Tweeting for Worship–Reflections on Quaker Meetings

quaker_1At the Friends General Conference gathering (FGC) this summer and then again at the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends (NEYM) I got lots of Quaker action!  Sitting in silent worship for an hour at a time, some might think of it as Quaker inaction. Ah, but things happen, and often Friends (as Quakers refer to each other) offer long and ponderous messages (some quite brilliant and revelatory others a bit obtuse or simply a rehashing of something I had already heard on National Public Radio.) I joked more than once this summer that instead of Meeting for Worship, we need to establish Tweeting for Worship where if anyone stands up to offer vocal ministry, their message cannot exceed 140 characters. I’m bringing sexy plain speech back!

Yesterday I received an e-mail from a college student  who saw me perform at the William Penn House this past spring. She was in DC for an internship and has since returned home and is looking to connect with Friends in her area. She writes:

Hi Peterson. was wondering if you might talk to me a bit about the Friends meetings you’ve been part of since encountering and then becoming Quaker. I would like to link up with my local liberal group sometime this fall and so am asking the few Friends i know about their experiences. What might a lapsed evangelical expect that first visit and the first few times after that? What would not be so wise to expect? And, more personally, what has being part of the community brought to you?
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I love assignments. I spent time this morning thinking about her questions and reflecting on the many different Quaker meetings I have attended over the past eight years, mostly among what we call unprogrammed Friends, (Quakers who typically meet for an hour of silent worship with the opportunity for anyone present to speak out of the silence and present a short [or not so short] message.) Below is an edited version of my answer.


Dear ________,

all lovely questions. Hmm, well, I think the most challenging thing for folks with Evangelical pasts going into Quaker worship and spaces is that with Friends there is no stated creed or list of beliefs. Asking a Quaker, What do Quakers believe? will often get you blank looks. That or about 5 different answers for every three Friends you ask. It is not that we don’t individually believe in stuff, but corporately it is much more subtle than that. It is more about what you PRACTICE than what you PROFESS. We do maintain community values and even unspoken rules, but these I have found to be more pliable than anything I encountered in Evangelical churches.

quakersYou will find that Quakers are a quiet bunch and seemingly stuck with the PAUSE button on when it appears NOTHING is happening in a room full of people. Often there is no greeting or opening of any kind. Folks just sit down and settle in. At  first I found this both disconcerting and comforting. I thought, Wait, did we start? Did someone forget to do something? Sometimes during the worship time we have children in the meeting for the first 10 minutes or so or the last 10 minutes. They exit and enter with a flurry of delicious activity with hushes and smiles from the adults.

Most of the meeting time is maintained in relative silence and stillness. We sit. We wait. We cough. We fidget, well I do. We each have our own way of settling into the silence.  Sometimes individuals will give messages. Unlike in my Evangelical days when the sermon was the centerpiece of every service, I receive these Quaker messages with an open hand. If it speaks to me, fine. If not, I just settle back down to worship. I listen for what the Spirit has to say to me. We listen to what the Spirit has to say to us, and that is not always through a haiku about a math formula remembered during a walk in the snow towards the meeting house one winter morning (true story) 🙂

For me, although the “service” is so quiet and still, so much happens in Meeting for Worship. It becomes a pentecostal experience of sort with much inner activity (and yes extends beyond the gurgling in my stomach.) This may not be not true of everyone, but as I settle, let go of the many things vying for my attention, as I listen, I become aware of how much connection we have with each other. My mind and heart open up to God. I sit and let the Spirit do a scan disk of

Mwa mwah, mwah, mwah, mwah, mwah

Mwa mwah, mwah, mwah, mwah, mwah

my hard drive–my soul.  I bring a notebook so that I can jot down ideas and messages and comforts and reminders that come to me during the worship time. I feel as if when I am in these meetings a curtain gets parted or I break through a gauzy filmy wall, and I become more aware of the world around me, of what is important and what is not. It is in these meetings that quietly, gently new ideas and leading in new directions form for me. An interest becomes a concern and over time becomes a passion and a calling.

Be aware, unlike many Evangelical churches you may have attended with all the effusive greetings and outreach, Quakers can seem shy and even stand-offish. This is a group of many introverts, not all of course, but we have plenty, so if the first few times you don’t feel welcome, don’t take it personally. They warm up soon enough, particularly when it is time to nominate people for the various committees operating. I have had lovely reception especially among the British friends. I attended the Disley Meeting back in May and was greeted like a long-lost son.

At the end of meeting (we say the rise of meeting) look out for LOTS of announcements. Often this is a tedious affair although I recently attended the Friends meeting in Pittsburgh where the announcement time was downright celebratory and theatrical.  Many meetings also serve coffee or tea or sometimes pot luck at the rise of meeting post-announcements (consider it a reward for sticking it through the announcement time.) There will be vegetarian food and often vegan and gluten-free options. Again, during this social time people may seem strangely disinterested in you and may not even approach you. It is odd, but seems to happen a lot when I visit various meetings. Maybe I am just funny looking or suspect as someone who will drag a Friend into a long drawn out conversation.  I think this social aloofness is in part about being shy around religion and not pushing oneself or ones faith on another. Also, sometimes after a time of deep silent worship, I don’t feel ready to talk or engage much with others. I am a reflective state.

Disley Friends Meeting, UK

Disley Friends Meeting, UK

What worship among Quakers has brought to me has been a maturing of my faith. I often say that Quaker meeting for worship is church for adults. We don’t have the programming and the pomp and circumstance, the readings, the sermons,  etc provided for us. We have to make our own magic happen. We can’t jive off the hymns or the sermons which go on Sunday after Sunday at many churches with or without the Spirit. We sit, We wait, We hope, We fail, We wait some more, We listen, We hear, We change. It seems all so subtle but the changes in me have been profound. The peace and clarity and direction I have gotten as a result have astounded me.

For me it is the way I prefer to worship, but I recognize it is not the only way and not the best way for everyone. In its simplicity and directness, I find God present, which is especially astounding to me as a former Evangelical since so many people bring with them to meeting a variety of theologies. I come as a Christian, albeit it a queer and questioning one. Others come with affinity to all sorts of other traditions–Jewish, pagan, Buddhist, non-theist, etc. Meeting for worship at its best can be the leveling ground where like Paul said of Christ there are no gender, ethnic or social distinctions. This of course takes work within the community as we listen to the Spirit even in messages that are not worded according to our own tradition or inclination.

I hope you have a good experience in your first few Meetings for Worship. Oh, yeah, and you will hear lots of jargon. Quaker Speak. Just go with it. 🙂

If you live in North America and want to find a Quaker meeting near you, check out Quaker Finder. If you live in the UK check out the Quakers in Britain.   To read a bunch of Quaker blogs, see sweet and corny videos, meet some nice Quakers from all sorts of backgrounds, check out QuakerQuaker.


This post has 9 Comments

  1. Tarald on August 26, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Thanks! This was great reading! Looking forward to meeting you irl.

  2. Mary Hopkins on August 26, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Good answers, Peterson. An addition: Something that might surprise some Evangelical visitors is that even liberal Quakerism has a very pentecostal side. People mostly speak quietly and rationally, but they also really do shake on occasion, and may deliver messages that they don’t fully understand, or may speak with unexpected passion. I remember being surprised by how freely men cried during vocal ministry. At its best, it’s a living prophetic tradition — that can take some getting used to.

  3. Amy ward Brimmer on August 26, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    Peterson, thank you for this clear and insightful description of Quaker MFW and culture in general (well, maybe not so much about the culture, that’s a whole separate blog!). Your experience parallels mine in almost every way, and I hear a great love and respect in what you describe as well. Also thanks for your incredible work theatrically and spiritually. Your life journey is a model to so many, your ministry is inspirational.

  4. Beth on August 26, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    Hi Peterson,

    That is a great description of what happens in a meeting where seemingly nothing is happening. I also feel a (at times pleasantly overwhelming) connection with others in the silence. At times, I feel my spirit lift and soar.

    It is true many of us are introspective and afraid of being “pushy” or intruding on others beliefs. It seems that for many of us our spiritual experiences are held very closely.

    Hope to share a meeting with you soon!

    BTW, I love the idea of Tweeting for Worship, you have something there

  5. Terence Butterworth on September 2, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    I just dropped my son off to a Quaker University. We have an evangelical background so it is interesting to read your article. I’m looking forward to hearing how he likes the college. There are many other denominations there and the one worship service I attended seemed very simular to what I grew up with. Thanks for writing.
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  6. Joan Broadfield on September 2, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    Hey, Peterson,

    This is really nice! and altho I do not tweet, I love the sound of ‘tweeting for worship’! :o)) I met you briefly 2 years ago when you presented at FGC Gathering, and look forward to continuing to bump into you either in person or in ‘virtual reality’…

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