Recently I've been scouring the book of Acts to reverse engineer the Early Church's "secret sauce" recipe. What made their practice so dynamic, so demonstrative and so compelling?
Over the next few posts, I'm going to look at the elements of true Christian practice--both corporate worship and private practice--that together season our Christianity with God's secret sauce (I bet you've never heard that metaphor before!).
I want to begin this short series with the ingredient I am presently most concerned about.
Acts 4:24 recounts a practice that was common in the early church, extended seasons of corporate prayer:
"...they raised their voice to God with one accord..."
This reference shows the automatic response of the church to challenging circumstances, but there are several other Acts references that demonstrate true corporate prayer was a staple of early Christian worship services (see Acts 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, etc.).
Corporate prayer is when we together, in concert, call on the Lord. It is a unifying, verbal confession of the existence of God (Heb 11:6) and a spiritual expression of humility and dependence. This is a time for new believers to be mentored in their prayer lives, for mature believers to grow and for crusty ones to be de-barnacled; everyone--except the spectator--is involved and is practicing what they believe.
How does the Acts model superimpose over 21st century American Pentecostalism in general (please understand that this is a sweeping generalization)? It seems that open-ended corporate prayer has become a thing of the past in many circles, having been substituted by a priestly (or pastoral) prayer time only. Don't misunderstand me; I believe that our shepherds should publicly (and privately) pray. However, this priestly prayer time does not fulfill the need for a group of worshippers spending time "raising their voices to God in one accord."
A current trend is for churches to cancel their Sunday night services because of poor attendance. I can understand renovating an obsolete schedule to become more effective; there's nothing sacred about a time slot. But what about the open-ended times of prayer that characterize a Sunday night service? Do they get cancelled too? We need to maintain the key element of corporate prayer consistently in our church services! And don't just move it to become an optional "only if you're exceptionally needy" bonus feature after a service dismisses. Corporate prayer is not an optional part of biblical worship; it's an essential part.
Our modern consumer-driven church models tend to give people what they want rather than what they need. How can we expect to transact Acts-style church services in one hour? Thirty minutes of singing, ten minutes for announcements, pastoral prayer and offering then finally, twenty minutes of preaching. Where's the secret sauce? That's like saying, "I know I need to eat, but I only want to digest the bare minimum to keep my vital signs going."
We must ask ourselves this question: Does our typical worship service place value upon the core Christian practices of prayer, public reading of scripture, teaching of the Word and worship? If we cancel events that headline corporate prayer--such as Sunday nights, we MUST make sure that we include it elsewhere in the course of each Sunday morning service. If there's no time in our present schedule, modify it; dispense with another part of the service schedule that is not biblically mandated to make room for something that God will bless.
What do we value most? What gets the most time in many Pentecostal worship services? Singing worship songs. I love to worship by singing songs, but that is only one ingredient in the sauce. Some churches have ten minutes of greeting time. I have personally witnessed announcements lasting over twenty minutes! That's a lot of coercing for the bake sale!
The people we lead learn what we personally value by what we live out before them. I learned to pray because my parents prayed with me and my childhood pastor, Rev. Phil Bongiorno, publicly modeled his dynamic prayer life before the church during seasons of corporate prayer.
Is it enough that we tell people they need to pray but don't give them a consistent opportunity to practice it together?
Let's discuss this some more. I look forward to your input.