Where Two or Three Are Gathered…

Something curious has been happening to “The Church” in the age of COVID. In many areas, public gatherings have been limited or even prohibited, leaving local churches scrambling to re-invent their worship services and other programs. For a few weeks last summer, my local church was “closed” to the public, but sermons and worship songs were filmed and sent out as podcasts. Families could stay at home and still “come to church.” Since our congregation is made up of many large families and many elderly couples who are at high risk for getting or spreading COVID, this seemed like a safe alternative. However, for those who are single or just a couple living alone, we were encouraged to find another couple or family and “do church together.” (My husband and I watched the podcasts, but we didn’t gather with any other couples.) I knew of several small churches that continued to have “regular” live services– with congregations of fewer than 50, and plenty of space, they could meet the state guidelines. Others had “Zoom” services, or live streaming services for their sermons and a small praise team. David and I visited a couple of small churches, and, as our church opened up for limited seating, we happily attended in person. The larger the congregation, the more difficult it has been to have “live” church. Many are still struggling to find a “safe” alternative for congregational worship.

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Most of the churches in my area are currently open and trying to “get back to normal.” But something is still different. My husband and I went to Easter Service this year, and it felt really good to worship with familiar faces, even if they were still behind masks. There weren’t as many hugs or handshakes, and not as much “fellowship” before or after the service. The Joy of Easter was mingled with caution; the joy of seeing others was mixed with the fear that some familiar faces were still “missing.” We waved at familiar faces, and we sang familiar songs. But for me, at least, it seemed that we were still isolated from others. We “showed up” for church; we didn’t really “gather together.” I don’t know that anyone else felt what I did– and I don’t think this was any “lack” in our local congregation. But I think it will take some time and effort to reclaim “togetherness” in the sense that we used to take for granted at church.

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As I reflect on all this, I feel a sense of sadness and loss. And yet, I also sense a wonderful opportunity to rebuild and redefine our church community; one that remains close, not based on familiarity or shared worship style or similarity of situation or culture, but IN CHRIST! “Where two or three are gathered”…(see Matthew 18:20) We often use this verse as a promise of God’s presence whenever we have a service or a fellowship meeting. But the verse reads, “For where two or three are GATHERED IN MY NAME, there am I among them.”(ESV– emphasis added). This seems obvious, but I think we have a great opportunity to reflect and re-think what it means to “gather” in Christ’s name.

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We have amazing opportunities to “gather” via social media, live streaming, digital sharing, etc., with brothers and sisters around the world. We have the opportunity to develop friendships and relationships around the world, and worship with thousands of others simultaneously. And that’s wonderful. But Jesus’s promise is not made to mega-gatherings of believers “showing up” for a worship “experience.” Jesus promised to be where “two or three” are gathered in His name. And that doesn’t just mean that we need to get involved in a small group Bible study or “plug in” to a small fellowship group– though both are great opportunities.

But what happens when Jesus shows up at the grocery store when you run into your neighbor and share a prayer request, or at the restaurant, when your family says grace, inspiring others to do the same? What happens when “IN MY NAME” becomes a bigger part of our everyday life? What happens when that friend on social media becomes a prayer partner, instead of someone who just “likes” our jokes and photos? What happens when we make an effort to gather with a few neighbors for Bible study– even if we all go to different churches for worship?

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Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (ESV via biblegateway.com)
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I confess that COVID has shown me how much I’ve been living life and pursuing prayer in a bubble. I need to “gather” and interact one-on-one and in small groups with other believers. How much of Christ’s presence have I halved by hoarding it to myself or searching for Him in the church pews–how much more I can pursue relationships that include and invite Jesus to be “among” us, rather than just “with me.”

Coming Out of the Closet

For anyone who is reading this expecting a big announcement or a shocking confession– please don’t read too much into the title…this is a blog about a lifestyle of prayer, not about gender identity or sexual orientation.  I want to talk about the benefits of communal prayer as opposed to prayer that is deeply personal, and takes place in isolation.

There is a time and place for solitary meditation and prayer, and it should become our habit and practice to meet with God daily.  But we are told that we should also meet with and interact with others– and this includes sharing our prayer life.  Many people have a small group of friends, or even one special friend that they pray with on a regular basis.  Others (like me) are “lone rangers.”  We rarely meet with others specifically to pray or even share prayer concerns.  I get notices on FB or e-mail, or in the church’s weekly newsletter, but it isn’t the same.  Just as God wants to hear our hearts and share communication and communion with us, he wants us to share closeness with others.

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Why isn’t it enough to just go into the closet (or other quiet space) to pray?  What are the benefits of praying with a small group?  Here are some:

  • we need social interaction– FACE-TO-FACE interaction.  We need to have eye contact, hear inflections and tones of voice from others, and to have others listen to ours.  We need to share more than just stories on a screen– we need to share laughter, tears, and common ground.  We make deeper friendships when we share concerns (not gossip), struggles, and triumphs (not bragging).  And we can share burdens, recipes!, helpful tips, jokes, and more
  • meeting with others helps us keep our perspective–when we are alone, our problems become bigger; our joys fade, and our talents waste away.  Meeting together helps shrink our worry and pride, ignite our hope, and drive our confidence.  It also opens up our world to the experiences and concerns of others and teaches us about differences and commonalities
  • it strengthens our faith to hear from others who are “in the same” place in their walk; it encourages us to hear from others who have been “through the fire”; it reminds us to be grateful, and gives us an opportunity to build someone up if we have been in their shoes; and it amazes us to hear again what a mighty God we serve, and how he has been faithful
  • it creates a time to break us out of our routine– whether that routine is zooming or “glooming”– we need to mix things up and get out of our rut
  • God commands us to meet together, to live in unity, and to lift each other up

Can you think of other benefits?  Are you in the habit of praying with others?  If not, you may be wondering– how do I find others?  What are the ground rules (if any)?  Are there issues I should be aware of?

Once again, I can list a few that come to mind or that have arisen from experience:

To find others:

  • Join an existing group– a Bible study group that includes prayer time; a weekly or monthly prayer meeting group; a special interest group within a local church– Moms of Pre-schoolers, or a Dorcas group, or a volunteer group that includes prayer
  • Start up a group!  Meet weekly, twice a week, monthly– whenever and whatever works for you and a few others.  Don’t be discouraged if there are only two in your “group”; and don’t feel bad about keeping your group limited– you may find enough interested people to form two or three groups in your neighborhood!
  • Think outside the box– you may stumble on to a group during your commute to work each day; in your child’s play group; at the gym; at a neighborhood church you have never visited (it doesn’t mean you are being “unfaithful” to your church to reach out to fellow brothers or sisters throughout the week!)

Ground rules:

  • Groups should have some structure, leadership, and accountability
  • Participants (including leaders) should be careful not to confuse gossip for “concerns”, or use the group for a sounding board, on-going therapy, or a captive audience for their personal drama or their political or social agenda
  • Group leaders need to create boundaries, so participants feel free to share real burdens and concerns but take responsibility for others’ privacy and vulnerability
  • Groups should be open to visitors, new members, and seekers of all backgrounds

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Issues to watch for–Any group that is made up of humans can fall victim to unhealthy and unwholesome practices.  Just because a group meets with good intentions and calls itself a prayer group doesn’t mean that it is a “safe” place to meet.  Keep your eyes and ears open for the following:

  • Groups that make you feel uncomfortable for showing up, or for sharing (or not sharing every one of) your authentic concerns, your questions, or your feedback.  Sometimes, we can feel uncomfortable sharing about ourselves because we feel shame or guilt about our past or about our lack of knowledge or experience; sometimes we’re defensive or hypersensitive because we’re in a new situation.  But if you are being made to feel ashamed or isolated or patronized, especially if you are being labeled or discriminated against, get out.  LEAVE– shake the dust off of your shoes as you go  (One caveat here– there are groups that meet for specific issues (see below)…if the group is meeting to pray as parents of toddlers, and you aren’t a parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle of a toddler– not only will you feel uncomfortable, but so will the rest of the group.  You should still leave this group, but you can forego the shoe shaking…)
  • Groups that have one or two members who dominate and intimidate the other members.  Leaders need to provide boundaries and structure, but they should not squash authentic dialogue or force everyone to listen to someone else’s “true confessions” (especially if it’s a repeat of the last meeting!)  This is more a “comfort zone” issue than the first one– some groups just have a couple of “talkers” and a couple of “listeners”–the point here is that there needs to be a balance so that all members have a chance to contribute
  • .arrogant
  • Groups that get “taken over” or sidetracked by a single issue– unless that is what you signed up for.  If you are a group whose purpose is prayer, it’s not safe to assume that everyone in your group will also want to go on a protest march or volunteer an entire Saturday at the soup kitchen.  There’s nothing wrong with other activities, but it shouldn’t be a requirement of your prayer group (see above)
  • Groups that are only “token” prayer groups–they may “share” what’s going on in their families as “requests” but they don’t actually take time to pray about them in the group setting.  They talk and eat, and maybe even say “spiritual” things.  There’s nothing wrong with friends getting together, whether they pray or not, but if you’re going to call it a prayer group or a prayer meeting….
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  • That brings me to the group that uses “prayer” as a cover for gossip or grumbling.  Prayer should be constructive and God-centered.  If it isn’t either, it isn’t really prayer.  Even if it sounds positive and holy, if it is centered on how “blessed” you are, or what you know God needs to do in someone else’s life– it isn’t really prayer unless His name is magnified and ours is minimized.
  • Any group that does not honor God’s word, God’s sovereignty, or God’s goodness–Not every group that prays is praying to Almighty God, in the name of Jesus Christ, or for His will to be accomplished.  While prayer groups should be open to all people, and there are wonderful opportunities for ecumenical and all-faith prayer in the public forum, a weekly or monthly prayer group is probably not the best venue.  That being said, I recommend exposure to various Christian prayer styles and practices– formal and ritual prayer, spirit-filled worship prayer, gospel-infused crying out, simple “popcorn” utterances, and eloquent prayers that roll off righteous tongues in an engaging crescendo, punctuated with holy hushes.

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