Many of my best friends are pastors. Really. For the most part pastors are fine people. Recently to two such friends of mine I said that they “pray too much.” In my humble opinion, there’s an epidemic proportion of profuse pastoral prayers in public. OK, I exaggerate in order to provoke – I also liked stringing together all those words that begin with “p.” But I do have a point to make.
I did some posts on “My Ministry Mantras,” wherein I argued that “Sunday Is The Practice.” I include excerpts of that argument here…
A football team practices all week for the big game on the weekend. They practice during the week and then they play the game on Sunday. The fans don’t care about the practices; they just want to see their team beat up on the other team – on the field, that is. The game is the big event. Comparing this to our Sunday worship experience versus the rest of the week – which one is the game and which is the practice? Do we practice all week for the main event on Sunday? Is the worship service the big game or is it the practice for the game? If it’s the game, then the other six days are the warm up, the tune up for Sunday. But if Sunday is the practice, then the rest of the week is what we’re practicing for.
If we make the Sunday service the game, then it’s my observation that people will eventually come to the conclusion that showing up on Sundays is all that God requires of them. They will assume that by the end of the service that they’re done with their service for the week! The game has been played, and they can rest from spiritual responsibility until they come back next Sunday. They learned about God with a snappy sermon and worshipped him with groovy music – “see you next week for the next performance of the Jesus Show!”
If Sunday (or whatever day you gather with people for fellowship) is the practice, then I humbly propose that it should probably look more like one. We should be studying the playbook (you know what that is, right?), running wind sprints for conditioning, practice tackling, blocking, passing, and kicking. I don’t know what are the direct spiritual equivalents for those; but for sure, we should be interacting, praying, and strategizing with each other more in our spiritual Sunday practices. There’s no way that the coach (pastor) should be doing all the talking and having all the fun in our practices. We’ve all got to get in on the action on Sundays so we’re ready to face the other team during the week!
It’s easy to look good at practice with nothing but teammates surrounding you. It’s when we leave the service that the service really begins. We’ve gathered to get ready for the big game so that when we scatter we can play the big game – and win!
OK, if my point is accurate and that our gatherings are practices for the players, then shouldn’t the coach be giving the team opportunities to – I don’t know – practice? In my vagabond preacher role these days I have the blessed opportunity to visit various churches and worship with them. Don’t get the idea that I sit aloofly back and critique their every move. I go to worship Jesus, hear from him, and fellowship with my friends, new and old. But I can’t help but notice the practices of pastors, the people they serve, and the culture that they’re developing. I don’t know how God is leading them to do church in their context and nobody asked me to come and be any kind of consultant for them. But I do have some sentiments about the practices we’ve taken on board in our downstream drift along the “current” of popular pastoral practices, ones that might not directly serve the core values that we post on our websites. For instance, most of us pastor-types (I say “pastor-types” because you might not be as pastoral as apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, or teachy – Ephesians 4) claim that our principle assignment is to “equip the saints for their work of ministry,” and yet, as coaches, we do all the playing and they do all the watching from the side-lines.
I was in a Sunday gathering recently wherein the pastor must’ve prayed five or six lengthy prayers – at the welcome, during the musical worship time, at the offering, before and after the message, and during the benediction. It was either E.M. Bounds or C.H. Spurgeon who said something like, “The preacher who prays lengthy prayers in public reveals that he doesn’t pray much in private.” They were beautiful prayers, where most of the i’s were dotted and the t’s crossed, but in my humble opinion, a regular practice of this sort subtracts more than it adds to the development of disciples. How can we expect people to learn how to pray for one another (let alone for pre-christians from our spheres of influence) when we do it all, and do it in such an unachievable way? How can we say we’re equipping them when, in fact, we’re monopolizing all the spiritual stuff? Shouldn’t we be taking advantage of every minute we have with our friends to make an investment into their discipleship?
As I see it, the disciple-making process goes like this — First, I do something and you watch; second, you do that same thing and I watch; and third we both go and do that same something in front of some other people (in such a way that they will go on to show someone else). But if I do it while you watch and just keep doing it because I can do it better than you anyway; how did that help you? Pastoral prayers are just a microscopic biopsy of a larger malignancy in our way of doing church. It’s not just prayer that we’ve monopolized, but also Bible study, worship, ministry to one another – you name it. I think pastors do too much preaching on Sundays, too much counseling with people after the service, too much of pretty much everything.
We could justify the profusion of public pastoral prayers by claiming that we’re modeling how to pray. I absolutely concur that to pray in front of people is part of the discipleship process. When Jesus did this, his interaction with the Father was so wondrous that his disciples asked him to teach them to do it too. But I don’t think for a minute that his “Lord’s Prayer” was the end of the Prayer Class. That was just the first day of the first semester of their freshman year. I love the saying: Good leaders know the way, go the way, show the way, and get out of the way! Jesus modeled prayer (and everything else they needed to see), and he said, “It’s better for you that I go away.” And before he went away permanently, he pushed them out of the nest and sent them out two by two to pray and preach and heal and dominate demons.
Pastor, my humble advice is that you’ll take prayer and healing and all other forms of spiritual service off the stage and let it seep into the seats. Is it possible that it wouldn’t be so hard to get our churches to be “missional” out in the community if we would let them in on the mission before they left the building?
Back in the 80’s I was teaching on a Sunday morning on how to share Christ with people and concluded the message by challenging the congregation to get into pairs and role play an evangelistic conversation. You know? Practice. About half hour later one of guys approached me with the young woman that we had hired to babysit during our services. There were no babies in that service, so she decided to stick around. When James had looked around for someone to interact with, she was the only one who was standing by herself. He approached her, introduced himself, and proposed the role play. She consented, and within a few minutes, without intending to, he led her to the Lord! He was just telling her about God’s love, answered some of her questions, and when, as part of the assigned role play project, he asked her if she wanted to receive Jesus, she said, “Absolutely.” I don’t know when he realized that she was actually praying, but when he looked up and saw tears in her eyes, he was as shocked as I was when afterward, he introduced her to me as his most recent convert! I’m glad we “practiced” that day. So was she.