Over the years Pastor Jim Cymbala has openly shared numerous heartbreaking stories of pastors who determined to become men of prayer and lead praying churches, only to encounter congregational members who became so resistant and divisive that their church actually split. It seems unbelievable but it is true.
I have known pastors at a personal level who have encountered similar resistance and criticism, not because their approach was misguided, but simply because some core people were disinterested and eventually destructive. (NOTE: Some Christians avoid corporate prayer because they say it is “weird.” Granted, some approaches are weird and some participants can be a little strange. But I say, don’t throw the biblical baby out with the odd bath water. Jump in and be normal. Or start your own “normal” prayer time. Just make sure you are not making excuses.)
Regardless, you would think that all Christians would have a desire to grow in communion with God and participate in a dynamic, praying church. Not so. But why?
Factoring Our Fear
As I have considered these tragic stories I am convinced it comes down to one primary cause: the fear factor.
Writer Erin Wildermuth notes,
“Fear is universal. The gymnast fears stumbling instead of sticking the perfect landing. The singer fears a moment of wavering pitch. The serious speaker fears laughter; the joker silence. We all fear failure. How we respond to fear, however, varies considerably and determines whether this emotion will help us achieve our goals or leave us less able meet the challenges we face. Fear doesn’t have to be disabling.”[i]
Of course, God has not given us the spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7). It has been noted that “fear not” is the most frequent command in the Bible, appearing some 365 times. God knows our tendency to fear. The Bible is honest about the destructive results of fear. God is not the author of fear so we must expose it and renounce it, especially when a Christian fears extraordinary, believing prayer. Fear is the antithesis to faith.
So, what are these struggling Christians (and in some cases less-than-spiritual opponents) so afraid of? Here are my theories:
Fear of Intimacy With God
I was told of a survey conducted a number of years ago at a well-known church. The leaders wanted to understand more about the congregants’ perspective on their Christian faith. One question asked, “What is your number one fear as a Christian?” A top response was “intimacy with God.”
This may seem strange at first. But in reality, intimacy with God confronts issues in our lives that casual Christianity tends to conceal and coddle. Intimacy can mean, “into me see.” In intimacy we are vulnerable as we are lovingly drawn out of status quo faith to confront our sins, our idols, our self-reliance and our superficial pursuits. For those who merely signed up for a free ticket to heaven, rather than taking up their cross, this can be very threatening.
Fear of Transparency With Others
What a person is on their knees—a person is. Prayer is also very intimate interpersonally. This is a blessing for those who want deep, trusting relationships. Many in the church just prefer a quick handshake while hiding behind a Styrofoam coffee cup. Others are happy with superficial chats while being busy for Jesus.
I’ve known many who refrain from corporate prayer with the claim that they are shy about praying out loud with others. In many cases I suspect they just prefer to remain guarded and unknown, keeping others at bay by their non-participation. Yet, God has called us to pray together in deep bonds of mutual sharing—moving beyond a self-consciousness to a God-consciousness that allows all of us to open our hearts to one another.
Recently I’ve been riveted by an amazing little book by Norman Grubb[ii] describing an ongoing movement of revival in Africa many years ago as he labored alongside the well-known missionary, C.T. Studd. The summary of this revival is captured in the simple phrase, “Roof off. Walls down.” God calls us to a passionate authenticity before Him and a continuous transparency with one another. To miss this because of fear is one of the great tragedies of any Christian life.