I'm up way too late catching up on Brent Bill's excellent blog series "A Modest Proposal." So far I've read through part 4, and have really appreciated his thoughtful and insightful suggestions for revitalizing Quakerism in the US, no matter what our branch of Quakerism. I tried to comment on his post but ended up writing a blog entry because Blogger wouldn't let me post a comment that long! So go read his post, then read my response.
I'm from a programmed Yearly Meeting but I've attended unprogrammed meetings for years at a time at various points. I've also been to seminary, so done some major work in thinking about and learning how to program a worship "service." In some ways I like unprogrammed worship better, but there are also things about programmed worship--done well--that I appreciate.
I think if programmed worship is done well, it is planned in the presence of God. This means we listen to God as we're planning and preparing various elements. It also means we hold everything loosely during the worship time: if something doesn't feel right at the time, we're open and responsive to letting God change the plans mid-stream. I've seen this work in incredibly beautiful ways that give rise to worship experiences where people truly encounter God in creative or surprising ways. Also, even though various people have worked hard to plan elements like music or a sermon, they are willing to let go of their need to share that if it's not the right moment.
I like this because people--at least a few of them--actually prepare. I think it's so easy to just come sit in unprogrammed worship unprepared, to not really think about meeting or God or what one experienced last week...of course, as I'm writing this, I recognize that it's just as easy to sit in a pew and let someone talk at you for a while and not be prepared or think of it throughout the week, too. But the point is the preparation. If we truly prepare a service in the presence of God, if we're really listening and trying to seek out how God wants a particular hour or two to go, I think the experience can often be more powerful for people who don't connect as much with God in silence. I personally feel like it's a gift when someone prepares a sermon that is both well-researched as well as attentive to God's calling for that person and those listening. When we're listening in silence without preparing, the things we've studied can come to us and we can speak them, but most of us haven't generally done the work. Also, when we have programmed services that are done well, they often hit on multiple styles of intelligences, whereas unprogrammed worship tends to hit one or two personality types or learning styles. But when we prepare we can have tools on hand to engage people's senses or other ways of connecting with God, like bringing paint and a canvas, or planning some kind of body movement that expresses what we're hearing, or what have you.
I think participation is what is truly the key. Early Friends emphasized that everyone can hear God, that God can speak through anyone. Our programmed meeting has been experimenting lately with "sermons" that are much more interactive. The person giving the sermon (sometimes the released pastor, sometimes someone else) asks questions and genuinely wants to hear people's answers. (We do take a mic around for extensive answers, or repeat people's answers from the speaker's mic, so that everyone can hear! It works for us and isn't distracting to have someone walk the mic around usually--it ends up being a time of waiting and listening so that people can't talk so quickly after one another.) So the person bringing a message sets it up, maybe asks a good question or explains a biblical or contemporary story and invites prayerful, vocal response. Sometimes the response from the congregation is such that the person doesn't end up giving much of a sermon, but the fact that they've thought and prayed about the direction God wants to take the service that day, or the theme to help us focus, makes it possible for us to listen to God together in a way that only seldom happens (in my experience) in completely unprogrammed worship. When done well, the music or whatever else happens in worship is planned to fit around and point to this theme. When we have open worship (either before or after the "sermon"), usually there's a query or something to give permission and encouragement to reflect on the theme for the day in a deeper way, and a communal way.
I don't think we have this all figured out--some weeks go better than others. But I wouldn't throw out programming just because it can be too constricting--just like I wouldn't throw out silence because it can be an end in itself. We need both. Programmed Friends do a bunch of different kinds of elements, but we often get stuck in the same rhythms and don't listen for creative ways of engaging different kinds of people. We also have very strict rituals like not clapping in worship, which is good in some ways (we're not spectators), but also limits the freedom we have for praising God together.
Perhaps what we need to change more than our forms of worship is our own preparation, whether we're involved in programming the worship service or not.