Meeting People Where they Pray

Every year I’m struck by how many people attend our Service of Remembrance and Thanksgiving. Along with our Christingle Service and Crib Service it is one of the three acts of worship that are most popular with those who don’t regularly come to church. I wonder why that is? I have a few ideas, but I’d be interested to hear what you think.

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My feeling is that there are several factors. One is that people are individually invited to this service. Another is that they hear prayers in which people they have loved are named. The power of names is evident in both. Names make both the invitation and the service personal – they say that this is for you.

Much of our worship probably doesn’t feel that way to newcomers or those who are unfamiliar with church. In fact, I suspect that it may feel rather the opposite – something that is for others. And to an extent it is. An old saying is that worship is an activity of the redeemed, and certainly eucharistic worship may be more mystifying than mystical to those who are not already committed to the Christian way of life.

Nevertheless, I wonder if we can learn something from the power of names that we’ve already seen at play in connection with the Service of Remembrance and Thanksgiving. Why not invite someone to come along to church with you? Why not do it personally, and by name?

Another factor lying behind the popularity of this afternoon’s service, I suspect, is that it connects with people’s own natural prayerfulness. Surveys have shown that the number of people in Britain who believe in God and regularly pray far exceeds those who regularly attend church.

Those of us who regularly lead others in prayer need to take this to heart. My own experience is that the prayers of people who are grieving are more raw, less articulate, and more openly needy than what we offer week by week in our worship. Beautifully written prayers have an important place, but so too do barely coherent moans of longing.

All of this echoes one of my favourite paraphrases of the words of Jesus – ‘Blessed are those who know their need of God’. Often, like the older brother in the parable, those who spend their lives in church are most blind to their need, enjoying a constant but domesticated reassurance that makes extravagant expressions of faith seem vulgar. Maybe they are, but Jesus is clear that God’s priority will always be those on the outside. If we can make our public worship connect more powerfully with the heartfelt prayers of those who find their way here on any given Sunday, even if that isn’t quite what we like or what we need, well then that’s all to the good.

May God bless you all,