It is almost a formality in many churches these days. The preacher finishes an electrifying sermon, the worship band creeps back up and the congregation is invited to respond to the message we have just heard. These can be hauntingly beautiful moments of encounter with the Triune God of Love who changes lives in an instant. At other times, these prayerful instances can seem to last a lifetime.
As I found myself enduring such a lifetime one weary autumnal Sunday evening, I was struck in my self-indulgent pit of despair: maybe this is not such a bad thing... perhaps response times should last a lifetime.I began to imagine how different church might look if we allowed our times of response to seep outside of our services. As I did, I began to develop quite an unconventional case for even longer response times – response times which transcend our weekly Sunday meetings and extend into the furore of our weekly activities.
I should at this point clarify that I love times of response. I myself receive a shameless amount of prayer ministry and consider it no wrong thing in the slightest. In fact there is everything right about prayer ministry. Times of response and prayer ministry allow us to quiet our own raging selves and make room for God. As we still ourselves to listen, we may feel him tugging at us in a certain direction. Maybe we have already been feeling this pull for weeks; sometimes it is entirely unexpected.
Prayer ministry allows us to respond to these tugs encouraged by other believers in a safe and non-manipulative environment. In this way prayer ministry becomes a touchstone of discipleship. We acknowledge God's Word working within us and hear his message directed evocatively to us, and we respond by turning (kneeling) Godward.
No-one can deny the powerful role that such response-based prayer ministry plays in the discipleship of believers. We may ourselves recall countless testimonies of God breathing change into our worlds through many such gracious encounters. Yet no-one could reasonably assert that such experiences account for the sum total of Christian discipleship. Sadly, this is what they are in danger of becoming. If we are not careful we can allow times of response and prayer ministry to become our discipleship as we wander aimlessly from ecstatic assertion of faith to ecstatic assertion of faith, without any meaningful action in between.
Sitting there on that cold, hard, autumnal Anglican pew, I was forced to ask myself a cold, hard question: 'Have I allowed the short-lived pursuit of fuzziness of feeling to replace the rich vividity of authentic biblical discipleship?' I turned my attention to the church in general, wondering if it was possible that by repeated calls to respond with prayer ministry, we are stunting the growth of distinctively natural, Spirit-driven, Christ-centred faith in favour of one that is stagnant, monochrome, artificial, self-centred and ultimately shallow. Such questions and my own answers to them haunted me for the remainder of the service – until I was dutifully offered a coffee and a chocolate bourbon.
A problem? A response
Sometimes I think that I am quite reasonable. At other times I think that I might in some way be called to preach. This is perhaps the most humbling of callings. After delivering a sermon recently, I was sitting with some friends drinking orange juice and quite enjoying being told how good the sermon was (that's all I could hear, anyway). At least, I had been enjoying it up until a friend told us a story about how she had once complimented her pastor on how great his sermon that morning was. The pastor looked her straight in the eyes, she explained, and said, 'Ellie, that will only be a good sermon if you can point to it in a year's time and tell me how it changed your life.'
Although that story wasn't a sermon, I can certainly point to it one year on and say that it changed my life. The food for thought I received that evening gave my ego the stomach bug it desperately needed. Just as importantly, it also left me with the deep-seated conviction that effective preaching does not soothe egos: it emphatically re-orientates lives. The Word of God that we receive in our churches does not just exist for us to think nice things about ourselves. It exists for us do nice things for others. Dare I say it – it exists for us to be even nicer than nice to others. If we believe (as we do) that the Spirit of God illuminates and invigorates the Word of God, then we should expect to be changed by the sermons we hear on Sundays.
What bearing does this have on our times of response? Quite simply, it allows us to face up to the fact that our true responses to the messages we hear come not in the five minutes of 'soaking' that proceed them. Our most genuine responses come when we: show favour to the neighbour who has been mistreating us for years; lavish love on the child who has not stopped complaining; forgive and encourage the co-worker who made the costly mistake; refuse the look of lust at the attractive man/woman opposite us, and so much more.
If we lengthen our times of response to extend into our days and weeks then we can throw off the shackles of over-spiritualisation and allow ourselves to love others in free authenticity. Here we will see the Spirit of God most powerfully at work. We will find Sunday's resolve not to watch porn resourced by the abounding grace of God on Monday. We will find the wounds wrought by loneliness soothed and sewn up by our Good Shepherd; and we will find our worries, ill-health and concerns placated by ineffable joy in and of the Lord.
In so lengthening our response times, we take seriously the biblical mandate to follow hard after Christ every day in every facet of our lives. No longer do we float from encounter to encounter. We involve ourselves in the all-encompassing, relentless pursuit of God and dive brazenly into the fullness of relationship with our Creator.
None of this is to say that we shouldn't have response times. We should, without a doubt. They are faith-building, life-changing, and allow pivotal moments of divine exchange. What this is to say, however, is that we should prepare ourselves for these responses to last a lifetime so we can be individually enriched, ecclesiastically refreshed, and nationally and globally revived.
Archie Catchpole is a student at London School of Theology.