Thursday, March 29, 2007

Corporate prayer?

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...

Monday, March 05, 2007

A Call for Commentary

OK, it's time to see how many readers I have out there.

I've been asked to submit an op-ed piece (like one you would see in a newspaper) to help inform the UMC's Connectional Table as the formulate their "State of the Church" report for General Conference 2008. I'm one of a few hundred who've been asked to do this. I already have a draft going, but I want to know what you think.

Post replies on this blog (or email me if you want them kept private) on what you think is the current state of the United Methodist Church. These can be good things, bad things, whatever. You don't need to be a UM clergy person or even a member. As a matter of fact, outsiders' perceptions would be greatly helpful. I'll seriously consider your comments as I put together the final version of my op-ed piece.

This is democracy in action, people. Let's put the power of the internet to work. Leave your comments and tell me what you think.