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As the Friends meetings around me have slowly and fitfully come out of the lockdowns of various coronavirus strains, I’ve been conducting something of an informal tour. I’ve visited six in the last few months. One thing that’s been common: a decided lack of vocal ministry. Ministry hasn’t been completely absent, of course: this last First Day, someone read aloud a deeply profound passage on grief from Elizabeth Gray Vining that very much spoke to my spiritual condition. But it was impossible not to acknowledge that these dear words were many decades old.
What is the state of our vocal ministry these days? How do we encourage it? How do we discourage it (even if unintentionally)? Even a cursory look at history demonstrates that vocal ministry has looked and sounded different in other eras. How has it changed, and what role does it play today? What about newer forms, like afterthoughts or worship sharing?
What are the unwritten rules of ministry? How do we address those who don’t follow the norms? Are these even the norms we want?
I’m particularly interested in these questions because of outreach. Whenever someone expresses interest in Friends, we advise them to visit a meeting for worship, and vocal ministry is often the most important impression these visitors get. If the time is silent, or filled with what we might call topical ministry (the tulips are up and beautiful; the situation in some part of the world is dire), then visitors won’t necessarily leave with their questions answered.
Although my recent visits have all been with unprogrammed meetings, I know similar questions about ministry arise in semi- and fully-programmed meetings. What is the form, substance, purpose, and state of our vocal ministry?
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