On Loving Jesus and Going to Prayer Meetings image

On Loving Jesus and Going to Prayer Meetings

Here's a quotation you may have heard before, especially if you're from a charismatic or more pietist background. I don't know who originally said it, but it's quoted approvingly in Jim Cymbala's generally excellent Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire. Have a look at it, and then I'll say four things about it.

“You can tell how popular a church is by who comes on Sunday morning.  You can tell how popular the pastor or evangelist is by who comes on Sunday night.  But you can tell how popular Jesus is by who comes to the prayer meeting.”

Firstly: bunk. The number of people at a prayer meeting does not tell you how much people like Jesus; it tells you how much people like prayer meetings. Some people love Jesus and hate prayer meetings. Some people love Jesus and find prayer meetings difficult to attend, for all sorts of good reasons. So there’s that.

Secondly, if you’re a leader, it actually tells you something even more specific than that: it tells you how much they like your prayer meetings. It may be that the people in our churches love Jesus, and actually love well-led prayer meetings, but that we don’t lead prayer meetings very well. Maybe they’re boring. Maybe they’re scary. Maybe they’re self-indulgent, confusing, unfocused, chock-full of notices, exhausting, waffly, too loud, too quiet, intimidating for new people, insufficiently animated, or something else. So although it may be comforting for us, as pastors, to reflect wistfully that the people just don’t love Jesus as much as we do, it may simply be that we make a pig’s ear of leading them, and people vote with their feet. (On the other hand, it may not. But it’s probably worth asking them before assuming they’re not spiritual enough.)

Thirdly, it’s rather manipulative to talk like this, and not just about prayer, but about anything (“you can tell how much people love Jesus by how many people share the gospel with their friends in a week / give above the tithe / go on foreign mission trips / read their Bible daily / etc”). I know there are people in my church who never come to prayer meetings, but pray more than I do. I know there are people in my church who never come to prayer meetings, but have a deeper spirituality than I do. And even if I didn’t, I shouldn’t be talking like this anyway, because it risks manipulating people into doing what I want them to do. If I want a proxy for how much people love Jesus (why?), then I should start with something like keeping his commands (John 14:21), or loving one another (1 John 4:7-8). Attendance at a meeting isn’t really a metric of very much at all.

And fourthly, if I may attempt a bit of sacred cow-tipping (at least in my church circles): where in the Bible does it say we have to have prayer meetings? Prayer, yes. Corporate prayer, yes. Prayer in a meeting specifically designated for prayer and nothing else - or, more likely, singing, prayer, prophetic ministry and exhortation - no. Most churches of my acquaintance don’t have regular evening midweek meetings specifically for Bible teaching, or communion, or singing, so why do we think we cannot survive without specific meetings for prayer? (I should say at this point that I absolutely love prayer meetings, I love leading them, I think they’re among the best times we have together as a church, we had one last night, and about a third of our adult congregation turn out for them. So I’m not saying we shouldn’t have prayer meetings. I’m just saying that it’s strange to treat them as inviolable elements of our church life together, when we don’t do the same for other aspects of corporate worship. My guess is that’s because our Sunday liturgy doesn’t include much corporate prayer, but that’s a subject for another day.)

So there are four ways in which I’d push back on that oft-quoted remark. Having said all that, if faced with the choice between Jim Cymbala’s prayer life and mine, I’d definitely take his.

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