Sean: In last month’s Good Idea you gave us an overview of life and ministry at St. Clair and of “missional families” in particular. Can we go a little deeper? I’m wondering if we could explore in the area of prayer and discipleship. You say that prayer is the key to everything you do. What does that look like in your missional families? How do you pray and what do you pray for?
Matt: Prayer is one of our key practices. We try and explore different ways of praying in our missional families. I know one “mish fam” (that’s the best slang we have!) that spends time in silence and listening prayer consistently each week. One of our missional families has used the prayer of examen in their meetings to help people reflect on their days. We often do the fairly typical prayer for people’s needs within our missional families. One thing we try and stress is not to ask people to give their opinions or solve their problems but to bring it before God. We may take time to pray for friends, co-workers, neighbours who don’t yet know Jesus or are struggling in certain ways.
The missional family I was in last year took time at the end of each gathering to have one family stand in the middle and have everyone gather round them and lay hands on them and pray for them. We have had missional families who have prayer walked their neighbourhoods asking for God’s shalom to come in those geographical places. In each of our prayer “initiatives” we try and include our children so this is a normative practice for them.
Sean: I entered the Anglican church later in life, and I’m deeply grateful for new relationships and for the gifts of the Anglican tradition, but I’ve noticed that many people in the church (I suspect this would be true of other mainline denominations) struggle with the idea of informal, lay-led group prayer outside of Sunday worship, especially with children. Can you say why this kind of prayer matters so much for missional ministry? What are the practical benefits of praying like this? Perhaps you’ve got a story or two.
Matt: That’s a great question. Depending on what tradition you are from, prayer can be seen as something that really spiritual people or “prayer warriors” or wonderful older ladies do. I think that has caused the majority of people to see prayer as distant or disconnected from them. We have to put ministry and particularly prayer back in the hands of the laity.
The one time in the gospels that the disciples ask Jesus to teach them something is how to pray (Luke 11:1). Jesus starts by reminding them of who they are praying to. They are children of God and he is a father who receives their prayer lovingly. And he encourages them to pray for comfort, peace, strength, guidance and for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
I realize this can be hard in small group settings, especially if it’s not a regular practice.
Last year someone from one of our missional families came to speak to me. She said she had never prayed out loud in public before and felt nervous because she didn’t always know what to say and others seemed more eloquent than her. I told this person not to worry. Prayer takes different forms and there was no pressure at all, and I normally just pray honestly what’s on my heart and mind. Eloquence and long prayers didn’t seem to impress Jesus. The following week we prayed for another family and my friend was the first person to pray. It was so great to see her step out and trust God.
But your question zeroes in on “missional ministry.” Praying for each other as people living into the mission of God every day is so important. We can get exhausted and disillusioned at times, and life can be difficult and painful. And we can be tempted to do everything on our own strength and forget that it’s God who invites us into his mission and equips us for it. Quite a few times we have prayed for people who want to share the good news of Jesus with friends or co-workers and then that week they have had opportunities to share with them or invite them out to missional family. We have also seen people encouraged and strengthened as we have prayed for them—including people beyond our church community.
One time we took some school supplies and back packs to a local elementary school to help with children who didn’t have new supplies. Some moms in our group baked cookies for the teachers to say how thankful we were for them. As we handed the backpacks over, the principal was expressing her gratitude. Without thinking I asked if I could pray for her and the school and she agreed. We stood in the front reception area and prayed blessing over the school and teachers. When we had finished the principal was moved to tears and so appreciative.
Sean: Wow, that’s a great story. I’m guessing that was a moving experience for you too. Gathering together in prayer, trusting God for his provision, listening for his leading, praying for each other and for others—these are really important aspects of discipleship. Can you expand on discipleship more generally? How are people learning to follow Jesus in missional families? And what are some of key practices of missional family that help with the learning?
Matt: At the end of Jesus earthly ministry he gathers his followers together and with some final instructions says “Go and make disciples of all nations”. What does it mean to be a disciple? In our modern context, it would be something like apprenticeship. Jesus gathered a small group of people who did life with him every day. They learned from him and then tried to practice everything he had shown them.
In most of our church traditions we have confined discipleship to an hour or two on a Sunday morning. While Sunday is deeply formational, we need a more rounded approach to discipleship. What does it look like to be in relationship with God and each other the rest of the week? Missional families is part of the answer to that for us. But it’s also about engaging certain practices in our life together—practices that go back to the early church. We’ve identified 5 core practices: 1) Eating together; 2) Prayer, which we’ve talked about; 3) Engagement with scripture; 4) Caring for each other; and 5) Serving the wider community.
This is what we are trying to live out during the week. There are times when we focus more on one practice than others, depending on what season of life the group is going through, but this is what we’re aspiring to, with Jesus at the center. I should say that we’re also careful not to pressure people or give the impression that our apprenticeship with Jesus is somehow meritorious. The practices don’t gain us favour with God, but they do serve as a conduit for the Spirit to move.
Sean: You mention above the importance of food for discipleship. Can you expand on that? I think we could all appreciate how shared meals can bring people together. But how does it help us to follow Jesus in life together? And how does it do that in connection with our neighbors?
Matt: A wise person once said if you take meals and mountains out of the scripture, it’s a much shorter Bible. Meals are central to the biblical narrative and also important to the life of Jesus. When you read the gospels you notice Jesus eating with people on a regular basis. He is eating with his close companions and also those far from the kingdom. And he does this as both a host and a guest.
My sense is that sharing meals is central to God’s mission. We can think of our Bible studies and prayer times as spiritual but eating with people as just something we do. A friend of mine who owns a local coffee shop here in Hamilton but wouldn’t claim to be a Jesus follower once said to me “Matt, I think a meal is a sacred thing”. I think that’s right, especially when we recognize Jesus at the center. Meals help us to drop our defenses and to listen closely to each other with empathy. They keep life whole.
We need to remember that hospitality for Jesus isn’t simply about entertaining people you know. It also includes welcoming the stranger. In our missional families, we talk about what it means to be the kind of hosts who welcome strangers. We also explore how to be good guests in the wider community. In a very individualist culture to invite someone for dinner or welcome invitations from others can be a hugely significant thing. It helps with loneliness, of course, which is a real problem. But table fellowship can be a wonderful way to encounter Jesus and to introduce the gospel to others in the midst of daily life.
Sean: Thanks so much Matt! We’re already looking forward to our third and final interview with you when we’ll discuss how children and youth are discipled and minister within your missional families.
From the Director of the Institute of Evangelism
Learning to Pray Like a Church Plant
What can established churches learn about prayer from church plants? Here are at least six things:
- Prayer should be the starting point of ministry. Church plants begin with someone hearing a call from God to share the gospel in a new way in a particular place and time. In this sense listening to God is the starting point for every church plant. This calling and all its ramifications can only be further fleshed out by both listening and talking to God. This places prayer the very heart of church planting, whereas in more established churches prayer can sometimes end up being relegated to Sunday morning or little more than a ‘tag on’ to open or close meetings.
- Prayer should have a decidedly missional focus. Church plants, by their very nature, tend to place disciple-making at the very forefront of their planning and practices. They tend to pray more intentionally for people who don’t yet know the love of God and for all their members to share their faith with someone new. Prayers with this evangelistic focus are often rare and sometimes completely missing in more established churches. Let’s bring this focus back.
- Prayer should flow from a deep dependency on God. It’s often in settings of experimentation and uncertainty, such as church plants, that people are forced to really rely on God’s direction and power. Because of this, prayer takes on an urgency and nurtures a real dependency. All too often established churches begin to focus inwardly, risking less and so losing that key sense of reliance on God.
- Prayer should involve everyone. Church plants, particularly those that start in small groups, necessarily reclaim the role of lay people in the practice of prayer. This is something that can be lost in established churches that may unwittingly cause lay people to feel ‘less qualified’ to pray than their clergy.
- Prayer should come in many forms. Since most church plants lack a centralized building many naturally use small groups meeting in peoples’ homes to disciple people. Diverse practices of prayer often emerge in these groups since they’re driven by a less centralized and uniform mentality. A prayer walk through the neighbourhood, silent ‘listening prayer’, the Prayer of Examen, extemporaneous prayer for the broader community, laying on of hands with prayer for a member, historic written prayers; these are all often found in such contexts. Sometimes in more established churches corporate prayer begins to mirror whatever form is modeled during the Sunday worship service.
- Prayer should be naturally linked to food! When people meet in small groups there is almost always food involved, and often a shared meal. This is not detached from the prayer time of these groups but is intrinsically a part of it. Members learn of the struggles and joys of each other and their neighbourhood as they serve up lasagna and pass around the garlic bread. The content of their prayers is deeply linked to the hospitality and relationship building they share over food together. Increasingly, established churches are learning that the bigger you become the smaller you must become. Perhaps this is especially true when it comes to people praying together for the needs of both themselves and their neighbourhoods.
Which of these lessons is most needed in your community of faith?