A friend recently asked me:
We know that first-generation Quakers (George Fox in particular) would often preach for hours at a time. And during the Quietist Period (late 1600s to early 1800s), we have records indicating that Quaker meetings would often feature multiple sermons, frequently ranging from 20 to 90 minutes in length, each. So I do think it’s fair to say that there was a fair amount of preparation going into these messages during the week.
While there was not a written text, I think it’s pretty clear that these ministers were not entering the meeting house with a blank mind, but rather were coming with a message they had been preparing for some time, seeking divine guidance on precisely how and when to deliver it.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, many Quakers developed a sort of fetish for radically extemporaneous preaching, imagining that the only true message from God would have to come entirely from a place of silence, sitting in the meeting for worship.
It’s no coincidence that this new passion for “pure extemporaneity” came at a time when many Quakers were adopting the pastoral system. Since unprogrammed Quakers had just schismed with a group that had adopted prepared sermons with written texts, it surely became all the more important to say, “we don’t plan our worship, but get everything directly from God.” Schism tends to make all sides more extreme in the aftermath.
It’s also no coincidence that, with the advent of “pure extemporaneity” – admitting no hint of pre-planning or forethought to messages – Quaker sermons in the silent meeting for worship tended to become much shorter. When planning isn’t allowed, it’s rare to get a message much beyond five minutes. In modern unprogrammed meetings, it would be very rare indeed to hear a ten-minute message; some might even feel that such long messages were inappropriate!
The Spirit-led messages given in most 21st-century unprogrammed meetings now tend to be pithy statements: a smooth stone tossed into the waters of the silence, followed by a collective observance of the ripples. I like this kind of vocal ministry, and there’s no doubt that the Lord can speak this way.
On the other hand, I do think there is still room for God to speak, not only “in the moment”, but over a period of time. I believe, and have experienced, that it is possible for God to inspire us to speak, act, and write, at all times – not just in the meeting for worship. God can inspire the creative process behind writing a book, and certainly a sermon text.
There is always care that must be exercised in delivering the message, of course. When I preach a sermon, sometimes I stick to the written text very closely; other times I find myself deviating, finding fresh words to speak to my particular audience that day. It’s important to be open to God’s inspiration in the preparation of the sermon, and also in its delivery.
At its best, the modern unprogrammed way of giving messages out of the silence emphases the importance of moment-by-moment guidance. At its best, the modern Quaker sermon emphasizes the importance of ongoing listening, beyond Sunday morning. Both are important, and I’m happy that Berkeley Friends Church, where my wife and I pastor, practices both the prepared sermon and also a long period (usually about 30 minutes) of waiting worship. We still have lots to learn about listening to God, both in the moment and over time, but these two modalities give us room to practice both.