A Congregation That Prays…or a Praying Congregation?

It may seem like semantics – the difference between a congregation that prays and a praying congregation. They sound like the same thing – but what if they aren’t? The former describes a congregation who participates in prayer as an activity; it is a church that worships, that enjoy a good potluck together, that serves its community, and that prays. The latter, however, describes a congregation that doesn’t define prayer as one of its many activities. Rather, prayer defines the congregation.

I recently asked a colleague if his congregation was a praying congregation. He said, “Yes, we pray in worship. We try to pray at the beginning or end of every committee meeting – generally both.” No offense to my colleague, but I would call that a congregation that prays, not a praying congregation.

For many of us, when asked if we are a praying congregation, we might offer a response similar to my friend’s: We list the number of times we pray in worship, during committee meetings, and perhaps at special prayer gatherings during the week. But a praying congregation is not defined by its quantity of prayer. Prayer is its defining quality.

Consider a couple of perhaps more significant examples…

I serve as the chair of our Presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry (CPM). When candidates receive a call, we often ask for their feedback on our process – how did we help prepare them for ministry and how could we have been more helpful. While we may not always agree with their responses, there was one candidate whose feedback we could not dispute: “Why didn’t we pray at the start of my interview?” she asked.

In addition to shepherding candidates who are seeking their first call, I am presently seeking a call myself. Recently, this candidate’s question has become my own, as one of the things I notice in phone or Skype interviews is whether or not a Pastor Nominating Committee (PNC) prays at the beginning and end of the interview. Even more so, I notice how prayer plays a role in the PNC’s dialogue: “We are praying about how Jesus might call us to engage our community in more effective ways.” “We are praying about how we can grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.” “We are praying about the person Jesus might raise up to be our next pastor.”

To those who have been given the high calling of connecting pastors and congregations – CPM’s, COM’s, PNC’s, and candidates for ministry (and I’m including myself here!) – let me ask us this: Do we take Jesus and his Church seriously enough to enter into every interview – before, during, and after – in prayerful conversation with the Head of the Church? If we don’t, then consider what that says about what we believe.

Because ultimately, it’s not about semantics at all. It’s about Christology.

And while the above examples may be those of a pastoral search, the Christological questions apply to all of us in the Church.

Do we trust more in ourselves and our ability to know the next step, tacking on a prayer for good measure and asking God to bless our plans? Or do we trust more in Jesus and his full knowledge of the next step, bathing the conversation in prayer and asking Jesus to show us his plan?

The term “exile” has often been used to describe the post-Christendom, post-denominational age in which congregations find themselves, where the church no longer holds center place in the culture, where the number of “none’s” in religious affiliations is increasing and the number of church memberships decreasing. This season is not the first time God’s people have experienced exile. So perhaps we would do well to take a page from our spiritual ancestors’ exile.

In the period of the kings, what was their greatest sin? It wasn’t their intermarriage with pagans or improper worship or idolatry. These were symptoms of a deeper sin: They “did not inquire of the Lord” (I Chronicles 10:14 et al). Rather than learning from their mistakes, it seems history repeated itself and eventually led to Judah’s exile in Babylon, as noted by Jeremiah: “The shepherds” – that is, pastors (!) – “are senseless and do not inquire of the Lord” (Jeremiah 10:21).

If not seeking the Lord is the problem, then the solution seems pretty obvious. Indeed, Jeremiah gives the people a great antidote – and even greater promise – from the Lord: “‘You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart’” (Jeremiah 29:13).

If we desire good fits between pastors and congregations, or, more importantly, if we desire to join together as God’s people and be the Church Jesus calls us to be, then we, too, need to seek the Lord. Not because we’re supposed to pray at a meeting or because we think it’s just a good thing to do. But because we believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior and Head of the Church.  And so we pray to him, with every beat of our heart and every fiber of our being, as if our very lives and those of our congregations depend on it…

I realize you and I are not always going to get it right. There will be plenty of times when we fall short in prayer – either in quantity or quality or both. One of the prayers in Scripture for which I am most grateful is that of Jesus from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus knows us well, doesn’t he? As much as we may think we know the next step, we really don’t know what we are doing. But thanks be to God that we are invited to seek after the One who seeks after us like the great hound of heaven. May we pray to seek after him in like manner.

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” – Matthew 6:33

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