One Take On the Importance of the Quaker Practice of “Open Worship”

Adrian Halverstadt, a Quaker pastor, asks this question on the QuakerQuaker forum boards:

I have been thinking a lot about open worship these days. Many of the larger evangelical Friends churches no longer practice open worship in their big venues for many reasons. I guess I am searching for a contemporary definition of open worship and ideas for how other large congregations incorporate their concept of open worship into their weekly big event(s).
What canst thou saith?

Here are my initial thoughts and response that I posted there but thought I’d also put here because I deeply believe that the Quaker way of worship could be beneficial for those of you in other church traditions as well (I’ll be particularly interesting in your thoughts on this subject).

I am sure there are different ways of thinking about Open Worship, but for me as a Quaker preacher I treasure it as a “time of worship that creates a space for us as a community to practice listening and responding to God.” I think that’s the most simple way I could explain it. To go into it a bit more I’d say that there are at least five characteristics of open worship that are helpful:

1) It creates a space where God can have a chance. In programmed churches it is really easy for one person to take up all the space in a room, and let’s be honest, often this is the preacher. Open worship embraces the rich insight of early Quakerism that human nature tries to dominate and control space, thus crowding God out. This is, in my reading, much of the problem of church history: people going at it alone, without God. So open worship gives time and energy into listening and practicing, allowing space for God to “have a chance.”

2) Along with this, it can be seen as a discipline for the (Quaker) preacher to embrace. We typically do open worship after my sermon. I end with queries instead of applications (I am more interested in how we are implicated in the story than how we sum it up in a couple bullet points). ((cf. Doug Pagitt’s, Preaching Reimagined)) The queries then offer a guidepost into open worship (but are surely not necessary).  The disciple of making sure that we do indeed have open worship (we try for 15 min) is one that I am trying to take very seriously. It helps me keep a cap on how long I allow myself to preach because it reminds me that I do not have the final say in our community and cannot take up all the space in the room. It also reminds me of the value of learning from those in our meeting. When we do open worship before the sermon I try to blend in people’s contributions into my sermon and am usually awed by the amazing insights people have that never crossed my mind.

3) Open worship Invites participation. I see Quakerism as the most inherently participative of the Christian traditions. All its practices from the bottom on up are meant to create space for people to participate with God and with others together as a learning community. I see unprogrammed worship, when it is at its best, as a fully participative space. Now, over time, this space has been often co-opted and controlled by what is and is not allowed to be said or done – this is true both in the unprogrammed and programmed meetings. This space has in many of our meetings become more oppressive rather than participative. So if participation (the movement of listening and response) is really the heart that is to be captured here, then open worship is to be radically “open.”  Not only can anyone share if they feel led, but we also allow for other ways to participate. Sometimes we invite people to make art, we light candles, use prayer stations, write out paraphrases/remixes of passages we’ve just discussed in our own words, share poetry, sometimes we do body prayers, lectio divina, and other forms of liturgy (liturgy can be highly participative), we’ve played with compost, went on walks around our meetinghouse, and lots of other things that encourage an active participation. To me open worship is a (decentralized) space to allow for God to move, how that look is, well, open to interpretation. Though, I must stress that actual silence (and then responding if led) is itself very important and Quaker formative practice (for everything else we do, including our business practices) that we do this just as much (or more) than we do these other things.

4) It Invites a learning-while-doing mentality. In my research around “convergent” Quaker worship one thing I have noticed is that what is important is that people learn while they practice or do something. Often in Quaker worship there is such high expectations for what can be said, how it gets said, when, etc. that people are less and less willing to actually stand up and offer ministry. Instead, open worship, embraces apprenticeship within the faith community. Here we are “practicing the practice,” so to speak. I am convinced we learn by doing. One way I like to think about it is learning by reading and learning by writing. Often, those of us in the church are good readers, we’ve read the Bible through and through, we can quote verses, we know all the “right” answers to hard questions, but we haven’t internalized it. In other words, we still need to learn how to write, reflect, put it in our own language, with our own experiences and “remix” it. Or to put it in the words of Quaker theologian T. Vail Palmer Jr., we need to learn how to,  as the early Friends did, empathize with the Scriptures.

5) Finally, open worship trusts the spirituality of people. When we talk about open worship, a lot of people instantly think about the one “crazy” person who will say “scary” stuff.  Even as rare as this occurs (I haven’t experienced this yet in the 8 months I’ve been pastoring at our current church) we need to make ourselves vulnerable to this because all people have a spirituality to be shared. This is an embracing of the priesthood of the believers in a way that recognizes the risks involved, and yet believes in it enough to open one’s self up. I like the example one of my teacher’s uses on this issue. Think about websites that do reviews, like Amazon for instance. There are tons of people who share their thoughts on a given topics, commodity, what-have-you. And there are some crazy posts that will ensue, but for the most part the community recognizes the out-of-place comment, the remark that seemed off base, or the person who does not yet have a reputation in the community. We can trust the spirituality of people, and by opening ourselves up to that, I think we will see wonderful movements of God and spiritual growth not possible any other way.

I’ve been meaning to reflect on this in writing for sometime so this is just my first attempt to get it out. I am open for additions, corrections, and discussion around this but it is how I’ve been thinking about it.

[Image from Simon T., a gentleman in our meeting]