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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

That Poorly-Attended Prayer Meeting

Another article on the church, and yet another concerned comment about poorly-attended prayer meetings.

It’s a “head-scratcher”, we’re told.

Scratch no more, my good friends. It’s not that tough from where I sit.

I’m not sure that there are all that many Christians who really believe their church can succeed without prayer. Rather, I think the message many Christians are sending when they beat feet in the other direction at prayer meeting time might just be that they’re not convinced their church needs or wants THEIR prayers, or that their attendance on any given week will make the slightest bit of difference either to the Lord or to their fellow believers.

Much of the time I suspect they’re right.

Those Who Feared the Lord

Well, okay, I’m pretty sure the Lord cares that they’ve made the effort. We know he takes notice of genuine spiritual exercise.

But sometimes it seems like our fellow believers only seem to notice when we’re NOT present. Try that for a couple of weeks and you’ll be sure to hear about it next Sunday. And when we do make an appearance, there’s little real conversation to be had and almost no chance of finding someone interested in grabbing a coffee, or, heaven forbid, of receiving an invitation to somebody local’s house afterward, often because nobody present lives very close to the church building.

Okay, Here It Comes ...

Further, it’s not easy to convince people their prayers matter when you relentlessly expose them to:
  • lengthy prayer;
  • meandering prayer;
  • repetitive prayer;
  • prayer so polished and eloquent that it discourages participation by appearing to set the bar too high to reach;
  • prayer that is really a lecture about commitment or some other subject;
  • prayer in religious language that nobody ever uses when their eyes are open;
  • prayer that covers every topic under the sun including the three things you had planned to pray about;
  • prayer that comes so fast and hard you can’t squeeze your own in;
  • prayer that sounds so much like last week’s prayer that you can predict the next three paragraphs of requests before they are voiced; and
  • prayer for people and places that only the person praying knows or cares about.
That, and prayer meetings that are filled out with a Bible study that sounds like it was thrown together at last minute or pulled out of a book by someone who’s not really up to the job.

Harsh. Sorry. But it’s true. Few things are more likely to make people sit on their hands or slip out the door at first opportunity than a room full of people who seem to be just marking time.

One Way of Doing Business

I spent two years praying Tuesday nights week-in, week-out with a group of believers that represented maybe one tenth of those present at the same church every Sunday morning. Once or twice we had fewer than ten present.

The prayer time was consistently and predictably hamstrung by most of the factors I’ve mentioned above to the point that everyone there knew exactly what to expect from it; thus attendance turned on whether there was a gifted speaker booked, as happily occurred from time to time. If we were getting someone who had studied and prepared a coherent message with an actual point rather than merely showing up with a list of verses to ramble through, the numbers automatically tripled or quadrupled. Oddly, the prayer time seemed to become correspondingly more vital.

That should probably have given the elders something to mull over.

And Another Way

On the other hand, I am currently meeting with a seniors group that prays every couple of weeks after their Bible study. The numbers are similar, but the prayer is urgent and real. There is no restriction on time and no minimum time to fill. We pray around, and absolutely everybody prays. No question of whether you’re “feeling led” today; if it’s your turn, you pray. Nobody gets a pass, and nobody prays at any one time for more than about a minute and a half. There is almost no duplication of subject, a complete absence of high-falutin’ lingo, no tripping over one another and little predictability.

After we’ve gone around the circle once, anybody who thinks of something else that matters to them is welcome to continue. Everybody comes ready with at least one thing that really matters to them to pray about, probably because everybody is expected to pray.

It’s different, but it works.

Circular Reasoning

The point is often made that if more people don’t come to prayer meetings, then prayer meetings will never improve. Possibly. But that’s a bit of a circle. One can also argue that if prayer meetings don’t improve, nobody will come, and I suspect the latter argument is more easily demonstrated.

More than anything, prayer meetings need to be managed. If what’s presently happening is not working, something has to change. Maybe it’s the time of the meeting. Maybe it’s the length. Maybe it’s the predictability, or the quality of the accompanying Bible study. Maybe it’s time for some serious Bible teaching about what makes for good corporate prayer, and how best to consider one another when we pray.

If your elders are open to making those kinds of changes, there’s hope. Even if the meeting doesn’t immediately improve, at least it’ll be a different kind of bad.

But if your elders aren’t open to change … well, expect more of the same.

Or maybe less.

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