Helping others to pray (Steven Croft)

Steven Croft reflects on helping others to pray.

Two men prayingOne of the major public themes of 2007 was prayer. As I watched the news I was moved again and again by a rising tide of prayer vigils and special events around major crises and tragedies. The word prayer was on the lips of politicians, public figures and celebrities more often than I can remember. Themes of faith and hope intertwine in the single released by X Factor winner Leon Jackson. ‘When You Believe’, currently at the top of the UK singles chart.

In November, Tear Fund released the results of a major survey to mark Global Poverty Week: ‘Prayer in the UK: Be part of a miracle’.  They discovered that 20 million adults in the UK pray regularly. All of them find it helpful. At least half believe that prayer makes a difference in their lives, in the lives of their families and friends and in the life of the world: prayer changes things. Encouraging people to pray as part of their response to global poverty strikes a chord.

A large number of different research strands now demonstrate that Britain is becoming a more spiritual place again. A growing section of our population is more open to experience of God; more open to prayer. That trend has been building for a number of years and probably has some way still to go. The ministry of spiritual directors is in great demand from those who are not regular churchgoers as well as those who are. Retreat centres and religious communities are attracting a growing number of visitors. This search for spiritual experience and connection showed itself again over Christmas in attendance at church and cathedral services.

Candle in front of sheetMission is finding out what God is doing and joining in. So if part of what God is doing is stirring people to pray, how can we as a church look to join in what God is doing and support this vast number of people in their prayers?

First, I think we need to recognise honestly that many of us within the church are starting a long way back in this respect. Our services are no longer recognised by many as places of spiritual depth and encounter with God. John Drane has argued for some years that we have become a ‘secular’ church in a ‘spiritual’ society. In many churches of all traditions there may be little expectation of encountering God through public worship, in the ministry of the word or in any other way. We need to clear away the clutter at the start of a new year, not just in the space we use for worship (though that is important), but in our liturgy and songs, and especially in our notices.  Silence and space to be open to God and respond to God’s grace will be vital. Whether our meeting place is an ancient chapel, a school hall or a cafĂ©, will those who gather find a sense of reverence and of God’s presence in our midst?

Second, we need I think to work on creating particular times and spaces and symbolic actions to help people to pray. Discovering these will only come about through listening to what people find helpful and a sense of experiment. These opportunities to pray seem to work best when they are offered in a way which is open and available to people to join in as they feel is right. However, it is also important to provide help and support in terms of the words and actions used. We are too used, I think, to the idea that prayer together is about sitting or kneeling in a pew with head bowed and eyes closed while someone at the front reads prepared intercessions.

Many established congregations and fresh expressions of church are now experimenting with prayer stations: different points in a building where people can come and pray in a range of ways which engage the senses. These stations have been traditionally part of cathedrals and churches in a more catholic tradition for many years and are a very good example of the ancient-future dynamic at work in fresh expressions of church. For all or part of the service, the congregation move around these different stations and engage with them in prayers of confession or intercession or silent reflection. There may be at each station a symbolic action such as lighting a candle, placing a stone on a cairn or making the sign of the cross with water. There may be the opportunity for laying on of hands or anointing for healing and grace.

Yellow candleMoving to the prayer station and engaging in these simple actions or using the words provided engages people in prayer and offers them words and actions which articulate in a deep way the spiritual longing inside them. Shaping these prayer stations draws out new gifts of creativity in those who develop them. Sometimes they can be permanent and occupy a corner of the church for a season for all who come in and use the building. Sometimes they are just for one moment or occasion.  They can be helpful in ordinary times of thanksgiving and intercession but also immensely powerful in a time of shared grief, intercession or tragedy.

One of the most memorable acts of worship I shared in 2007 was at the Portsmouth Diocesan Conference where a fresh expression of church called the Friday Fridge led the conference in Compline entirely through the use of prayer stations and static displays. Every part of the order of service was used. The act of worship was profoundly engaging. Some people moved around in silence. Others talked to each other as they explored the different parts of the service. Many different gifts were used in preparing the worship. For me, a traditional liturgy I have always loved was given new depth and meaning.

Make it one of your resolutions for 2008 to find out how people outside your church community say their prayers and how you can help and support them in their journey.

What is a church? (Steven Croft)

Steven Croft asks, what is a church?

Here is a game to play with your home group, your PCC or over dinner with some Christian friends. You could even adapt it for a sermon. The aim is to help you think more deeply about what it means to be church.

Manchester churchIt's a vital question, whether you are aiming to grow an existing church or develop a fresh expression. Before you can create or develop something you have to have some idea what it is. Imagine building a car without realising that it needs an engine, trying to put up a house without foundations or baking bread without yeast. All of us in some way are involved in building the church as part of our discipleship. Yet many Christians would be more familiar with the essential elements in a victoria sponge than they are with the really essential elements in a church. 

You will need to make sure everyone has a copy of the list in the box below and a pen. Ask the group to break into pairs and go through the different attributes. If you have plenty of time, invite people to:

  1. Circle the elements which you would you say are essential to form a church
  2. Underline the elements which are desirable and helpful
  3. Delete the elements which are unhelpful
  4. Leave unmarked the elements which are neutral or depend on context
  5. Feel free to add other essential elements

When you have been through the lists, compare your answers.

If you are short of time then just concentrate on the first task: see if you can reach a short list you can agree on in terms of the essential elements in forming a church.

Pews A font/baptistry Sunday worship
Ordained ministers Communion vessels Committees
Hymn books A photocopier Small groups
People Guitars Instant coffee
A building The risen Christ The Scriptures
A pulpit Sacraments Food
Printed Bibles Bishops A choir
An organ Connection and oversight Robes
A data projector Common Worship Mission to God's world 
Prayer meetings Lay ministers  

As I've played this game with different groups over the last six months, I have come to believe that just three elements are part of the essence of what it means to be the church. They come up in every set of responses. My answers are in the box at the bottom of the page. Resist the temptation to read them until you've at least had a go at the game yourself. I may be wrong! I also believe that three other elements are essential to maintain and build a healthy community. Everything else is either desirable, merely convenient or helpful or not according to context.

It is often the non-essential elements of church which take up so much time and energy

You may or may not agree with my answers (and please let me know). However, what often emerges from the exercise is surprising agreement about these elements and a realisation that it is often the non-essential elements which take up so much time and energy.

The second part of the game is to begin to explore more deeply how we decide what is right and wrong about the life of the church. A good way to begin is to invite people to suggest their own key verses for thinking about the life of the Christian community. Where do they go in Scripture and in the Christian tradition for thinking about what it means to be the people of God?

There is no right answer here. In fact, the more places we look, the more our understanding grows. The more we look, the more we discover that our understanding of the church can't be contained by just one proof text or just one summary of Christian teaching (such as the marks of the church in the creed). But here, to finish, is one key passage which I continue to find helpful.

Bible and handIn Mark 3.14 we read of Jesus' call of the twelve disciples. This is a passage which speaks hints of new Israel: it is deliberately about the forming of a new community. Mark has distilled the essential elements of what it means to be the community of disciples – the beginnings of the church. What are the essential elements?

'And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out…'

The essence of being church according to Mark is people being called by Jesus to live in the rhythm of being with Christ and being sent. If you read on in the verse you discover what we are sent to do: to proclaim the good news and to overcome evil in the world.

This is the kind of community we are called to become and to build.

My own answers to the game:

Three essential elements in being the church: people, the risen Christ and mission to God's world.

Three essential elements to sustain the church: the Scriptures; the sacraments and connection and oversight.