Prayer Stations in Our Worship Experience

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It dawned on me after writing yesterday’s post that most folks don’t have “prayer stations” in their worship experience and might not really have a ready mental image or knowledge of what I’m talking about.

Firstly, cool. You don’t have to have prayers stations. No one has to have them. We do, because we find it helps us 1) to move around in the worship time, 2) to have some tangibles surrounding us when we deal with big life issues, and 3) to add a dynamic of experience to something that is too often just observed and/or heard. All three ideas are interrelated.

We believe it’s good to move in worship.

That’s not to say I didn’t grow up moving in worship services, but it was usually just things like, sitting, standing for songs, passing trays during communion, etc. Some of you added clapping and even a little dancing to that list. Others of you grew up with the word “Spirit” being a verb and you don’t need any convincing of movement’s worth. On a weekly basis at CiB we try to move. We have the old-school church building with pews, but we don’t let them corral or contain us. I enjoy the practice of walking forward to receive communion. We usually practice intinction as our communion method. (Intinction: tearing away a piece of bread, dipping it in the up and eating.) I also love the sharing nature of one person serving another the communion elements. Each Sunday we are practicing active service. I love to say or to hear words like, “This is the Cup of Salvation.” Most Sundays we simply call for volunteers to come up and serve… and they come, younger, older, male, female.

So communion is truly a journey for us. We move forward to receive the bread and cup, and then we begin to move through experiencing and exploring the “stations” that inhabit the Sanctuary. There are almost always candles to be lit in prayer. We have kneelers in a quiet corner where we practice different postures of prayer. Then we have a variety of stations that invite action, writing, contemplation, service, or some other mode of addressing God’s presence in our lives. For a couple of months in 2009 we had a “vineyard” with soil, flower bulbs, painting, grapes to eat, and much more. Get moving, get the blood flowing… it helps the heart and the mind!

We believe that people need tangibles.

Let’s face it, one of the hardest things we do is often bringing our hopes, faith, desires and passions into real life. We struggle to translate our ideas and ethereal faith concepts into action. So, when it is difficult to pray, light a candle and let your soul dance for God with that flame. Scripture assures us that God’s Spirit dances and prays with/for us. If we talk about the “soil” of our hearts, why not feel the dirt in your hands and see the stones that must be removed before planting a garden? Why not eat some grapes or taste some more bread when talking about “fruits” and the “Bread of Life.” Take the time, while you’re in worship and gathered with your church family, to do some small action of service or ministry for someone else. “Taste and see…”

If we are wrestling with concepts that we want to have an impact on our daily lives, then it can only help to add a dynamic of the material life into which God has made/placed us. I’ve watched many churches move in some new directions in the last couple of decades, adding new elements like dramatic skits, videos or more lively songs, and many pastors have discovered the power of visual aids. (Visual aids have tended to be items in hand, on stage, or most of what is projected at some churches during the sermon time.) And truly, visuals are powerful. I’m excited that so many churches are doing this, because I feel it is part of a recognition that people need more connective buy-in and sensory engagement in worship. The only caveat I have with all those innovations is that they tend toward just being more observation. Those things are often tangible, but still at some distance. What a great segue paragraph (I said these are all interrelated)…

We believe that participation is more than consenting observation, but should include a more complete sensory experience.

God gave us many senses, but honestly, we’ve tended to prioritize them in worship services and ignore some. God worked to provide us with a great collection of experiences… circumcision, baptism, communion, voicing song and scripture, “holy kisses,” etc. We’re given hands and feet and eyes and ears and nerve endings, olfactory senses and taste buds. We’re asked to do things like follow, “walk humbly,” offer cups of water and “build houses on rock.” Let’s revel in that! The scriptural idea of fearing God is not a fear of accidentally over-worshipping or being too present and experiential of a God just waiting to slap us down. I believe it’s a deep, abiding, humble, reverencing, driving, seeking-while-fleeing, burn in a soul that knows what it is to be loved. The love of our significant others is often frightening, and God’s love is big enough to be downright fearful. Reverence doesn’t necessarily exclude dirty finger-nails, wet paint on canvases, or rubbing shoulders at a prayer station of service. We’ve long been asked to consent to belief, and now we’re discovering that there’s also value to an active experience.

One of my greatest joys is when people come to me to share a good experience (feeling, insight, thought, conclusion, vision) that they had from visiting a prayer station that was not part of the experience I, as it’s designer,  intended them to have. Be ready for God to use these stations and teach you a thing or two!

Any there some tips or practical advice for the whole prayer station exercise? Sure there are! Here’s a few:

  1. Don’t do this to be cool. Do this to better engage the things of God.
  2. Do this prayerfully. Bathe this stuff in prayer before, while experiencing, and after the experience.
  3. Don’t mandate this on your people. A lot of folks get scared and angry when surprised or confronted with the unexpected. Use a lot of grace with this stuff. Lead into it yourself. Talk about it before throwing people into it. Tell people some of what they might expect to find or experience in it. Share why you’re doing it. Even still, some folks won’t ever go to your prayer stations, and that’s ok. If they aren’t ready or willing, that’s fine. Don’t forget that they don’t have to do this.
  4. We always play music while in the communion time and time of experiencing the stations. That music is usually canned, sometimes performed live, and always helps fill the space and time.
  5. We do this during our communion celebration because we’re already up. If you try this as a stand-alone part of worship, then expect some time to be needed (or even resistance) for people to get up and get moving.
  6. Be meaningful. Let this inform your people.
  7. Don’t overdue one idea. Ask for input and invite others to help you develop creative ideas and implementation.
  8. Do this because you love your church family.
  9. Expect that this, as with any new practice or experience, will have to grow and gain momentum. It takes time for a community to fully embrace and grow into new methods.
  10. Don’t be overly discouraged by a “failed” station. Not all your ideas are good. Not all my ideas are good.

What would you add to all this?

Oh, here’s a document of notes I made a while back about “Experiential Worship.” I can’t remember what all I wrote (it was for a presentation to some colleagues), but there might be something in it of value. Surely there are some good thoughts and ideas I haven’t had or shared? One of the things I’m working on for 2010 is a good, internet-based way to broadly share things like prayer station ideas and inspirations… shared creativity is awesome!

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