On Friday I was able to get ahold of Ron Martinez, pastor of Family Worship Center (where I visited about a month ago) – he had expressed some interest in getting together over lunch or coffee, and with the bulk of my Congregational Journey out of the way, I wanted to take him up on his offer. When I mentioned the same over the phone, he hemmed and hawed for quite a bit regarding his schedule before suggesting that I come to the congregation’s men’s prayer meeting on Saturday morning, adding that some of the guys usually go to breakfast afterward.
I told him that would be fine, but afterward wondered about his reticence. Eventually I shrugged it off, figuring that as a pastor, his schedule was likely to be both busy and fluid – you have to be ready for any crisis the people in your care experience, after all. And visiting a prayer meeting would allow me to see a different side of the congregation that what one experiences in the Sunday service. As this was a congregation that seemed to be emphasizing discipleship, it might give me a chance to view how that was being carried out. And it would almost certainly give me clues as to the spiritual depth of the ministry going on there. So I went.
I’m glad I did. I’m also sorry I did.
This morning, after getting myself relatively ship-shape, I settled my kids in front of the TV (they like to watch “Strawberry Shortcake” at 7 a.m. on Saturdays) with orders not to disturb Mom while she’s sleeping, and headed to Family Worship Center. I arrived around 7:05 for the 7:00 meeting; I really don’t like to be late, but Pastor Martinez had told me it wouldn’t be a big deal, so I wasn’t worried. At least, I wasn’t until I saw the handwritten sign on the door (quoting it verbatim here):
PRAYER STARTS AT
WHEN THE GOING GET
TOUGH, THE TOUGH GETS
QUITTER NEVER WIN
WINNERS NEVER QUIT.
I’m not sure what most of that has to do with corporate prayer – if it was an exhortation to pray, it was a very odd one even aside from the syntactical errors. And the heavy underlining of “7:00 AM” seemed to indicate less approval of tardiness than Pastor Martinez had led me to believe.
But the oddities didn’t stop once I went inside. A handful of people were there (including one woman with a toddler – wait, wasn’t this supposed to be a men’s prayer meeting?), but they were spread all over the sanctuary; everyone was isolated from everyone else. Music was playing at normal living-room volume, what I eventually figured out was a tape of worship music mostly in Spanish. Some were praying silently, but others were doing so loudly, including one fellow who kept repeating “luh” over and over again – “luhluhluhluhluhluhluhluhluhluhluhluh …” (I’m guessing he might have thought he was speaking in tongues, but I don’t think it qualifies as the spiritual gift listed in the Bible if you’re only repeating one syllable over and over. Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 clearly indicate that they were speaking actual languages …) Occasionally he would break from that and begin moaning, sounding like nothing other that a cow in distress. Then he’d go back to the “luhluhluhluhluhluh” again. Kind of disturbing to listen to when you’re trying to converse with God.
But then, no one really seemed to be conversing with God any more than they were with each other. People were repeating syllables or mumbling to themselves, but the people who were talking weren’t stopping to listen, and the ones who might have been listening weren’t talking. There was no sense of togetherness other than everyone happening to be in the same building – nobody spoke to anyone else except every once in a while to say hi before going back to whatever it was they were doing. At no point did I see any two (or more) people pray together, and in a sanctuary that small it would have been impossible to miss. Never have I seen a “prayer meeting” that had so little prayer (as in actually relating to God, not just talking at Him) and at the same time so little meeting.
It was disorienting enough that I finally just asked God what in the heck was going on. This is what I believe He said:
I see people who are very earnest, who are trying very hard … and who have no idea what they’re doing. They don’t really know Me, so they don’t really relate to Me. And because of that, they’re just making noise. Pray that My Spirit will break them out of the trance.
And that’s what I prayed, and am still praying. But those words … They don’t really know Me. These are supposed to be God’s people, saved from Hell by the sacrifice of His Son, their lives pledged to Him from now to eternity … but they don’t really know Him?!? Can you think of a more tragic statement than that? Especially in light of Matthew 7, where Jesus talks about people who will come to His throne, claiming to have done great works in His name, but who will be dismissed to eternal darkness with the words, “depart from me, I never knew you.”
Between that heartbreaking revelation and the guy alternating “luhluhluhluh” with water buffalo noises, it was all I could do to stay as long as I did. I finally gave up at 7:45, figuring that if everyone was going to pray by themselves, I might as well go back to my car where I could do it in relative peace. By then nothing had changed except there were about nine men and three women in attendance. Maybe they spent a few minutes together at the end, I don’t know. I kept running over the above words in my head, reminded of Jeremiah 2:32 and God’s lament over Israel centuries ago (“My people have forgotten Me days without number”). I found myself pounding the steering wheel in sadness and frustration, praying repeatedly to Him that His Spirit would break them out of the trance of a religious ritual that paid lip service to the concept of prayer while ignoring both each other and what God might want to say.
About 8:10 people started coming in and out of the building, starting with two of the women who went to their car to haul out a piece of baby furniture. Eventually Pastor Martinez headed out to his car, and I caught up with him but only stayed long enough to pass him a copy of ”The Perpetual Nursery,” which I believed God wanted me to give to him. I passed on the offer of breakfast, saying that I had to get home because I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that experiencing the meeting had caused me to lose my appetite. I suspect he has an inkling, though … and even if he doesn’t, he’s likely to discover this blog eventually.
Now, I find myself looking back on my initial experience with Family Worship Center, wondering if maybe my view was overly optimistic. If this men’s prayer meeting – which was neither exclusively for men, nor showed much in the way of prayer, nor acted like a meeting – is an example of the kind of discipleship that’s taking place there, then I’d have to retract my statement of a month ago that “I’d certainly recommend it for a newer believer who needs a good grounding in the Word and in fellowship, as this is definitely a group that’s heading in the right direction.” Maybe, as I also said at the time, “it’s more like this is the way they were taught to hold a Sunday service, so that’s how they do it.” If this is how they were taught to pray, then they definitely need to snap out of their trance, to realize that God is present, wanting His people to actually talk to and listen to Him and to each other. Wanting active relationship with them.
Conversing with the Infinite is a beautiful thing, a wondrous example of God’s ongoing and constant love for us. Vain repeating of single syllables and making animal noises do not strike me as an adequate substitute.