I have been fluctuating recently between my regular church (that I have blogged about previously) and other, more mainstream churches that would be closer to being considered ‘mega churches.’ While I really appreciate the larger, more contemporary places and the social benefits they offer, I have never really been satisfied by their services. The music is awesome, people are just great, but something just never really connected for me tat those places. Admittedly, I have been influenced significantly by Christian anarchism and voluntary simplicity, which both seem to be fundamentally opposed to ‘corporate’ atmosphere of most mega churches, but I am pretty sure that hasn’t been the root of my displeasure. The other day, I realized what it was that kept me from falling head over heels for those places; prayer.
At most churches I have frequented (though of course not all), there is a big emphasis on prayer, and for good reason. Christendom is a community in communication with God, and how else might we communicate, right? The fact that these mega churches pray is not what I find unfulfilling. Instead, it is the content of their prayers. I hadn’t really noticed it before about a week ago, but the prayers of these larger churches have been verifiably distinct from the smaller ones I have attended (notably my own UCC church now, but also the Catholic Mass I attended in Camden, NJ, among a few others). The larger churches are very thankful for what they have been endowed with, and there is no mistake in their minds where it came from (hint: starts with a G and ends in O-D).
Prayer at these larger facilities is also often a lengthy affair. I clocked one prayer a few months ago at over six minutes. I know we throw time around a bit, but think about five minutes; it ain’t no laughing matter for a guy that has joint problems. Most of this time seems to be focused on thanking and asking for stuff, mostly external things. By that I mean the things asked for often, upon careful consideration, have nothing to do with those praying. For example, one pastor asked that the situation in Darfur be settled peacefully. I mean, that’s awesome, a church asking that something so violent be resolved nonviolently! But the prayer held no personal imperative for those listening, it basically asked that God intervene in some way, apart from those gathered in Jesus’ name (in fact, the community which refers to itself as His very body).
Contrast that with the prayers I have been met with at places like Crossroads and Sacred Heart in Camden. There is often a significant use of the word “we.” To use the example above, instead of God doing something about that thing over there in Africa, the smaller churches would use language that had a deliberate implication on our own behavior. For example, a prayer at Crossroads might go like this: “Creator God, help us see our complicity in the violence in Darfur. Help us find the motivation and courage to intervene on Your behalf, to bring peace and justice where there is so little.” Of course, I would be hard pressed to quote directly from a recent bulletin (mostly because they go straight in the recycling bins after the service). Something about the content of these prayers helps me understand both that I have a hand in its perpetuation, but also in its resolution. Maybe I had something to do with allowing such atrocities to occur (have I allowed my nation to remain silent, has our representative form of government inadvertently or indirectly funded the aggressors, has my consumption contributed in some way?)
What made me realize these subtle differences in perspective can be found in the book of Luke. In chapter 18, there are a slew of parables that I like for all the worst reasons (cuz they make me think of my own faults and insist upon a personal transformation). Most important to this subject is the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The pharisee can only think to thank God. Not so horrible, right? There’s a lot to be thankful of! But what does he neglect to notice in the course of his gratitude platitudes? This poor guy wrapped up in a system that has him stealing from his own people to put food on his table, who has no difficulty recognizing in himself the imperative and opportunity to change. “Forgive me, a sinner!” he pleads. The good news is hard to catch in this parable, but its there. After all, who goes home justified and fulfilled?
This isn’t a dig on mega churches, since I have been to many services that are just amazing. I think it’s worth considering, however, that in contemporary services, we keep our prayers short and our confessions long.