by Christopher E. Stern
First published by New Foundation Fellowship in 1995. Revised by the author in 2023.
Stephen Crisp spoke about the first Quaker meetings: “We should use them as poor, desolate, helpless people, that are broken off from all their own confidence and trust, and have nothing to rely upon but the mercy and goodness of God.” [Stephen Crisp, The Kingdom of God Within, Scripture Truths Demonstrated. London: 1707, the 2nd volume (bound with the first), pp. 86-87.] Crisp noticed that, fifty years after their beginnings, Friends were already starting to lose the power and presence of God in their meetings. He felt this was a direct result of their losing a sense of their complete dependence upon God and Christ. They were beginning to depend on their own ability and power.
Modern Friends have continued the move in this direction. “There is that of God in everyone” has become the center of many Friends meetings today. This phrase (attributed to George Fox but taken entirely out of context) is often used to declare that we have within ourselves all the goodness, ability, and power we need. In this contemporary view a living experience of Jesus is seen as obsolete, replaced by many different philosophies of human nature and religion. Yet these philosophies lack the “life and power” found among early Friends. They do not provide an answer to all the negative things we see around us and often feel within us.
In contrast to this modern view, early Friends had no confidence in themselves. Their faith was not a philosophy, formula, or system. They found that they had no power of their own. Their worship was not focused on their ability to get in touch with God. When the first Friends came to a place where they did not know what to do and did not know where to look for help, God spoke to them. The Quaker faith was born out of this experience. George Fox records in his journal:
And when all my hopes in them [priests and preachers], and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, not could tell me what to do, them, Oh then, I heard a voice which said “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,” and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. [George Fox, The Journal of George Fox, rev. ed.,by John L. Nickalls. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952, p. 11]
The center of the first Friends meetings was not “that of God in everyone.” It was the simple promise, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst.” I am writing this because I believe that this simple faith is the answer for Friends today. Here is an example:
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1. We Cannot Do It On Our Own
I went to see a good Friend in the hospital. he was dying and had much on his mind. We sat together in silence for a while and then he spoke.
“When I was a young man we believed that we were going to be able to solve many of the world’s problems. There was a great hope and enthusiasm in higher education. It was thought that if people were able to become more educated, then they would be able to get along with each other. Yet as we became educated we found that our problems still remained. Our hope then turned to science and technology as the answer. But now more than ever we are aware of both the benefits and perils of modern technology. We now have the capacity to destroy all life, and yet we still cannot find a way to heal our broken lives and world. We must realize we cannot do it on our own. We need the help of God and Christ in our lives. We cannot do it on our own.”
My friend was “convinced” in the true meaning of the word: He had come to the end of his own resources and had asked God for help. He was a man whose life was full of many trials. Yet, in the midst of all these struggles, he found a living faith that had completely changed his life. This faith sustained him throughout his lifetime.
We are called to be convinced. This is a call to a life-changing experience. When we are convinced, the Light of Christ shows us our lives as they are without God. We see that our own resources are not enough. When we are in this place, Jesus shows us our condition. He shines in the depths of our hearts and shows us what a mess we have made of our lives trying to live without him. He is then able to help us to change and learn to live our lives anew following him.
To be convinced today we must be a people who have come to the end of our own resources. Our hope cannot stand in our own ability to heal our broken lives and world. We cannot look to our own strength to find a way forward. With no visible way forward and nothing left to hold onto, the way will be opened to us. this is how the early Friends described their convincement. Edward Burrough writes:
And so we ceased from the teaching of all men, and their words, and their worships, and their temples, and all their baptisms and churches; and we ceased from our own words, and professions and practices in religion, in times zealously performed by us, through divers forms, and we became fools for Christ’s sake, that we might become truly wise. And by this light of Christ in us we were led out of all false ways,and false preaching, and false ministers, and we met together often, and waited upon the Lord in pure silence from our own words, and from men’s words, and hearkened to the voice of the Lord… [Edward Burrough, The Works of George Fox, pub. by New Foundation Foundation Fellowship, State College, Pennsylvania, Reprint of the 1831 ed., Vol.III, p.13]
2. The Presence In The Midst
Friends meetings today often put too much emphasis on individual spiritual growth. This leads into a gathering of individuals all working on their own spiritual development. This approach often ends up with us focusing on our own abilities. It may in turn bring us to believe that we are the ones responsible for our worship. “If we work on it hard enough, we can get it right.” We then look to all kinds of methods and systems for religious self-improvement.
This is the way that I first approached meeting. There is a strong emphasis today on “centering down.” I practiced all kinds of methods to try to accomplish this elusive inner stillness. They all focused on the individual although they talked a lot about God. I began to view religion as an individual experience that relied upon my “spiritual growth.” I wondered why I even needed to meet with other people. After all, if God’s spirit is within me then why not just meditate or read the Bible at home?
When I read the early Quaker writings, I found that they had a completely different focus to their worship. They did not focus on themselves. If you asked the early Friends why they gathered for worship they would say, “Because Jesus says he will show up.”
The promise of Jesus to be present in the midst is a promise of central importance to our worship (Matt. 18:20). It is more important than anything that we can produce or do ourselves.
The presence of Christ in the midst is not a system of religion. This is not something we can accomplish if we try hard enough. This presence is a gift of love from our loving God. He comes to us freely. This gift is not given because we have done anything special. It is given because we desperately need it.
When this wonderful gift is given to us in meeting, our hearts become knit together in a deep and abiding way. We find a purpose and meaning for our lives together that is greater than any of our own.
When through God’s mercy and grace we are able to experience Jesus’ presence together, we are no longer simply a group of individuals. We become a community of modern-day disciples meeting with our risen Lord. This is a call to discipleship to the living Christ. It is not a method for spiritual self-improvement.
As we enter into this new relationship with God and one another we are a “new creation.” We are not simply meeting together for our own edification. God has brought us together and has a purpose for us. Just like the disciples of old, we are shown ways that we might be “commissioned,” to carry this “good news” to our world. This is not of our own doing.
3. To Know and Do God’s Will
Exeter Friends Meeting (PA) published the following description of their Pastor in “Meet the Pastors,” a local newspaper supplement, Reading Eagle, in 1989:
Christ has come to teach his people himself.” These words of George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, sum up the Quaker understanding of Christian worship and church order. For the Church of the new covenant, Jesus Christ himself is prophet, priest, and king. Because he is always available to give us inward teaching and guidance, as individuals and as communities of faith, his people need no human priest or pastor.
It is the risen Christ himself who directs our worship. If we are faithful to his leading, he tells us when to speak and when to remain silent. He tells us when to preach and when to pray. He opens the scriptures to our understanding. He reveals to us our ministries, to one another and the world…
The presence of Christ in the Midst is also essential to the Friends Business Meeting. He is present to help us with the questions and problems that are before us. The business meeting does not revolve around mastering a process or procedure. It revolves around “the presence of Christ in our midst.” Christ is present to help us to know and do God’s will. This claim, that it is possible for us to know and do God’s will, is not a statement about our own ability. It is a testimony in faith to the power of Jesus Christ to lead and teach the gathered group.
In order to be led, we are asked to put our own agenda aside. We are asked to “check our bags at the door.” Jesus tells us, “The ones who are to be my disciples must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24) Our confidence is not in our own ability to know what is right in the situation before us. Our confidence is in God’s grace to show us the way. All of this is possible because of the presence of Jesus in our midst.
4. Called To Vocal Ministry
There is no process for achieving a Gathered Meeting. The meeting for worship is not a human-run worship service. Meetings for worship are not held on the basis of silence or on the basis of anything else. They are held to wait upon the Lord.
William Stafford addresses this clearly in his essay on Quaker worship:
The first Quakers did not adopt silence as a form of worship. Silence by itself has a random quality. It is a matter of chance what will intrude on the emptiness. The silence of the first Quaker worshipers was anything but random. They were not just waiting, they were waiting upon the Lord. Gathered in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, they stilled themselves in order to recognize his presence among them. Their silence was always coupled with an expectancy resulting from their faith. They did not receive a lot of separate truths. They were not exchanging opinions or working for consensus. They listened and heard together. [William W. Stafford, “Quaker Worship”, Quaker Religious Thought, Vol.54, Article 2, p.13]
Vocal ministry should not be a human-led intellectual experience of sharing on a common theme (although this has become the modern model.) A message in meeting must be greater than the speaker’s own best thinking or sharing.
In waiting upon the Lord, there may be those who are called by him to speak. Vocal ministry is a calling which carries great responsibilities. Those who are called to speak should not do so in their own ability. People who are called to speak may initially be embarrassed and scared by the call to minister. They often feel unworthy, unable, virtually incapable of answering the call. The great mystery of vocal ministry is that somehow in the midst of all these feelings, God provides the ability.
The message, when given in this way, is a gift to the meeting. The meeting responds by listening and sitting for a while with the message. The whole meeting is deepened.
Others who speak do so in consideration of what has been spoken but not in response to it. They may feel led to add to the first message or they may be given something completely different to speak. They experience the same “fear and trembling” as the first speaker, having the same responsibility of faithfulness to the meeting. The meeting responds as before. With each of these gifts, and in the silence, there is a deepening.
A gathered meeting does not come from its own work. It is not the result of a group of harmonious messages. It is the result of the deepening of the meeting that comes from the sense, even the recognition, that Jesus has blessed us with his presence. He has come according to his promise and He has gathered the meeting with his presence.
5. A Word On Vocal Prayer
The disappearance of vocal prayer from our meetings is directly related to both the move toward self-reliance and the individual approach to spiritual seeking found in our meetings today.
An older friend of mine remembers hearing vocal prayer in meeting as a child. The person who was praying would kneel and the whole meeting would stand in support until the prayer was finished. This made a profound impression on her.
My friend grew up and went off to college. When she returned four years later, she was amazed to find that vocal prayer had all but disappeared from her meeting. As “that of God in every one” became prominent in these meetings, vocal prayer began to disappear. After all, why pray aloud if God is within us? This individualistic, self-reliant view has taken a great toll on Friends meetings for worship.
Vocal prayer, whether spoken or sung, is an essential part of vocal ministry. This ministry is a great gift to the meeting. It can draw the meeting together as no other message can. Vocal prayer was often used by early Friends at the conclusion of a message. This served to take the focus off of themselves and guide the community instead to the feet of its present Teacher and Lord. It is certainly difficult and scary to pray aloud in Meeting for Worship today. Yet, if we are faithful, it is a great blessing.
God in his infinite grace and mercy, sends his Son to us. Jesus comes to us in the midst of our confused and troubled world. He brings Light and Life to us. He calls us to be his disciples, molding us into a new community by his Spirit.
About the author
Chistopher Stern is a member of Middletown Monthly Meeting in Lima PA. The meeting has recognized Chris’ gift of vocal ministry. Chris has been active in New Foundation Fellowship.
- Burrough, Edward The Works of George Fox, pub. by New Foundation Foundation Fellowship, State College, Pennsylvania, Reprint of the 1831 ed., Vol.III, p.13
- Crisp, Stephen The Kingdom of God Within, Scripture Truths Demonstrated. London: 1707, the second volume (bound with the first), pp. 86-87.
- Fox, George The Journal of George Fox, rev. ed.,by John L. Nickalls. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952, p. 11.
- Stafford, William W. “Quaker Worship“, Quaker Religious Thought, Vol.54, Article 2, p.13.