Thursday, June 4, 2009
The Preacher’s Corner
Wednesday night ‘prayer’ meeting
If the theologians are right that our deep yearnings are a form of prayer, then everybody prays. The question is the refinement of those prayers. In the olden days, one way this was done was by attendance at the weekly prayer meeting held in all the churches.
Rare was the congregation that did not have a Wednesday night prayer meeting. It was said that the strength of attendance on Wednesday night was the measure of a congregation’s health.
In my own growing-up years, at Cleveland, we went to church at least three times a week. There was Sunday school and church on the Lord’s Day morning, then youth group and evening worship that night, and prayer meeting on Wednesday. These things were non-negotiable; we children went and generally, I think, had a good time. Each occasion included music and, upon reflection, I realize that the other services than Sunday morning provided that opportunity for the less formal kinds of praise that, the other services having largely disappeared, churches now blend into the main Sunday service.
No doubt about it, we spent a good deal of time at church. The largest department store in our town, which was owned by a family who worshiped in the local Hebrew temple, displayed a sign assuring the public that their store always ceased business in time for the employees to attend their weekly Wednesday prayer meeting.
At our church, the prayer meeting was held in the little chapel, an intimate, small room, with beautiful stained glass windows, and furnishings preserved from the congregation’s original building, which we had outgrown some years before. Twenty or thirty people (out of a congregation of 400) attended. The service, which lasted only half an hour, began with our minister giving a brief devotional, usually a meditation on a verse or two from the psalms. (These were drawn, I think, from the commentaries by Matthew Henry and Charles Spurgeon, long regarded as classics by Southern Presbyterians and others.) Over the space of years, I think I heard every verse of the Psalter discussed, except perhaps, those wishing destruction upon King David’s enemies.
Following the ten-minute devotional, the minister reviewed the sick list and those present were invited to contribute prayer requests. The joys and concerns of the community were reviewed, after which someone in attendance was asked to offer a prayer, after which the “floor” was open for anyone who wished to pray out loud, and when the half hour drew toward its close, the pastor would sum up the prayers and bring the meeting to its close. The ability to compose such a prayer with thoughtfulness and some degree of eloquence was the mark of a capable minister in that era.
There is no doubt that such occasions were to some degree the occasion for religious gossip. Intimate details of unfortunate people’s lives were shared — always, we were assured — so that we “might pray more effectively” for their needs, including conversion. Sometimes intimate parts of the human anatomy (usually about to be removed) were lifted up, as it were, along with the surgeons, in heartfelt prayer for a hospitalized person’s successful deliverance from illness or pain.
After the meeting, the women would huddle to lay plans to deliver food to homes of bereavement, and the needs of homebound members of the church and surrounding neighborhoods were not forgotten.
When I went after seminary to serve in a large church in Chicago I immediately noticed the absence of the weekly prayer meeting.
The staff met for morning prayers where we prayed for ten members of the congregation each day. Occasionally a church member would drop by to join our intercessions, but the atmosphere was just not the same. The intimacy of the small church could not be reproduced.
Many churches still have some sort of gathering on Wednesday evenings, but I think the old-fashioned prayer meeting has largely gone by the way, having been supplanted by “more interesting” activities, such as Bible teaching, sermons, mission work, youth programs, suppers, and choir practice.
In our Holly Springs Presbyterian Church, Sunday evening worship and prayer meeting went away in the 1950s, the casualty of busy lives (and network TV). But to this day, some people still call the large space downstairs below the sanctuary “the prayer meeting room.”
Nostalgia for the past can be a form of idolatry. There are many ways to pray, and prayer takes its various forms. The question is, as I said, how to refine and guide the deep yearnings of the human spirit.
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