Reflecting On My First Experience With Unprogrammed Worship

“There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord — but the Lord was not in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake — but the Lord was not in the earthquake; after the earthquake, fire — but the Lord was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound. – 1 Kings 19:11-12 (from The New American Bible: Revised Edition)

Worship is — or, at least, should be — deeply personal and highly subjective. No two people feel the presence of God in the same way, or even in the same places. Where and how we choose to seek out God should be a choice made on an individual basis, based on what makes us feel most connected to the Divine.

Most modern Christian churches, including the one I regularly attend, employ “programmed” worship. Programmed worship is exactly what it sounds like: a worship service based around a central routine or central ritual. I attend an Episcopalian church, so our worship service is highly structured, with prayers, creeds, a sermon, and Holy Communion at the climax of the service. Some places are more casual — their program may simply consist of a few prayers and a sermon, but it is still a program. Programmed worship is an incredibly useful spiritual tool for a lot of people. Special rituals help us to get into the right mood, to shift ourselves into “spiritual mode.” I personally love the air of ceremony at Catholic and Anglican services — it helps make worship feel like something special, rather than just a mundane activity that we all come together for once a week. Having a program people can follow along with also helps worshipers know what to expect from a service.

Of course, the downside to programmed worship is that we can sometimes get caught up in the service and lose sight of the meaning behind it. We sometimes forget that God is the power behind these rituals, the very thing that makes them special, and begin to believe that the rituals themselves hold a special power. I know this is something that I struggled with as an older teen attending a Catholic (and later Episcopal) church. It’s easy to feel like God hears your prayers when you’re reciting them along with a room full of other people, chanting in unison, with incense and candles and a priest in ceremonial clothing. It’s harder to feel like prayer is “working” when it’s just you, by yourself, kneeling on your bedroom floor, or sitting on the bus, or hiding in the bathroom at work. At least, this was the case for me for a long time. I had to teach myself how to connect with God outside of the pageantry of the mass.

On the flip side, programmed worship also has the danger of becoming a routine which we can breeze through on autopilot, without ever thinking deeply (or at all) about the meaning behind it. If you follow the same program every week, and especially if you’re tired or distracted, you may find yourself just going through the motions without putting any significant thought or feeling into them — or even without thinking about them at all. This is something I’ve caught myself doing before, especially in my pre-Catholicism days, when I attended a church where the services were 100% preaching. (I mean, have you ever tried to stay focused on a one-hour sermon at 9am the morning after a Saturday night out? Accidental naps are a very real and present danger.)

The idea of unprogrammed worship in Christianity developed as a response to these concerns. An unprogrammed service is exactly what you think it is: it’s a service that does not follow a set program or routine. Every service is a unique experience.

This past weekend, I happened to be visiting with loved ones who live less than twenty minutes from a Quaker meeting house. Quakers, or The Religious Society of Friends, are one of the most well-known groups to use an unprogrammed service. (At least historically — some modern Quaker groups do have programmed services, as well as ordained clergy, but let’s disregard those groups for the sake of this post.) The way that this works is pretty simple. Everyone sits in silence, opening themselves up to divine inspiration. If someone feels moved to speak, they will stand up, share their thoughts, and then sit back down and return to silence. No one plans anything ahead of time.

I was able to visit one of these unprogrammed meetings this past Sunday. In case I didn’t make it clear in my previous mentions of my religious history, I’d never been involved in anything like this before. I’d read about Quaker meetings for worship, but most of the written sources I encountered basically said, “All the book knowledge in the world won’t prepare you for the real thing, and it’s just something you have to experience for yourself.” Having now experienced it firsthand, I agree that words can’t quite capture the whole of the experience.

The first thing that struck me was how I could immediately feel a shift in the room when the meeting began. It was like someone had flipped a switch — you could instantly feel everyone’s focus shifting inwards, and a deep stillness descended on the room. (For my fellow former-Catholics, it’s a similar feeling to being in the chapel during Eucharistic Adoration — a silent group of people all united in their focus on God.) It was very, very peaceful. I’d been a little nervous up to this point, but I found myself easily able to quiet my thoughts and turn them towards the Divine.

More than half of the meeting passed in total silence. I found myself reflecting on spiritual issues I had been thinking about lately, and had a couple of moments of clear insight. It was a very successful meditation, and the meeting would have been a hit for me for that reason alone.

But then the ministry began.

The first person to stand and share his thoughts was an older gentleman, very grandfatherly in appearance, who spoke very eloquently. He told us about a powerful spiritual experience he had had earlier that week, and about the realizations that had come to him while reflecting on said experience. I was struck by the feeling that this was someone who was deeply concerned about knowing God, and I felt blessed to hear him speak. He only spoke for a couple of minutes, then quietly sat back down.

After this, several more people stood up to minister, as if a dam had suddenly spilled over. There was a surprising coherency to their comments. It was like there was a single thread of a sermon in the meeting, and each person was simply picking it up and unraveling it a bit before passing it on. Some people spoke with eloquence and poise, like that first gentleman. Some spoke very plainly and simply. But everything I heard in that meeting was insightful and powerful and resonated deeply with me. I was moved to tears more than once.

Once the meeting was over, it was like that switch had been flipped again. In the span of a second, the room went from solemn silence to smiles and laughter; people were shaking hands and talking about their weeks. That’s not to say that the Spirit/the Light/whatever you want to call it was chased out, but it was no longer the sole focus of the gathering. Worship had transitioned seamlessly into fellowship.

I learned something new this weekend, not only about a new group of fellow seekers and a new style of worship, but about myself. It was a deeply meaningful experience for me, and I feel like my faith has been enriched by it. If you take one thing away from this post (and this blog in general), let it be this: We should always be willing to try new things and to occasionally step outside our comfort zones, especially when it comes to spirituality. There’s always something to learn from people who relate to God differently than we do, as long as we’re willing to keep our hearts open.

One response to “Reflecting On My First Experience With Unprogrammed Worship”

  1. […] done it alone. The only time I’d ever come close to something like a group meditation was when I attended an unprogrammed Quaker meeting. And guys, group meditation is just so cool. If you’ve ever been involved in any kind of […]

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