The Collegian
Thursday, January 26, 2023

The Walk: Un-programmed and Programmed Congregations

<p>Graphic by Jackie Llanos</p>

Graphic by Jackie Llanos

Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian. 

Among Quakers, some congregations are programmed and others are unprogrammed. Programmed congregations are similar to other Christian churches. Programmed churches have an order of service, including a sermon and hymn singing, and a designated minister or pastor. 

Unprogrammed congregations diverge from most other Christian congregations by following in the tradition of early Friends (Quakers). Unprogrammed meetings have a silent meeting for worship, a silent communal waiting that includes the opportunity to share a message if so moved. There is not a pre-planned sermon or hymns, and there is no person leading the worship. Instead, Friends at an unprogrammed meeting are ministered by the Spirit.

In a 2000 article, entitled “Friends (Quaker) Worship,” Bill Samuel gives an introductory explanation of these different types of congregations and explains some strengths and weaknesses of each. Samuel says that unprogrammed Friends assert that the pastoral system is in conflict with the individualistic type of worship that early Friends established. Programmed Friends assert that unprogrammed Friends often abandon the evangelical zeal of early Friends. 

In this column, I will give a brief history of the relevant historical forces that set the scene for the programmed vs unprogrammed discussion. I will then give a further account of the criticism that Samuel outlines. Next week, I will follow up with prescriptions for how unprogrammed meetings ought to respond to these criticisms. 

Samuel uses two quotes to explain the form and justification of the distinctively Quaker form of worship. The first is from Isaac Pennington, an early Friend, who said: “Our worship is a deep exercise of our spirits before the Lord, which doth not consist in an exercising the natural part of mind, either to hear or speak words, or in praying according to what we, of ourselves, can apprehend or comprehend concerning our needs; but we wait, in silence of the fleshly part, to hear with the new ear, what God shall please to speak inwardly in our own hearts.” The second is from Matthew 18:20, where Jesus promises, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

The first quote from Pennington informs why early Friends were unprogrammed. Early Friends gathered in silence and their worship consisted in a waiting on the Spirit to hear, directly from God, His message should He have one for us at the time. Pennington would have believed that the appropriate form of verbal ministry is individual Friends speaking from the silence when they are moved by the Spirit, rather than one appointed figure delivering a planned sermon. This planned sermon would be an exercising of the natural part, which Pennington would not have deemed appropriate to Quaker worship.

The second quote from Matthew is the scriptural basis for “being ministered to by the Spirit.” Friends read this passage as evidence for the actual presence of Christ in worship. Interestingly, the actual presence of Christ is a characteristic that Catholic and Quaker worship share. Catholics see Christ as physically present in the communion host. Friends see Christ as spiritually present as the priest. 

According to Samuel, a Christian revival in the early-to-mid 1800s coincided with concerns about decreased spiritual vitality among Friends. This led many Quaker congregations to shift to a programmed form to capture the evangelical zeal of the time. In doing so, these Friends shifted away from the form of worship pioneered by early Friends, into a form more common to protestant churches.

Samuel has criticisms to offer about both unprogrammed and programmed congregations.

Members of programmed churches can struggle with losing the experience of the Living Christ and their personal relationship with Him. Samuel says that it can be easy to rely too much on pastors as channels to communicate with Christ.

Unprogrammed meetings, by their nature, struggle with evangelism. The lack of structured vocal ministry inhibits the ability of the meeting to acquire and develop new members. Furthermore, although a silent coming together to wait on the spirit can be a powerful spiritual experience, more is needed to build a vibrant religious community. Unprogrammed meetings need to work harder to create explicit religious pedagogy, which in contrast comes naturally to programmed churches.

Enjoy what you're reading?
Signup for our newsletter

Next week, I will offer some prescriptions of how unprogrammed meetings can overcome their shortcomings with respect to evangelism and pedagogy, without sacrificing their central values. I will outline how unprogrammed Friends should think about evangelism. I will then propose a form of religious pedagogy that is complementary to the goals and values of unprogrammed meetings and is consistent with the goals of evangelism that I will offer. This form of pedagogy is after the Platonic tradition, which seeks to solicit reflection rather than offering a definitive truth.

To contribute to The Walk, email opinions and columns editor Conner Evans at

Contact columnist Cal Pringle at

Support independent student media

You can make a tax-deductible donation by clicking the button below, which takes you to our secure PayPal account. The page is set up to receive contributions in whatever amount you designate. We look forward to using the money we raise to further our mission of providing honest and accurate information to students, faculty, staff, alumni and others in the general public.

Donate Now