere, and few outsiders were joining.

The times have changed. Most Friends today were not raised in Quaker families, and even those of us who grew up among Friends have been influenced far more by the wider culture than we have by our religious community. In more cases than we might care to admit, our meetings have lost the thread of the tradition altogether. Many of us don’t know how to practice our faith anymore. We were never taught.

As a new Quaker community, Friends of Jesus – DC Metro Area is keenly aware of the importance of having a fresh encounter with our faith. Our meeting has been around for a few years, not centuries; we do not have institutional momentum to fall back on. If we are going to thrive and multiply, we must learn how to embody and transmit the gospel order of the church. Osmosis isn’t going to be enough.

With this in mind, our DC-area small groups are embarking on a new experiment. For the next six weeks, we are attempting to teach the process of worship itself. Through guided meditation, we will be explicitly training ourselves how to center down – calming mind, body, and spirit – and learning to pay attention to the inward presence of Christ in our hearts. Rather than alluding to rules of etiquette, we will be teaching a process by which we may make ourselves more aware of and receptive to the motions of the Holy Spirit.

Our goal is ambitious: In six weeks, we hope to teach a process that takes many Friends decades to unravel: a way of drawing near to the light of Christ within. For those who are thirsty, we will point to where the water is, and provide a shovel to dig the well. We recognize that it is only through God’s sovereign action that we can receive this abundant life, joy, and power. Nevertheless, we hope that by learning to practice greater awareness and wait on God, we can increase our likelihood of faithfulness.

What is your experience of learning and sharing our faith? Do you think that there are ways that we can be teaching the process of centering and waiting worship in our meetings? Are there times that you have seen this done effectively? How can we teach and encourage one another to seek the living guidance of Jesus within?