Programmed Quaker Worship

Although unprogrammed, ‘waiting’ (or silent) worship as practised in Britain is the form nearest to that of the early Friends, the majority of Quakers in the world – especially in the United States of America, most of Africa, and South America – practice a form of programmed worship which is every bit as authentically Quaker as their unprogrammed friends.

This form of Quaker worship grew out of the North American revival movement of the nineteenth century, as communities spread and scattered westwards, and started to feel the need to hire pastors in order to preach regularly and take care of the spiritual needs of the congregation.

Programmed worship offers a setting in which those gathered express their praise, burdens, and statements of faith together through prayer, singing, and prepared messages. Pastoral Friends trust God to lead as the worship leader or the pastor prepares the order of worship elements for the worship gathering. Programmed worship is based on common assumptions, but in its implementation around the world probably expresses more diversity in form and content than unprogrammed worship.

Although a programmed meeting for worship in its typical setting might superficially resemble a worship service in any other mainstream Protestant church, underlying it there will always be a sense of being connected back to the lives and witnesses of the early Friends. As well as readings from the Bible there may often be readings from the writings of such as George Fox, William Penn, Isaac Pennington, Robert Barclay and others, or from the yearly meeting’s own Faith and Practice book. The focal point of a programmed meeting for worship will be the pastor’s sermon – the expected content of this varies widely from meeting to meeting, though almost all pastoral Friends agree that the preaching should have a scriptural or particularly Quaker basis, be clearly applicable to the lives of the congregation, and should be relatively short. Many programmed meetings for worship do include a short period of silence, in which members of the meeting may offer their own ministry, usually in response to or adding to that prepared and delivered earlier – this is often called Communion After the Manner of Friends, or sometimes simply Open Worship.

Traditionally completely absent from unprogrammed worship, music is a vital aspect of programmed worship. Many pastoral Friends Churches will have a permanent choir and often a worship band or music group which will have weekly practice sessions extra to the worship, and larger meetings will hire a music minister in addition to the pastor.

As well as the standard programmed meeting for worship which you will see in a typical Friends Church, many Quakers, especially in the USA, experiment with adding programmed elements to a standard unprogrammed meeting – there might be some singing, a short reading or two, and maybe a prepared message or short sermon in addition to the extended period of silent waiting. There are no typical examples of this kind of worship, which is usually described as semi-programmed, and is often considered a good way for unprogrammed and programmed Friends alike to learn about the others’ forms of worship both as participants and as leaders or planners.

5 Responses to Programmed Quaker Worship

  1. Betsy says:

    Thank you for this great website. I came across it by accident and stayed to read quite a bit. As a convinced Friend for the last 20 years, I sometimes struggle to put our beliefs and practices into words. We occasionally give tours of our 1806 meeting house as outreach, and explaining Quakerism in a few sentences is a daunting task.
    I’ve bookmarked your site as a reference for the future.
    Our meeting is in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania suburbs and in this area, and I believe on much of the east coast of the USA, we are unprogrammed.
    Thanks again for such an informative site.

  2. rikomatic says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I attended my first programmed meeting last firstday, and I found this very helpful.

    My experiences here:

  3. Clem says:

    Prophetically speaking(cf. “Quaker Guy” blogs on, it’s time that The Society offers to disenfranchised worshippers something more in keeping with their(former) experience of worship. Instead of having attenders come in to the unusual and uncomfortable setting of being left to figure out why “nothing’s happening”, there could be an intro. and brief preparation for worship. The post-modern person is programmed for instruction and activity and needs worship that corresponds if thee is ever to get the sense of Quaker Meeting.

  4. Emeline says:

    I beg to differ with thee, Friend, on the statement that music is “traditionally completely absent from unprogrammed worship.” There is a long and rich tradition of music of many types among unprogrammed Friends, and there are very few unprogrammed meetings today who lack some type of musical practice at least once per year. There is and has always been enough music for me to write a thesis on. 🙂

    • Katie says:

      Hi, Emeline-
      I have been attending Quaker meetings for about two years now. I am also a doctoral student in music performance (clarinet)— are you a music major, as well? I am very curious about the early Quakers and their music, and I would love to learn more about your research. 🙂 Thanks!

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