Spiritual formation in small congregations


Spiritual formation/prayer practices

Spiritual formation can be understood simply as cultivating or deepening a personal relationship with God. In the Old Testament, God spoke to Elijah (I Kings 19:17), not in wind, fire or earthquake, but (my favorite translation) in “the sound of sheer silence” (NRSV) or perhaps more familiarly, “a still small voice.” (KJV) The Psalmist, speaking for God says, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

Jesus modeled prayer for his disciples, ancient and modern -- going to a solitary place early in the morning (Mark 1:35) or up on a mountain in the evening (Matthew 14:23), even spending the whole night in prayer (Luke 6:12). The disciples, observing this, asked Jesus to teach them to pray and his response was The Lord’s Prayer (Luke 6:9-13).

The Church from the beginning emphasized prayer. “They (those baptized on the day of Pentecost) devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 1:42)

Emphasis on a personal relationship/experience with God has waxed and waned in Christianity through the centuries, being strong in the desert mothers and fathers of the early centuries, in monasticism beginning in the Middle Ages, and in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, waning during the Protestant Reformation. There has been a revival of interest in the late 20th century to the present.

I grew up an active Methodist and spent my young adulthood, even my time in seminary, without much thought of prayer beyond grace prior to meals and the prescribed prayers of formal worship which would include some intercession and petition.

During the last few decades however, I have discovered in myself and others, a hunger for a deeper relationship with God, and that hunger had led me to retreats, to reading, to training as a spiritual director and to many new prayer practices.

I have shared many of these prayer practices with the various congregations I have served and I now share some of them with you.

Silence as prayer
People in our culture are, for the most part, very uncomfortable with silence, though when it happens they find it to be powerful. I remember many years ago being at a church camp for third and fourth graders in Texas. Evening vespers were held at the worship center overlooking the lake with a larger than life-size rugged cross and log benches. One evening during vespers a bird landed on the cross and began to sing just as the camp leader was beginning the devotional.

The sun was just beginning to set. As the bird began to sing, the children began to focus their attention on the bird and so the leader stopped speaking. More than 100 children sat in rapt silence listening to the bird and, when it flew away, watching the sun go below the horizon. I still remember the power of that moment and I suspect that most of the children do as well.

I have looked for ways to incorporate periods of silence into worship services. Often, we begin worship with the sounding of a chime or singing bowl, with an invitation to the congregation to taken several deep breaths, bringing themselves fully into the time and space and the presence of God for worship. Brief silence also follows the sung call to prayer before prayers of thanksgiving and concern are shared.

Contemplative song and blessings
Simple contemplative songs like those from the Taize tradition (see pp. 72,207,484,488, 628 UMH) which can be sung reflectively and repetitively can become contexts for prayer.

Blessings can also be a part of worship. Gifts to mission such as UMCOR kits, food and paper goods, offerings for a food pantry, quilts or prayer shawls can be blessed. People leaving the congregation for a mission trip, for college, or those moving away can be sent forth with prayer.

Beginning church meetings with the lighting of a candle and a moment of silence and closing meetings with the Lord’s Prayer can set a worshipful context for the work of the meeting and beyond.

Prayer lists/prayer hands
In addition to the prayer lists which many congregations include in newsletters and bulletins, other prayer lists can help people focus in their intercessory prayer. A small congregation can create a weekly or monthly calendar that includes the names of all members. Seasonal prayer calendars for Advent or Lent can provide daily foci for prayer. Mission action suggestions can accompany each day’s focus. Pray partners might be chosen or assigned for a season or other specific time frame.

For many years, I have created “prayer hands” (photos right). I gather the names of students (preschool to post graduate) and teachers/staff/other related school positions. Each hand has a name written on the fingers and thumb (five names per hand). These are distributed the week before school begins with a request to pray for those named on a regular basis throughout the school year. Moving beyond the local congregation, our area ministerial association included the names of all school district staff and students on hands for congregations throughout the area.

After 9/11, the congregation I was serving set up a sign in the church yard which said “Lord, hear our prayers.” A baggie with permanent markers was attached for people to write their prayers on the sign. It was moving to watch people stop, get out, read the prayers and add their own. This could be a possibility following a natural disaster.

Twice I have been privileged to serve a congregation in the process of building. In one instance the congregation wrote prayers on the studs and in the other, on All Saints Day, they wrote the names of the saints of that congregation.

Prayer spaces and Lectio Divina
Some congregations find it helpful to designate a room, a corner, or in one case, literally a closet, as a prayer space with appropriate visual décor, Bible and devotional materials, a comfortable chair and perhaps a kneeler. A basket, notepad or board for prayer requests might also be provided.

Lectio Divina (divine reading) is a way of praying the scripture. It can be done individually or in a group as a type of Bible study. Using the weekly lections can be a way of deepening preparation for worship. (Group example.)

Breath prayers
Breath prayers, composed of two brief phrases — an address to God and a request of God — can be used in conjunction with the breath, the first  phrase on inhalation, the second on exhalation. The “Jesus Prayer,” “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner” is the prototype. But breath prayers can also be personal – “Holy Potter, love and mold me,” “Tender Shepherd, lead me,” etc. A congregation can also create a breath prayer which can be used to begin worship as well as by individuals throughout the week. One confirmation class made a banner of the congregation’s breath prayer. Breath prayers for congregations I have served have included, “Loving, steadfast, redeeming God, keep us alive, strong and reaching out” and, for a building project, "Creator God, guide us to Your vision.”
Individual practices
I’ll close by sharing some individual prayer practices which have been helpful to me.

“God’s gift basket” — a spiritual direction shared this practice with me. Consider each day’s activities and experiences as a gift basket from God. List some of those gifts in daily journaling.

Mandalas — I have found coloring mandalas to be a way of centering and focusing. Google “mandala” for selections to copy and color. Colored pencils, crayons or gel pens all work well. After you have finished coloring, “sit with” the mandala and see how it might speak to you.

Prayer beads
Prayer beads can be used in a variety of ways. A Roman Catholic or Anglican Rosary may be used for formal or informal praying. I have also used beads (usually 10) strung and attached to a key ring. Each bead can represent a specific personal prayer focus or a focus for gratitude or intercessory prayer. I also sometimes use them to count repetitions of sung prayers (aloud or silent).

Walking a labyrinth is an ancient prayer form. (Google “labyrinth” and your town or area, for locations of labyrinths or for patterns.) A finger labyrinth may also be a way of centering.

There are a number of web sites which offer devotional aids. Two that I use are the Great Plains UM Conference Daily Devotional and SightPsalms (a daily photo and inspirational quote).

For more information contact:
Sally Ruggia-Haden, retired, serving Palmyra-Cheney, Neb., UMCs