Where Two or Three Are Gathered

I grew up in a church that made prayer a priority. I know many churches that still do this, but I know that some churches today just leave prayer up to the individual Christian. They may open the service with a prayer, and close with a prayer, and even offer a prayer service in the mid-week, but they do not focus on prayer as a congregation. With many churches, corporate prayer doesn’t seem very practical– they are just too large, or too focused on spending their time in worship. But I think something of value is lost when the church doesn’t come together in prayer.

Prayer IS an individual pursuit. It should be part of each Christian’s daily walk. And most of what I write (and practice) about prayer happens personally. But Jesus practiced both personal and corporate prayer. Even in His agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, He wanted close friends to be nearby praying, rather than sleeping (see Matthew 26:36-46 and Luke 22: 39-46). When instructing His disciples in how to pray, He used the term, “Our Father,” not “My Father.” Christianity , including prayer, cannot be practiced in isolation. We need to pray for others, and with others, and be prayed for by others!

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In the small country church where I grew up, prayer was woven into the service. Prayer requests would be shared, and people would take turns praying aloud, until one prayer leader would close the prayer time with an “Amen!” In the church where I currently attend, we still share prayer requests on-line, and a list of requests gets sent out once a week. Occasionally, we will break into small groups during service to pray for particular focus or a specific request. Additionally, we have a mid-week prayer meeting, where we spend an hour just praying as a small group.

Why do I emphasize the need for group or corporate prayer? Over the years, I have seen many benefits:

  1. I love “hearing” the hearts of others. We don’t all pray exactly the same. Even if we are reciting a prayer (like The Lord’s Prayer) there are different voices, different inflections, different tones, that bring a richness and diversity to prayer. And that is a great reminder that God is the God of ALL of us, even as He is the God of EACH of us. He is OUR God, every bit as much as He is MY God.
  2. There is comfort and even power in praying together. My personal prayer may be sincere, but it is usually silent, and may be influenced by my surroundings, my mood, my distracting thoughts, etc.. But there is a different atmosphere when two or three (or more) are taking turns praying, adding to the thoughts and prayers of others, and pouring out their hearts in concert with other believers. I get a broader perspective when I pray with others. I hear more than just my own voice and my own thoughts. It doesn’t change whether or not God listens to my prayer, but it changes the way I think and feel– it isn’t just “MY” prayer– it is “OUR” prayer.
  3. I learn more about prayer by practicing with others. I know many people who will not pray in a group, because they feel their prayers are “lacking” somehow. And this is a dangerous way to think! I have learned amazing lessons of faith from simple prayers; amazing lessons of doctrine from eloquent prayers; amazing insight from broken and contrite prayers; and even lessons from “runaway” prayers that go on and on. And praying in a group is not about how much you say, but by how much you are present in the moment.
  4. Corporate prayer is a rich tradition. Jewish priests would lead the entire nation of Israel in prayer during various festivals. Many of the psalms are written as prayer-songs for a congregation to sing together. The early church made prayer a part of their meeting together (see Matthew 18:20, Acts 2:40-47, Romans 15:6, others…)
  5. Corporate prayer strengthens my faith and the faith of others. Intellectually, I “know” that God listens to and answers my prayers, but when I pray with others, it strengthens my experiential knowledge that God is listening– because I am listening, and being listened to!
  6. Corporate prayer challenges my perspective in relation to my own sinfulness and God’s grace. Corporate prayer should not be used as a “True Confessions” session, where we try to outdo each other in confessing secret sins or wallowing in self-righteous recitations. But it should bring us into a realistic awareness of our very human nature, and of God’s amazing Grace. Corporate prayer takes us out of our “self” and focuses on God’s sovereignty in ways that personal prayer sometimes misses. Corporate prayer tends to focus on gratitude, humility, and thinking of others more highly than yourself. And that is often a stepping stone to confession and the awareness of God’s forgiveness.
  7. Corporate prayer lends itself to structure. That’s not to take away from unstructured and spontaneous prayer, but corporate prayer tends to have a stated purpose, and sometimes a stated format. From “round robin” prayer, where people pray in a particular order around a circle; to “popcorn” prayer, where people jump in and take turns until a certain time has elapsed; to structured prayer, where people pray in a strict order and with definite purpose for a slotted time, corporate prayer tends to be more disciplined that personal prayer. That doesn’t make it better or worse, but it is a different way to pray, which can help foster discipline in other areas.
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Are you part of a prayer group at your church or in your community? If so, cherish this rich opportunity. If not, make a point of connecting with other believers– at church, in your community, or even on-line. Share requests. Set aside time to pray together, or even separately, but at the same time. Live stream prayer. Pray with someone over the phone, if you don’t have a prayer group or congregation nearby.

It will change your prayer life!

For more information about corporate prayer: https://www.allaboutprayer.org/corporate-prayer.htm https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/prayer/reasons-why-corporate-prayer-is-powerful-and-essential.html

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.”

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