Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Why the UPCI Church Service Model Fails The Biblical Test

So. It has been a while since I posted on here. I took a month off from some things, and I feel much refreshed. Everyone needs to step back at times and take a break from the grinding wheel. I do apologize to those that have missed my Blog, and to those that don't miss it but still return to see what I have to say. Today I want to examine some things Jesus said in Matthew 6:5-7.

Having been raised UPCI and attending as an adult, I continually heard the admonition to public prayer before service. There were times that a man would get in the pulpit and commend a group for the volume of prayer, and other times a man would condemn a group for a lack of volume. So let's look at whether this is actually a Biblical attitude.

Matthew 6:5-7 says in the KJV:
"5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking."

In Young's Literal:
"5 And when thou mayest pray, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites, because they love in the synagogues, and in the corners of the broad places -- standing -- to pray, that they may be seen of men; verily I say to you, that they have their reward.
6 But thou, when thou mayest pray, go into thy chamber, and having shut thy door, pray to thy Father who [is] in secret, and thy Father who is seeing in secret, shall reward thee manifestly.
7 And -- praying -- ye may not use vain repetitions like the nations, for they think that in their much speaking they shall be heard,"

We see very clearly here that Jesus commands two things: Don't pray in public, and pray in private. Of course, this seems very clearly to state that we should never pray in public at all, which totally eliminates the standard first 1/2 hour of a UPCI service. I would agree except that there are some seeming contradictions in the Bible, so, in fairness to the folks at your local UPC, let's examine them.

We begin with perhaps the greatest prayer a man ever made to God (barring the Lord's prayer as that was an example, but amazing nonetheless): 1 Kings 8:22-53. In this passage we read the profound prayer of a man that is asking for the blessing and mercy of God to remain on the Israelite nation. He spends what would seem to be about 20-25 minutes on his knees with his hands up (try praying that prayer out loud and see how long it took). It is curious to note that there was no instrumental "background" music mentioned as is common in UPCI churches nowadays. There is no mention of others praying. In fact, the only one praying is Solomon. Why this is important to examine is that you will often see a benediction made before and after a service. This is what Solomon is doing. He is dedicating the Temple and asking a benediction on the people. This is not the kind of public prayer that goes on for 30 minutes to an hour in UPCI churches before the "Song service". To use this passage as a basis for public prayer before church would be pretty silly, yet I've seen it done...

Now we move on to Hannah: 1 Samuel 1:10-13. Hannah wants a son. More than anything. Just a little boy. So she, in her desperation, goes to the Temple to plead with God yet again. Note that only Eli is mentioned as being present, not a group of people. This hardly qualifies as public prayer, but I suppose it could be important to someone trying to build a house of straw. So look at one very important thing: according to verses 12 and 13, she was praying silently. Her lips moved but no sound came out. That kind of makes the passage useless as far as the public volume in prayer argument goes. Also note, due to her prayer and her vow, she got her boy, who just happens to be my favorite Prophet/Judge in the entire Bible.

The next example I want to examine is 1 Kings 18:36-37. Here we read of Elijah praying to God to show His power to the people of Israel so that they would no longer be caught between two belief systems. This was not a time of preparing to serve and worship God or to get "in tune with the spirit". It would seem to be apparent that Elijah was very much already "in tune with the spirit" based on his lifestyle and authority with God. So, once again, not justification for public praying for a period of time before church.

The last of the OT references that seem to bear on the matter is Ezra 9:1-10:1. We read of Ezra praying to God in a very public manner. The reason this cannot refer to public prayer as a habit is that the text is very clear that Ezra was confessing and asking for divine forgiveness on behalf of the people, not himself. He was told what they were doing, so he lamented and mourned and grieved and begged God to be merciful. Since he was asking God to withhold judgement for acts done in public, he made the prayer public in the presence of the transgressors. That doesn't fit the UPCI church service model one bit.

As we move into the NT, we see that Jesus prayed publicly on 3 occasions that are significant to the discussion: When He raised Lazarus; when He took Peter, James, and John to the garden; and when He was on the Cross.
At the first example He was doing 2 things. First, He was training His disciples to understand that all power comes from God. Second, He was making very public that He was calling on the power of the Israelite God, and not doing it through sorcery or witchcraft.
For the second example, I would like to point out some things that are important. We so often miss the sorrow and emotional distress that Jesus Christ felt. He knew He was about to die. He knew He would endure terrible torments and physical harm. He knew that He would suffer this at the hands of the very people He was trying to reach for. In light of this, if you were going to go pray for strength from God, wouldn't you want your closest friends that you had spent 3 1/2 years in continual close personal contact with at your side? Of course you would. No one wants to be alone the night before they die. This wasn't a regular habitual occurrence. This was the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of almighty God asking for a reprieve but also preparing Himself to suffer as God saw fit. Also, note that they stayed back while Jesus went to pray a small distance away.
The last example is pretty clearly a singularly once in all of history occurrence. 'Nuff said.

The rest of the examples of Jesus praying were all by himself, or giving a benediction to a group of people, or training His 12 disciples.

There are other examples in the NT of group prayer, but you always find a specific cause or reason that they are praying together for a very specific thing. Not the general purpose of getting "in tune" with God.

We are called to be instant in season and out, and should not need 30 minutes or more of prayer before a service to try and "rid ourselves of the daily grind". If we are truly walking with God, and in the will of God, and in the Spirit of God, then we should be prepared to worship, to hear, to move at His desire without getting on our knees in a public meeting hall and saying the same repetitive things over and over and over and over ad nauseum. I can't convey, in text, the annoyance I feel when I hear someone say "Thank you Jesus, Hallelujah, Praise God" etc over and over and over for 30 minutes or more straight. It's even worse when they do it at high volume every service for years at a time (I thank all the people that prayed quietly in your chairs and pews over the years, and apologize to you for the times I didn't). It's just clock punching to please the whim of a man that thinks that's what the Bible says to do.

Prayer for the most part is personal. Worship should be public. Prayer can be public when there is a specific reason such as benedictions. Those are 3 very different things and you should be keeping them as such. If the UPCI really feels the need to rev people up for 30 minutes and then jump pews for 30 minutes, why not just skip the prayer and have a 1 hour worship service? I dare say your services will be more lively...

God Bless ALL His Children