During the 15 months of our parish’s construction project, I constantly felt out of my depth, stretched beyond my own understanding and ability. There were days where I felt I spent more time wearing a hard hat than a clerical collar. It felt like I spoke about glulam beams, requests for information, and change orders more than I did the deep things of our spiritual lives. I often tell people that nothing moves you to prayer more deeply than a church building project. Those who may have walked this road probably understand where I am coming from.
Now that our construction project is completed, people ask me questions about the project all the time. Sometimes people ask, “How were you able to manage the parish during the craziness of construction?” To this question, I often respond, “well, I prayed a lot.” Or, the more financially minded inquire, “What is your plan to repay the loans that you took for the construction costs?” Again, my response is, “well, I’m praying a lot!” Then, there are those who ask me my thoughts about church growth, about building up a strong congregation, about my ‘strategy’ to reach out to the neighbourhood and increase the ‘numbers’ in our church. My response is—you guessed it—“I’m praying a lot.”
Usually, my questioners believe me to be joking. Sometimes they chuckle. Sometimes they look at me with a gaze that says, “please be serious.” But here’s the secret: I am being serious. I know of no other way to be a person of the church than to live from a prayer-filled centre.
As a church community, we are called to be a community of prayer. Prayer is to fill our lungs, and it should inform the very manner in which we approach all areas of our life together. We are called to be a body of people who continually pray for God’s blessing on one other, and on our ministry. Prayer defines who we are.
I have to admit, sometimes I wonder if we take prayer seriously in the church. Can prayer really be a serious answer, solution, and resource in our life of faith? Or do we see prayer as some sort of passive activity, pertaining only to the liturgical life of the church, whereas the ‘real work’ of ministry occurs through the sweat of our efforts and the mastery of our skills? Do we get so caught up in our own efforts and strategies that we end up defining ‘healthy churches’ as congregations whose people try harder, do more, sing louder, and spend less?
It may be a hold over from modernity’s emphasis on progress, or it could be a product of the individualism of this age, but this understanding of the life of the church is only about what we create for ourselves. Rather than sinking deep into, and following, the movement of the Spirit, we skim on the shallow surface of our own abilities; we mistakenly assume that presence of new parishioners is linked to our slick programs or fancy invites; we understand ministry only in terms of what we are called to do; we succumb to the lie that says bigger is always better and blessedness is about having more.
I don’t want to deny that we have a role to play; of course we are all called to be involved with the life and ministry of the church body. Of course there are things we are called to do as the church in this world. Faith without actions, James reminds us, is dead. But what of the spiritual life? What is the foundation of our actions? Where does the power, the inspiration, the motivation for our activity come from?
Before we do anything in the church we should be praying for the church.
We are called to pray for God’s blessing, guidance, and power in all areas of our life—from Sunday school to parish council members, to Altar guild recruits, to our parish finances. The blessing of the church is a spiritual reality, not a strategic one. Strategy is about results. It is about maximizations, efficiencies and increased margins, and more than anything, it is about what we bring to the table. Blessedness is about God’s presence. It is about God’s ability to do that which is beyond what we ask or imagine. Praying for God’s blessing in the church means that we anticipate, experience, and respond to the Spirit of God amidst us. It means we put down any sense of our own control and trust that God will indeed guide us and keep us.
Let us not forget to pray for our church. Let us pray that people experiences the love and grace of Jesus at every single service. Let us pray that God guide our decisions and tasks so that they reflect the presence of the Spirit in our midst, and not just our own smarts. Let us pray that God send us those specific resources our community needs to do the work that God has called us to do. And let us pray for each other. Let us hold one another up before God, asking God’s grace to fill, relieve, empower, and sustain us.
Strategy and effort is shallow business. Sure, it may create big structures, many programs and multitudes of people. but the strength will exist only on the surface. Plumb the depths and what will you find? Prayer, on the other hand, is serious business, for it goes to the heart of who we are called to be and it calls us to long for, and respond to, the blessedness of God’s Spirit in our midst. Perhaps this is why Scripture continually affirms the fundamental identity of the church as a house of prayer. More than anything, that is who we are called to be.