Worship Wars12: Prayer and Praise, (or the lack thereof)
Wednesday, January 30, 2008–These are the stories of my years serving an elderly, traditional, small Baptist Church as the bi-vocational pastor from 1992-2007. Names are generally left out and the stories are really not all that remarkable, the same things happen in a lot of churches to a lot of pastors. I am telling the stories to help myself work through junk and to inform any potential young ministers of what they will encounter in these kinds of churches. Churches like mine are dying or are already dead. My church was dead long before I arrived in 1992, I was doing CPR for 15 years, and binding wounds trying to stop the bleeding. I’m not sure if it was all in vain, most of the time I feel like it was, but I know the Lord touched some of the lives even while He was judging the church.
This morning I want to tell you a little bit about the prayer life of our church. Here we go:
“…for it’s in Thy name we pray, Amen!” and the offertory prayer mercifully ended. I looked over at my Youth Minister and he had this puzzled look on his face and when he caught me looking at him, he just shook his head. After church was over he came up to me when nobody else was around and asked, “What was that prayer all about? Did you understand any of that?”
I told him, “No, and that is frequently the case.” My youth minister was working on his Ph.D., was a godly man, sound of doctrine, and is one of the best Christian men I have ever known in my life. Today he is a professor/missionary in a “closed country” where he is teaching university students courses on Christianity in the Philosophy Dept. William is a faithful man.
The problem he and I experienced that Sunday morning was that one of our older, faithful members, who was on staff as the janitor, led the offertory prayer at least once a month but frequently rambled on with incoherent sentences. He used lofty words and intense emotions, and you could sort of get the ideas of some of what he was saying most of the time, but on a lot of occasions we really came away confused. It wasn’t like he was praying in tongues, it was more like he had no clue of how to say what he was feeling inside. But the end result was a pleasant sounding confusion. Time and again my youth minister, music minister or even some of the younger people in the church(below the age of 50) would mention that they had no idea of what this man was saying. His prayers could take about 5 minutes. I would frequently be sweating by the time they were over.
The older folks just shrugged it off and said, “Well, that’s just old Cal (not his real name)”. One day a sweet lady who had been visiting the church told me how much she enjoyed his praying. There were days when he could be understood and he could throw in a lot of sincere emotion. I do not doubt his sincerity. But then this sweet lady went up to him after church and thanked him for his prayer and told him how much it meant to her. The guy went off on her. He chewed her out and gave her a talking to because the prayers were not meant to be enjoyed, they were given to God, etc., etc. She left in tears and told me about it later.
Praying in public is definitely not for everyone. One lady in the church always came alone, her husband would not come to church. Oh but he was a Christian and he used to come to church. I had visited him a couple of times, but he would not come back to church. His wife told me why: about 20 years ago a preacher had asked him to pray out loud in church during the offering or a closing prayer, something like that, and he froze up. He had been caught unaware and not ready. He was a quiet man and did not want to do it. He never came back.
What do you do with that? Granted the pastor should not have called on anyone to pray whom he had not checked with prior. But what does it say about masculine Christianity when men are so weak and scared that they will not only not pray in God’s house before God’s people, but they get offended by even being asked (or embarrassed at their inadequate response) and turn away from church for the rest of their lives?
You want to know why my church died (technically they are still meeting, but this church was dead long before I got there)? Because of men failing to be real Christians. Now I do not know for sure if this man and the dozens like him were really saved. I give him the benefit of the doubt and preached his funeral as if he was. But the men in this church were so weak for so many years that the church was being led by a group of old women when I got there, and it’s the old women who are still leading that church. Where did all the godly men go? Or, maybe there weren’t any to begin with?
When it came time to take up the offering I had several men willing to serve as ushers and money counters, but very few would take the center aisle…that was the one who got to give the offertory prayer. Some would pray if there was absolutely no one else available. Others I had to reassure that I would say the prayer if they would simply take up the offering.
Now please don’t get me wrong, I absolutely understand that many men are not gifted or trained in public speaking and yet are great Christian men willing to serve in many other key ways, just don’t ask them to speak in public. You don’t have to be able to speak or pray in public to be a godly man.
However, to leave a church and never come back just because you were asked to pray? Or to be able to speak out and recite from memory a lot of rigmarole in the Lodge, but not in church…or at work, but not in church…? (More about the Masonic Lodge in this church in a later blog). I’m sorry, but somewhere in the feminization of the Church we men have been emasculated spiritually and in regards to leadership. This is a problem amongst the professional ministers as well. We have not trained boys to become godly men and we have failed to lead men into discipleship. Oh, we have given them roles to play, positions to fill, and jobs to do in the church, but we have not turned church members into disciples.
In my church, the ONE GUY, who would really pray, was this guy I opened with.
In prayer meetings the problem was magnified. The Wednesday night prayer meeting was every bit as misnamed as jumbo shrimp. At various times in my 15 years I tried to change our Wednesday night service into a real prayer meeting. What the people wanted was to sing 1-2 hymns, have a 20 minute devotional (or sermonette; I don’t do devotionals, I either preach or teach or I don’t do it. “Preaching lite” is just not in me. But that was one of the problems between me and the older 1/3 of the congregation that didn’t want me there from the beginning) and then have a prayer meeting that wasn’t.
When it came time to take prayer requests in prayer meeting it was like a broken record. With an aging congregation, the sick list always dominated. Next came those who were traveling. Next came things like, “My neighbor across the street lost her pet dog and we really need to pray for her.” (I kid you not, that one was for real, more than once).
I and some of the younger folk would bring up some lost friends who needed to repent and get saved, some sinful situations that people needed to repent of, and things like that. But the older generation that dominated the church rarely ever had what I would call a spiritually minded prayer request. I tried by example to teach the church to spend time in praise and worship while praying. I tried to lead by example in praying for the lost to get saved. Not the lost in general, but real people I knew. I tried to lead by example by praying prayers of confession over my own failings and temptations and sins. I did things like read and teach from great books on prayer from folks like Spurgeon or Leonard Ravenhill. How shall I say this…they were less than impressed with Spurgeon and Ravenhill. I preached on prayer, challenged them to pray, etc. One Sunday as we were planning on a Revival in a few weeks, I included a quote from Leonard Ravenhill in the bulletin. One of the faithful old ladies told me to never put that stupid stuff in the bulletin again.
The response I got was that the men said nothing and the older women defended themselves by saying they all prayed at home. But in the actual prayer meeting the same 2-3 old women would pray the same prayers in King James English, they would pray for the current sick list, pray for our church and that would be about it. The younger folk would often pray, but they grew weary of the spiritual oppression that permeated our prayer meetings.
In the the worship services 3-4 times over the 15 years I challenged the congregation for a period of a few weeks to pray for revival. I would set aside a special time during the worship service to kneel and pray, to come to the front and pray (I know, it is a standard revivalistic practice, emotion based, but hey, God did give us our emotions too) and in all the 15 years I had a total of 1 older believer join me for prayer at the front and not one ever knelt in prayer that I knew of. The one older lady who joined me in prayer at the front one Sunday morning was Kathryn, she was a ball of fire. Kathryn died of cancer in 1994 and could hear the angels singing on the way out. I have missed her.
I have told you before in this blog about the problems getting people to kneel in prayer. The folks were faithful about working around the church to clean and fix up. They could climb ladders, get on their knees to lay new tile or carpet, etc. But kneeling in prayer was not something they would do. Perhaps it was considered to be too Catholic? I’m not sure. I know that our physical posture is not the key to a wonderful prayer life, but as creatures of dust, our physical does affect our spiritual, and vice versa. Therefore we should not neglect things like standing or kneeling or praying for the sick.
In our efforts at getting ready for a “Revival” in about 1994-95, I planned to have “cottage prayer meetings” where we divided up into teams, were to meet in people’s houses one night a week for a month prior to the revival. Only enough participated to have two groups meet. The one group met once, the group that met at my house met twice- and the prayers were again focused on the sick. “Cottage Prayer Meetings” were not even as popular as cottage cheese at a church fellowship.
I hate to say it though, but if a church’s prayer life is characterized by almost exclusively praying for people who are sick, if praise, thanksgiving and worship are not a significant part of the prayer life, and if evangelistic praying is nowhere to be found in the church, and if the men of the church will not or cannot lead in praying, then that church is spiritually dead and deserves to close. If opportunity after opportunity is presented to grow in prayer, yet not heeded, if no repentance is evident, close the doors Lord.
I learned about prayer in my youth group growing up, and again at the BSU at OU. Maybe it is so related to the youthful enthusiasm of teens and college students, I just don’t know. We had some awesome times of confession, thanksgiving, praise and evangelistic praying. As an adult I have had a few good times of prayer at our church in Washington, FBC Lakewood, and again in Seminary there were some good times of prayer.
Today, one of the highlights in worship every week in Redeemer Church is the prayers. Whether it is Pastor Tim at the start of the service, or one of the elders Mike, Wayne or Kevin in the middle with the prayers of confession and absolution, or whether it is our minister of music, Gary, who leads us in praying for the missionaries a lot, or elder Dale at the close of the service- it is soooo goood to be in a church that includes real prayer as a part of worship.
I know that the older generation as a whole is less emotionally expressive than we Baby Boomers are. But praying out loud is not primarily about emotions. I know there are a lot of godly believers from that generation who do pray, and I realize that praying out loud should not be THE test for spiritual maturity. But I am convinced that somewhere along the line, the church needs to TEACH people to pray. Without prayer, churches wither and die.