By Eddie Pipkin
As we continue our series exploring the pursuit of discipleship and its awesome practical results for people seeking a meaningful and well-ordered life, this week we’ll consider the topic of obedience. If there’s one concept that’s a big turnoff to folks – particularly young folks – it’s the idea of submission to a set of rules and obligations (which is a perceived negative that they often associate with allegiance to a local church). It’s our quest to break through that stereotype, to help people appreciate that a deeper understanding of the scriptures and a life with regular prayer are pathways to comfort, resilience, and peace of heart and mind in a topsy-turvy world, a pathway to freedom from the anxieties imposed by that world.
Essential to this category of discipleship, as noted in the opening paragraph, are the twin disciplines of Bible study and prayer. Anyone who has ever had any association with a Christian church will have familiarity with these disciplines. They are, shall we say, iconic elements in the definition of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Note that when Hollywood sets out to parody Christian characters as part of a TV show or movie script, these are the elements most often selected for broad (and often exaggerated) emphasis: a character quoting bucketloads of scripture at another character; dramatic, emotional prayers, bathed in tears or punctuated by demands for miracles. These tropes make the unchurched queasy. On the other hand, we have access to a trove of more than 2,000 years of amazing commentary and explorations of how to pray effectively and how to explore the Bible with enthusiasm and purpose.
Our quest is to connect the people in our sphere of influence to ways of engaging Bible study and prayer that are relevant to their lived experience: practical, rich, authentic, and intellectually challenging. Unfortunately, we are so familiar with these disciplines ourselves (as well-schooled leaders) or sometimes so casual (or even lazy) in our ritualized approach that we inadvertently turn people off or leave them disappointed or unfulfilled in their attempts to engage these disciplines.
We should be providing comprehensive, well-organized, well-designed, and well-run opportunities for people at our churches to learn more about the Bible and develop rich prayer lives. You already know this, of course. You don’t need some blogger to tell you. But the cold, hard truth, as we have observed in our work with local churches all over the U.S., is that very few churches live out this goal. It is true that most local churches can point to a Bible study or an active prayer group. But few have a comprehensive strategy (multiple avenues of engagement that result in sustained growth that leads towards spiritual maturity). Few have an overall plan that is well-organized or well-designed (an intentional structure of educational offerings, practice-based workshops and retreats, opportunities to work with a mentor, clearly communicated and easily accessible resources). Fewer still, even when they have expended the resources for developing a comprehensive strategy, taking the time and investing the energy to run it well for a sustained season (development of leaders, training those leaders, promoting opportunities, constantly updating online materials).
Let’s focus on two aspects of this challenge:
- The way we integrate scripture and prayer into our existing offerings.
- The way we give people opportunities to learn more about Bible study and prayer.
My argument is that we have ritualized both of these approaches in a way that stresses their importance to our faith lives while simultaneously – oddly — limiting our growth towards maturity.
Consider the ways that we integrate scripture and prayer into our worship services. For many local churches, the use of scripture and prayer has become highly ritualized and pro forma – and I don’t mean by the use of specific liturgy – I mean by the placement of “prayer times” and “scripture reading” as a slotted bullet point in the service order. These prayer times and scripture readings come in exactly the same points of the worship service. They are generally limited to being featured at exactly those same points (and many times at ONLY those points) week after week. They are presented in exactly the same ways, frequently for the same duration and many times by the same person (or select team of presenters).
Imagine some alternative approaches:
- We are intentional about integrating scripture into multiple points during the worship service. A verse about the value of service would be nicely (briefly) inserted into the announcements sequence, reminding us why it is we serve in the first place, for instance. The praise leader can use scripture as a bridge between songs or follow up a popular song with a brief comment explaining the scriptural foundation of the lyrics.
- We are intentional about having a diversity of presenters sharing scripture and prayer within our worship services. When people in our spaces hear young and old, culturally diverse, disabled and healthy, married and single people sharing prayers and scripture, they get it that it’s for them, too.
- We are intentional about praying for real things as they happen. Our prayers are fresh and reactive to what’s happening in the worship service itself and what’s happening in the world around us. Rather than just a meditation or a collection of God-based aphorisms, our prayers can be grounded in real-time needs and aspirations. Prayers of gratitude can help us celebrate how God is working.
- We use visual representations of scripture and prayer in our hallways and on our social media posts to keep people engaged and connected.
This same approach can also be applied to leadership meetings, small group sessions, and work team outings. If we train leaders in effective uses of scripture and prayer, each gathering of believers, whatever the context, can become a reinforcement of the power of scripture and prayers for discipleship. An anchoring verse shared before a meeting can keep people’s hearts oriented in the right direction – such a verse before a service project can remind people of their purpose. Sincere prayers to kick off these gatherings can invite the Holy Spirit to be involved in all that transpires.
Imagine if we challenged our leaders (staff and volunteers) to think of ways to integrate scripture and prayer into everything they do – and then we shared with one another what we have tried and what is working.
The second part of our deeper thinking on this issue is consideration of the ways we offer engagement to those who have expressed an interest in growing deeper in their understanding of scripture and prayer. We have one general response: classes. We love classes. We love those 12-week or 60-week deep dives into the Bible. And, don’t get me wrong, those are important. But somewhere along the line, probably because of our bent towards an “academic” approach and definitely because the preachers who oversee all of this tend to be academically oriented, it is the be-all-and-end-all option for spiritual growth. It is also an option that increasingly flies in the face of these realities:
- People do not want to take the time to engage in a long-term, demanding class.
- People are bored by the classroom approach.
- People are intimidated by a one-size-fits-all academic atmosphere.
To reiterate, it is not an either/or. It’s a both/and (in the classic Wesleyan tradition). Imagine some alternative approaches on our part:
- More short-term, intense options: one-day seminars, weekend retreats that take a deep dive.
- More options for independent study – technology has made this approach much more viable. But lots of churches don’t even have a solid recommended reading list!
- More innovative approaches that aren’t lecture based but are hands-on or active opportunities to learn more about scripture and prayer. What if we had a family-oriented session? What if we offered exposure to practical tips for integrating scripture and prayer into our active lives?
- What if we identified the fundamentals we want people to know about scripture and prayer and then doled out those fundamentals in bite-sized portions through social media, mentions in worship, and at-home activity kits?
- What about pop-up Bible studies? Coordinated efforts to celebrate scripture and prayers through our existing small groups? Social gatherings that are tweaked to celebrate the disciplines? What if we just had a contest to think up new ways to integrate scripture and prayer?
- What if we had a designated person or a designated team whose sole challenge was to think about all the issues identified in this blog?
What are the ways in which your congregation celebrates and encourages scripture and prayer? Do you have a well-organized path to spiritual maturity in these areas? Do you integrate scripture and prayer into worship in fresh ways? Share your challenges. Inspire us with your successes!