The church was divided. First, it had two services. One was 100% traditional, at 8:30 A.M., on Sunday mornings. On my first Sunday as interim pastor, I found 200 aging members, in a sanctuary that sat 1,000. The service felt dead. I assumed the next service would be better. It was the blended (leaning contemporary) service. It had close to 300, but it was just as dead as the early service.
The church was divided over more than the worship services and styles. They were divided over whether they should go back to one blended service or continue with the two. They had been promised by the former pastor that they’d try two services for a year and then talk and decide. Unfortunately, that conversation never took place. The pastor just assumed he had manipulated them into what he believed to be the “correct” format, and that format would go unchallenged, and the old way would be gone forever. However, he was the one that was gone after a second year with no church discussion.
They were also divided over their location. The pastor had pushed to sell and move, which wasn’t necessary, but also wasn’t necessarily a bad idea. He failed to get a super majority; however, and the whole process created sides and enemies. Like I said, he was a goner. His best decision in the last year of his tenure was to resign. Now, the church would have a chance to recover and reunite before it ended up half the size of its already shrinking numbers.
So, where to start?
God provided for the moment with a “Esther” figure. A lady who was in the church “for such a time as this” [Esther 4:14]. She was a very gifted minister, having spent her adult life in para-church ministries. She joined an interim leadership team (Transition Team) tasked with helping the church repair itself, before calling the next pastor (Intentional Interim Ministry). She offered her suggestion. The Transition Team honed it. They experimented with and rehearsed her proposal. Then, they led the church to do it. Our “Esther” called it a “Prayer Concert.”
The Concert of Prayer occurred on a Sunday morning, in a single, combined service. It focused on four types of prayer, using the familiar prayer acronym of A.C.T.S.
A = Adoration
C = Confession
T = Thanksgiving
S = Supplication
Each of the four segments of the service blended not just vocalized prayer, which always came last, but also prayerful singing and scripture reading. Focusing on the spoken prayers, here’s what we did.
Adoration—After defining this type of prayer, especially to distinguish it from Thanksgiving, we invited people to open mics to share words, phrases, or sentence-prayers that glorified the Lord. Several people were already set up to get this going, prompting others to follow.
Confession—This was the leadership team’s real, though unstated, priority for our event. After apropos scripture reading and songs, two persons voiced scripted confessional prayers. The first prayer included personal, individual confessions voiced on behalf of our members. The second prayer addressed congregational sins, speaking to the past problems and divisions. When these two prayers were over, everyone was invited to write their own confessions—their baggage, their unfinished business, the things they needed to let go of and get over—on a piece of paper found in their bulletin. Or, they could place those burdens symbolically on the paper by touching it to their lips. Then, in their own time, when each person was ready, we invited them to exit out the right side of their pew, come forward, and shred the paper. Each of the three pew sections had its own paper shredder (with backup shredders at the ready s in case of paper jams or over-heating—of which one had to be changed out).
We played no music. The sanctuary was silent. We wondered if it would be hokey. And we waited.
The first person came. The zzzzzzt! echoed in the sanctuary. It was electric. Then others started coming. Zzzzzzt! Zzzzzzt! Zzzzzzt! We heard the confessions disappear. We sensed the release, the forgiveness, a chance to start anew, unity in our confessions.
Each person, or couple, or family, then moved immediately to a small table next to the shredder, where they partook of the Lord’s Supper, hosted by a deacon couple. Then, participants completed their circle of travel by returning to their seats from the left side of their pews.
Thanksgiving—The same pattern as Adoration, with the use of open mics, enabled members to speak about blessings and God’s redemption.
Supplication—We closed the service with another unique time of prayer. We invited people to gather in small circles and pray for each other. We wanted no one to leave without having been prayed over. Not everyone had to pray out loud, but everyone could. Recruits were stationed around the sanctuary, ready to invite the shy, or visitors, to join their prayer circle.
There was no sermon. There was no public invitation. There was just a Concert of Prayer. Fifteen years later, I still remember it vividly. It remains one of the most spiritual, and meaningful, services I’ve ever witnessed.