The Hijacking of Christianity, Part 4
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others…But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret… Matthew 6:5-6
Last week I discussed how the church has hijacked the Bible. This week I consider how the church has hijacked prayer. I am so passionate about church hijackings because whenever the church (meaning a church, denomination, or any organization presenting itself as a gathering of God’s people) does or declares something that excludes a person or group of people and holds itself out as a purveyor of God’s gifts of the Bible, prayer, or other tools of worship, they make these tools of worship less viable or helpful to non-churched spiritual seekers. In other words, spiritual seekers who reject the church because of its exclusive and often irrational stances often also reject the Bible, prayer, and other tools of worship by association. This is tragic because the Bible, prayer, and other tools of worship do not belong to the church. Rather, they belong to seekers after God, and the absence of such tools makes one’s search more challenging. This is not so much a problem of the church per se, but of church leaders who often limit the desirability of relevant tools of spiritual insight by using them publicly in limited, self-serving, or other biased ways.
Inappropriate uses of prayer are particularly vexing to me. While communal prayer can be useful and important, personal prayer, as in a one-to-one-being-in-the-presence-of-God is indispensable. I would argue that for a person who is diligently seeking a relationship with the Divine, the value of learning and practicing personal prayer cannot be overstated, yet few churches teach it. Jesus said as much in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). He condemned those who publicly prayed so that they may be seen by others. He repeatedly called the church leaders of his day hypocrites and encouraged his followers not to pray as they prayed. It is too easy for church members to sit back and allow their preachers to handle prayer for them. While this is not completely bad, it does not move people closer to becoming followers of Christ because it does not lead them into a relationship with the Divine. Rather, we need to be taught to pray by going “into (our) room and (shutting) the door and (praying) to (God) who is in secret,” as Jesus instructed. Once we establish a personal connection, the communal prayers offered in worship will be a compliment to our prayer life instead of the entirety of our prayer life.
Praying for others is an interesting form of prayer with at least two manifestations. We often tell those who are in a difficult phase of life that we will pray for them, meaning we will ask God to bless, heal, bring peace, or provide whatever we feel they need. The other variation of praying for others is praying in place of another. A number of years ago my wife had a serious and potentially fatal medical condition. Our children were young and I was staring at the possibility of becoming a widower and a single parent. My schedule was so full and I was so preoccupied that I found it impossible to settle my mind and body sufficiently to effectively enter a time of personal prayer, even though I needed it desperately. It was during this time I realized that when people said they were praying for me, there was a sense that they were praying for me and instead of me. In other words, at least some of the benefits of personal prayer were flowing to me even though I was incapable of entering personal prayer myself.
When churches appear to treat prayer as their exclusive domain, or misuse it for self-promotion, those who reject Churchianity will also reject prayer. When spiritual seekers reject the loud prayers spoken with pride and certainty by church leaders for the masses, they are actually standing with Jesus in their rejection. Unfortunately, disregarding prayer because one disregards church is the proverbial throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Prayer is a necessary part of our spiritual search; church can be helpful but is not required.
I do not believe Jesus would care to be associated with most of the churches bearing his name today. They have hijacked the gifts of scripture and prayer in ways that are more self-serving than enlightening for those seeking the gifts and presence of the Spirit. It happened in Jesus’ day and he railed against it. It continues today and I doubt Jesus would be any more impressed.
This is the 9th in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.