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Praying when church is boring

A sermon by Rod Benson

Matthew 6:9-13

What do you do when church is boring? What do you do when participating in worship with others no longer satisfies? There are times when each of us grows bored or dissatisfied with the way things are. We may yearn for the good old days, and those old days may well have been very good!

We may wrestle with unanswered prayer, and the problem of a God who seems not to answer our prayers. We may not like the style of music, or the choice of songs, or the informality, or the size of the building, or the air temperature, or that person over there. We may long for a bigger vision than the one we’re pursuing, or a stronger commitment to the mission of God, or more people our own age, or indeed a more inspiring sermon every Sunday.

We may just be thinking about lunch.

Whatever it is that saps your enthusiasm for worship that delivers a sense of the presence of God, and Bible teaching that inspires spiritual growth and nourishes your inner and outer life, and fellowship that instils a sense of vibrant community and genuine care, and kids ministries that are both effective and exciting, the solution is not to give up and search for another place to meet your needs, but to pray.

Yet so often that is not our natural and normal response to “problems” in the church, which are really problems in our heart, our inner life.

Herb Miller writes in his book Connecting with God:

When a nightclub opened on Main Street, the only church in that small town organized an all-night prayer meeting. The members asked God to burn down the club. Within a few minutes, lightning struck the club, and it caught fire and burned to the ground. The owner sued the church, and the church denied responsibility.

After hearing legal arguments from both sides of the case, the judge arrived at a verdict and said, “It seems that wherever the guilt may lie, the nightclub owner believes in prayer, while the church doesn’t.”[1]

Jesus believed in prayer, and he taught his disciples to pray a model prayer, a pattern to be used “as is” or to serve as a framework for longer or more specific prayers. The prayer, known as “The Lord’s Prayer,” is recorded in Matthew 6:9-13, in the first of five major discourses in Matthew’s Gospel.

Some of the teaching in the “Sermon on the Mount,” as it is called, is deeply challenging, and there is a long history of debate as to whether the ethical teaching is achievable – or whether it is intentionally so lofty as to be unattainable and its primary purpose is to highlight the inherent moral bankruptcy and ethical weakness of humankind, pointing us to Christ as our only hope of salvation.

Others view it as a kind of Christian manifesto, intended to be interpreted and implemented in local contexts by all who seek to follow Jesus in practical discipleship. I believe Lithgow-born Anglican Bible scholar Leon Morris has it right when he says:

If we take [the Sermon on the Mount] seriously, we realise that we cannot attain it and therefore cannot merit salvation. It is the end of the way of law and drives us to seek salvation in Christ. But when we have received this salvation as God’s free gift, the sermon shows us how we should live in the service of our gracious God . . . No matter how far we have gone along the Christian road the sermon tells us that there is more ahead of us.[2]

This both encouragement and challenge in those words. Taken either way, as a sign-post to Christ or as a Christian manifesto, the section on prayer is clear, practical and easily implemented.

We all need to pray to God in heaven, and this (says Jesus) is how to do it. As Raymond Brown observes,

To be prayerless is to be guilty of the worst form of practical atheism.  We are saying that we believe in God but we can do without him.  It makes us careless about our former sins and heedless of our immediate needs.[3]

Jesus was in the habit of praying all night (Lk 6:12). He taught his followers “that they should always pray and not grow weary” (Lk 18:1). But here is a short, structured, comprehensive prayer, easily memorised, a foundation and guide to help us pray often and well – especially when we feel church is boring and unsatisfying.

There is nothing inherently wrong with repetition in prayer, or formal written prayers. Jesus himself prayed using a repeated form of words (Mt 26:44). What Jesus cautions against in Matthew 6 is “any kind of prayer with the mouth when the mind is not engaged.”[4]

I want to suggest that there are three important purposes of prayer, evident in this passage. First, we pray in order to worship our Father in heaven, who already knows what we need. God does not need us to explain what he doesn’t know, but he finds joy in hearing the voices of his daughters and sons. It’s about establishing and growing a personal and intimate relationship with the Creator of the universe – nothing less.

“I used to write in my daily calendar,” says John Riches, “ ‘7.00 – 7.30 am: prayer.’  But many times I passed that up.  It was one more thing to pass by that day.  Now I write ‘7.00 – 7.30 am: God.’  Somehow that’s a little harder to neglect.”[5]

The first half of the Lord’s Prayer is all about God. It begins with those beautiful, astonishing, grace-laden words, “Our Father in heaven…”

No one had ever addressed God like that. In these instructions on prayer, Jesus was doing something completely new: he authorised shocking intimacy with God. Paul got it (see Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6). Have you?

When you feel a holy dissatisfaction with the way things are, or you imagine a better future for yourself and your loved ones and your church, then pray to our Father in heaven.Our God is personal, good and great. Be sure you know who it is to whom you pray! Prepare for prayer by recalling the kind of God you have come to know through Jesus Christ.

The second purpose of prayer is to “open channels through which blessings, which are always ready, may flow.”[6] The heart of the prayer, and the solution to the problem of boredom and the self-centredness and consumer mentality we catch from our culture, is verse 10.

The kingdom of God was inaugurated with the advent and teaching of Jesus (Mk 1:14-15). The time has come! The good news has arrived! But its fulness awaits his second advent, when Jesus returns as he promised (Jn 14:1-3; 1 Cor 15:58).

We live in the now-but-not-yet. Therefore we pray, that God’s sovereign rule will be acknowledged and experienced in the hearts and lives of all who follow Jesus, and through our efforts in evangelism and mission, as we faithfully seek to extend God’s rule in obedience to Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and for the glory of God (cf Php 2:10-11).

Yes, you can pray that God will do something to give you that car parking space at the mall. More importantly, you can pray for God to meet your basic daily needs, to forgive you, and to protect you from danger and evil. But you can also simply pray that God’s kingdom will come today, right here and now, through you. God’s kingdom comes wherever his will is done!

The third purpose of prayer is perhaps less obvious, but equally vital. It is to create community. Wherever God is at work, there is community. Wherever Jesus is honoured, there is community. Wherever the Holy Spirit is welcomed, there is community.

Jesus did not teach his followers to pray as if they were alone, because they were not alone! They would always have each other. How easily we rush into the Lord’s Prayer without pausing and reflecting on that first word, “Our…”

When we pray, whenever we pray, we are not alone. We have each other, we have the fellowship of our fellow believers, we have the solidarity of the precious universal community of saints. Don’t underestimate that dimension of prayer as you pray.  It is so important. Christian philosopher Dallas Willard writes:

The aim of God in history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons, with himself included in that community as its prime sustainer and most glorious inhabitant.[7]

And in his book on prayer, Richard Foster writes:

I believe that God is gathering just such a community in our day. It is a community that combines eschatology with social action, the transcendent Lordship of Jesus with the suffering servant Messiah. It is a community of cross and crown, of conflict and reconciliation, of courageous action and suffering love. It is a community empowered to attack evil in all its forms, overcoming it with good. It is a community of unselfish love, and witness without compromise. It is a community buoyed up by the vision of Christ’s everlasting rule, not only imminent on the horizon but already coming to birth in our midst.[8]

When you pray the Lord’s prayer, you worship God, you open channels of blessing, and you participate in just such a community.

You say church is boring? “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”


Sermon 658 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 28 February 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Herb Miller, Connecting with God: 14 Ways Churches Can Help People Grow (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).

[2] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1992), pp. 91-92.

[3] Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews (Leicester: IVP, 1982), pp. 96-97.

[4] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Leicester: IVP, 1978), p. 144.

[5] In Lawrence S. Cunningham & Keith J. Egan, Christian Spirituality: Themes from the Tradition (Paulist Press, 1996).

[6] A. Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St Matthew (London, 1910), p. 94.

[7] Dallas Willard, “Studies in the Book of Apostolic Acts: Journey into the Spiritual Unknown” (unpublished study guide, n.d.).

[8] Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2000), p. 271.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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