Paradoxical prayers for the church

Thom Rainer has issued his prayers for the church for the coming calendar year.

Hmm.  Some of them–a greater emphasis on prayer–are things I can’t quibble with.  We probably need a somewhat broader definition of prayer, and we probably need to get rid of the awful “Weejus” prayer. You know, the one where people hold hands, squeeze their eyes shut, and keep saying “Lord, weejus wanna praise you; Lord, weejus wanna worship you”.  Stop wanting to do it, and just do it, okay?  (One prayer I would have for the church is that we break this ridiculous habit. A good start might be to start a “prayer jar”, sort of like the family “swear jar”–we put a dollar into the jar every time we start the Weejus prayer, and then donate that money to a good cause outside the church.) We could probably use a little more honest, angry prayer–prayer that says when we find we cannot reconcile the way God (and God’s proxy, the Church) has treated us with the concept of divine love.  At least I could use that–I don’t find it in the churches, and thus I rarely attend any more.

I get a little itchy when I see stuff like “standing firm on biblical truth”, because it usually means unquestioning adherence to a particular interpretation of the Bible (almost always the one the pastor was handed in seminary, and hasn’t really questioned since). Which, in turn, gives license to condemn those who don’t conform to that particular interpretation–especially when it has to do with the things that fall into the “nobody’s damn business” category, like sexual orientation; or the role of women in the church and/or family.

I find the call to “greater unity” even more problematic.  Rainer is correct that infighting is unhealthy–but too often, serious, principled disagreement is lumped together with “infighting”.  When that happens, we end up with the vile “agree to disagree” situation.  That is really just a churchy way of saying “shut the **** up”.  And since it’s most often spoken by a person who either has, or is perceived to have, more power than the one who hears the admonition (the ordained leader, the chair of the congregation’s governing body), it means “we are only going to discuss the things I think are important, and we are only going to reach the conclusions I believe are correct–and I am not open to being convinced otherwise.”

If that is what Christian unity means (and too often, I’ve observed that it is exactly what Christian unity means), I want no part of it.

Three of Rainer’s eight prayers are really one:  more serious commitment, participation in small groups, and participation in church-supervised/sanctioned “ministries” are really all the same thing.  And truthfully, they are prayers for further church decline.  God’s work is being done everywhere–not just, or even primarily, under the watchful eye of Mother Church.  And in many cases, the apron-strings to Mother Church need to be cut if God’s work is going to be done effectively.  People who are already doing the work of feeding the hungry and healing the sick, making sure the poor can have justice, or caring for the world God loves may not have a lot of time to give to small groups (which perpetuate the pastor’s biblical views, and too often serve as a way of keeping tabs on every member in ways that may be rather invasive).  Their dedication to God (even if it isn’t explicitly stated in their daily work) should not be measured by how much time they manage to spend in committees or teaching Sunday school.

Indeed, to do so, is a great way to insure that there will be more people who leave the churches–they’ve got better ways of being Christian than high commitment to the local congregation. The churches need to be places where these men and women can be nurtured to go out and do their real work.

I am specifically thinking of the doctors, nurses, and physical/occupational therapists who have been a part of my recovery from two bad fractures in as many years. There is no more Christ-like activity (even when done by non-Christians:  let’s remember Matthew 25:35-45) than putting people’s broken bodies and souls back together.  That trumps any ministry done under the auspices of the church–if we’ve got to stand more firmly on “biblical truth”, this seems to me a pretty good place to start.  Congregations should be supporting this; the Sunday school or flower arranging or home Bible study or small group participation is of vanishingly small importance.  If the church doesn’t build up this work, it deserves to go out of business.

I think Rainer’s prayers for the church are great for the church, but not great for God or God’s people.  They serve the congregation, but not the world God loves. They are inward looking.  Although I’ve said elsewhere that churches do need an inward view, that view has to come from someone who is outside the church if there is any hope of that view being fresh and helpful.  Rainer’s prayers do not do that–they are the prayers of the self-satisfied, and they are prayers for further self-satisfaction.

My prayer for the church is simple:  honesty.

If we are honest, we will recognize that local congregations have very little to do with the Gospel:  they are at best a method for following Jesus, but not the same thing as really doing so. They can–and should be–a way of supporting the journey, but should not be mistaken for the journey itself.

If we are honest, we will recognize that our regional, national, and (where applicable) international structures need to be stronger, but not more rigid.  Indeed, they need to be lighter and more flexible, and they need to do a better job of supporting initiatives at the appropriate level (the Roman Catholic principle of subsidiarity is important here), and to listen and respond better to the needs and aspirations of local churches.

If we are honest, we will recognize that our methods of discerning vocations to ministry, and training for lay and ordained leadership, are outdated and too much a one-size-fits-all.  We will look more closely at the varied ways vocation and leadership emerge and are affirmed, and we will find appropriate ways of preparing and compensating people who take on the daunting tasks of equipping the saints.

So, those are my prayers for the church.  They are also paradoxical–the church will probably shrink a bit if these prayers are answered.  But that may not be a bad thing.  Most of our mainline denominations are losing membership, and although they lament it as decline, I could see that a bit of shrinking could make us healthier, more fit for purpose, and give us the agility to work toward God’s kingdom come on earth.

We’re taught to pray for it, but it doesn’t absolve us of the need to work for it.

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