prayerI am deeply distressed by the state of prayer in The United Methodist Church – at least among pastors.  As I am visiting with clergy leaders, I am asking about their personal devotional lives, and far and wide I am finding that many have no personal devotional life.  I have been asking both laity and clergy leadership about prayer, and I get blank stares.  In one visit a couple of years ago, I met with a leadership team from a small congregation with some dynamic growth potential.  As we named our hopes and dreams for the future, the following desires emerged:  we want to grow, we want to reach young people, we want to improve attendance, and we want to get more people involved in leadership.  I pointedly asked, “Are you praying for these things?”  The pastor asked, “What do you mean?”  I said, “When you meet together – do you pray for these things, specifically and by name?  Individually, as leaders in the congregation, do you pray for these things every day?  Do you raise these things in worship and invite the congregation to pray for these things?”  The pastor and key leadership confessed that, no, they were not praying for these things.  The following week, I received an email from the pastor telling me how offensive and inappropriate he – and other leaders – felt my comments were.  He felt that I created an awkward and insulting situation.  I wrote back that I apologized for nothing – if the leaders are not grounded first and foremost in prayer then I doubted that any planning process would be very effective.  I haven’t been invited back.

In a conflict situation, I challenged the pastor to be in prayer daily about the healing of the congregation.  She responded that she had been praying about the problem people constantly.  I said, “Don’t pray about people – pray for them, pray with them, pray about yourself, invite others to pray for grace, healing, humility and unity – but don’t treat others as a problem for God to solve or straighten out.”  Again, I wasn’t contacted again.

In a third setting, I advised the Trustees, Staff Parish Relations Committee, Church Council and Lay Leader join the pastor in a solid month of daily prayer and reflection on God’s will for the congregation.  I received a phone call the next morning from the pastor who told me, “You really blew your credibility with my key leaders last night.  We called you for your expertise in planning and you offered a bunch of fluffy hocus-pocus instead of practical ideas.”  When a pastoral leader accepts “fluffy hocus-pocus” as an uncontested definition of prayer, we are in deep trouble.

Airheads are those with nothing of substance from the neck up.  In a skeptical and cynical culture, it is to be expected that outsiders might look at the practice of prayer with contempt and derision. After all, Paul reminds us that what we value as strength, the world will deem foolishness.  We proudly assume the mantle of “fools for Christ” – taking on the label of prayerheads, as it were.  But what happens when the skeptics and cynics are not the outsiders, but those in the circle begin to view fundamental faith practices as foolishness, a waste of time?  A district superintendent friend of mine in Tennessee once lamented to me, “I used to pray for all the pastors in my district, but I stopped.  It never did any good — for them or for me.  I hung in there as long as I could, but finally I had to stop deluding myself.”

Do UM leaders believe in the power of prayer today?  Do we see any “practical” value in being a people of prayer – committed to daily prayer and discernment, seeking God’s input into our ministry and mission?  Many pastors report being “too busy” to set aside dedicated time for personal prayer, devotional/reflective study of scripture, meditation, fasting or worship (apart from that which they lead).  Is this not a serious problem?  How deep is the well from which we are drawing?  How are we being refreshed, renewed, equipped and perfected?  If we are too busy for prayer, are we not too busy for ministry?  Is it possible that we engage in a discipleship that is disconnected from spiritual discipline and regular practice?

There are still some mighty prayer warriors in our denomination – both clergy and laity – but I fear they are quickly dwindling in number.  It is troubling that so many leaders are unsure of the value or efficacy or prayer.  An overwhelming number of lay people report that prayer isn’t taught in their congregation — there is simply a general belief that everyone knows how to pray and that they are doing it on a regular basis.  Pastors are professional prayers; laity are all too often merely prayer-listeners.  Accountability to the membership vow to “uphold the congregation” through prayer is all but non-existent.  A majority of United Methodists report praying in times of need, stress or anxiety (and before meals), but very few report engaging in a regular, disciplined practice of prayerful time with God.  Fully a third confess that they only pray when they are in church (from a study conducted when I was at the General Board of Discipleship in 2002), and a significant number of younger, newer Christians admit that they didn’t know that they were supposed to pray — no one ever told them!

Maybe I am worried about nothing.  Perhaps prayer is an endangered species in our ultra-rational, consumeristic, simplistic culture.  But before we are ready to discard a key practice central to our very identity as Christians, perhaps we should give it one more really good, honest try.  What might happen if every United Methodist were challenged to “pray without ceasing” – to dedicate a little time each morning, midday, and evening to prayer for the church, for our leaders, and for God’s will to be understood and done.  I think it is well worth a try.

24 replies

  1. Perhaps, dear Brother Dan, you are on to something.
    Something, that:
    all those many many many many dollars spent on Consultants, catchy-marketing gimmicks,
    a “General Conference” that was neither,
    and treating the church with business models of operation,
    organisation, “ad nauseaum”

    hasn’t identified, discovered, or employed to help us.

    May God Make Haste To Help Us
    May God Make Speed To Save Us

    Blessings for a HOLY LENT
    Keep up your great work —

  2. There are a number of us (Cynthia and I are among them) who are seeking certification in Spiritual Formation and focusing on this very thing. Dr. Steve Harper, Dr. Dwight Judy, and Bishop Job seem to have been the lone voices for this need in the UMC among clergy and laity. Job is already retired and Harper and Judy are retiring this year.

    Their’s should not be the only voices and you point out the critical need for caring for our inner life. Thank you for being a voice for this but we need more directed attention to it. The Book of Discipline actually does draw attention to it but it sounds more of a suggestion than requirement. What if we turned the big three committees in the local church (Finance, SPR and Stewardship) into the big for with the addition of a Committee on Prayer/Discipleship/Spiritual Formation ( whatever). Make it a standing committee. That we only require those first 3 is reflected in what we measure and judge our clergy. Clearly, this has not benefited us these past decades.

  3. If you wanted to teach prayer to laity in a congregational setting what resources would you consult for guidance on doing that well. After praying about it, of course.

  4. I feel fortunate to be part of a United Methodist faith community that believes in prayer, practices prayer and fully listening to others, to have had pastors who modeled and encouraged us to live lives of faith (including current pastor) and a stewardship/finance team that encourages us to be generous and to respond to the needs of others (not just our church). We have special offerings about once a month, that primarily serve those beyond our walls. Certainly, not everyone has taken the messages to heart, but the opportunity is there. We still have things to learn about generosity and welcoming. In 25 years, I have received much, and I hope have been able to share some of it in return.

  5. John, Jesus taught people to pray by giving us the Lord’s Prayer. I think that is STILL a good place to start. I have had some good success in my congregation by using the Lord’s Prayer as a focus for my OWN devotional life as I pray for the church. I also developed a rather elaborate week-long experiential immersion event using 6 prayer rooms–each focusing on one of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. (I really should blog about this and offer more details..) I also taught several small group courses on the Lord’s Prayer. I used several resources as the teacher, including N.T. Wright’s book, The Lord and His Prayer, and Will Willimon’s book, “Lord Teach Us..”. Students in the class used a book by John Ortberg entitled “The Lord’s Prayer: Praying with Power”. As a consequence of this emphasis on prayer, our congregation now has an ongoing prayer ministry. Also a new MISSION project “Bicycle Blessings” traces it’s origins to the class.

    • Thanks, Holly. Yes, you should write about this at greater lengthy. We do “Prayers of the People” every week and I always organize my gathering up those prayers on the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer … but I may not be explicit enough about letting the congregation know that is what I am doing.

  6. I am putting this response here because this is your most recent post. However, it was inspired by sharing part of you Fruititude post with a friend. And I guess, it does tie in with this post in that it is about people do not KNOW what this is about in a practical fashion. I have come to realize that it is ignorance that has been the root of all my problems of late-I think I “sensed it” early on, but the more I read, i know my problem is I did not know what this is about! When I share that thought with a friend, who is actually a retired UMC Director of Christian Education her response is I am capable of “deeper thought” than she is. So is that the start of the problem? What was once considered “basic Christianity”is now “deep”? I thought Methodism came into being because Wesley wanted to make Christianity “doable and understandable ” for the rank and file person.

    One of my more recent “Aha! She cried in a loud voice” moments has been the realization it is about the Holy Spirit also.( I had the thought in regards to your Fruitiude post that how can you have the fruit if you know nothing about the Spirit.) A further “Aha!” moment came when, in going through the Heidelberg Catechism along with M. Craig Barnes book, “Body & Soul: Reclaiming The Heidelberg Catechism”, Barnes made an interesting point: first, he pointed out that the catechism had only one question in regards to Jesus’ resurrection (which I found odd) and then he went on to say that was because the resurrection was only the first of three steps to Jesus’ glorification and ours (I’m not sure glorification is the correct word but hopefully you will understand what I mean).

    Within the church, when do we EVER get seriously past Easter and seriously talk about the ascencion and the gift of the Holy Spirit in a practical fashion? Seems to me, in my newly acquired understanding of what “this is about”, those are the two things that have the greatest meaning and impact on and for us today, right now. My experience is, they are only a “mumble” after the “Woohoo! He is risen!” But now, I am thinking in terms of “He is risen to what?” And I really want to know what happens after Easter–obviously there is more that the people of the 1500’s were very much aware of and I am not. So who is the “deep one” now?

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