Thursday, March 29, 2007

Corporate Prayer?

Note: this is a post copied from my personal blog: The Truth As Best I Know It. I'm posting it here because I'd like some input from you fine folks.

As we approached the first anniversary of The Gathering we decided to ask people to fill out a survey telling us what they found meaningful and what wasn't working. The results didn't really surprise us. In most areas we were doing fairly well. People felt like they really got to participate in the worship and that they weren't just spectators of some show.

The one area where we weren't doing so well, however, was in the prayer time during the service. We had sensed this for a while, and the surveys confirmed it. A year ago it seemed like we had a good strategy. I or another leader would open the prayer time and guide us through an expanding circle prayer: first we would pray for this congregation, then others who were suffering, our local community, the world, the church universal, and in communion with all the saints. As we expanded the circle we invited others to verbally lift up prayer requests, ending with, "Lord in your mercy", and the rest of us would respond, "hear our prayer."

What we discovered over time, however, was that this method didn't really work for a group of 50 people. I've personally experienced this as being very powerful in a small group of no more than 10 or so, but in a larger group it ended up being basically the same thing as what we do in the 10:45 traditional service at Crievewood.

At the later service the pastor or another leader highlights some of the concerns on the prayer list in the bulletin, calls for a few moments of silence (at most 30 seconds), and then prays out loud on behalf of the congregation. Theoretically the congregation is all praying together, but I've started to wonder if that's really true. Just because someone is standing at the front of a room making a speech directed to God with their eyes closed, does that mean that 200 people are all really praying together?

This was the same problem with our prayer time at The Gathering. In theory we were all praying together and others were invited to lift up prayers verbally, but in reality there were only a half dozen or so who felt comfortable speaking up. So instead of one person making a speech with their eyes closed and calling it communal prayer, we had 6 or 7 people making mini-speeches with their eyes closed and calling it communal prayer.

It begs the question of how we should handle prayer in corporate worship. It is really possible to get a group of people larger than a dozen to be praying about the same thing? Does the fact that we do this corporate prayer enable people's feelings of absolution from the responsibility to have their own prayer times outside the weekly meeting? Does the fact that we have specific prayer times in worship narrow our definition of what prayer is? Conversations about meaningful issues in our lives can be prayer. Times of studying and struggling with the scriptures can be prayer. The act of taking communion together should certainly be seen as a type of prayer. All these things are acts we participate in to heighten our awareness of God's continual presence with us, so why should we not call it all prayer?

Right now in The Gathering we're trying an individual prayer time. Prayer concerns in the expanding circle are put up on the screen, and each table has a stack of post-it notes to write prayers on and stick up on our "wailing wall". We're going to give this about six weeks or so and see if it's working or not.

What do you think? Are we doing ourselves a greater disservice by trying to have corporate prayer in worship? Can the only legitimate prayer be as individuals or small groups? Discuss...

1 comment:

journeyman37 said...

Great questions, Matt.

Prayer is a fundamental missional calling of the church-- an expression of our priesthood.

Perhaps the difficulty is that people really have not practiced and learned how to pray together yet. Corporate prayer is very much a lost art in most places in "white" US culture. (The congregation I am connected to back home in Indiana is mostly African American-- these folks pray, individually and collectively-- and they teach others how to do it!).

One of the core practices of preparation for baptism that Justin Martyr describes in the First Apology is to teach people how to pray, individually and collectively. When he describes the prayers in worship, he speaks of the presider offering a series of intercessions (not unlike the circle you describe, but not in quite the same order-- there it starts with the government, following the instruction in Timothy) to which the people add their Amens and other responses. The description sounds far from non-participatory on the part of the congregation. The word "Amen" appears to be a stand-in for the ways the congregation affirmed in voice and body what was being offered with them by their presider.

I think your smaller group idea is one way to help to teach more corporate practices of prayer-- but don't stop there. Find more ways to teach the art of both personal and corporate praying, and do so as proactively as you can. People don't participate when they don't know how or haven't practiced. People do participate when they do. And here participation is a vital part of our calling as Christians, so it's not a matter of preference, but discipleship.

At least that's how I read scripture and the better witnesses across church history...

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards