By Rev. Dr. Lillian C. Smith
Pastor, Cheverly UMC in Cheverly, Maryland
What if our current efforts for church revitalization are missing something? What if some of what we have focused our attention on to effect congregational revitalization and vitality needs to be preceded and undergirded by something more fundamental? Increasingly, it is apparent that although our efforts are good, something is missing. ‘Say it ain’t so Lillian…’
The United Methodist Church in the United States has very educated clergy and laity. Our general agencies and annual conferences continue to provide excellent training opportunities to equip congregational leaders for ministries.As a person who has served as a staff person in two general agencies -- the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and Discipleship Ministries, and as Director of Connectional Ministries in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, I witnessed and helped facilitate that type of training. Our congregations know about the importance of ‘Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.’ Yet, with all of the resourcing, why are many ofour congregations still declining even in heavily populated communities? That reality has been something that has perplexed me for a while. That nagging inquiry inspired my participation in a recent mission trip to Cuba.
Traveling to Cuba had been a personal dream for many years. My desire to travel there was not due to their beautiful beaches or the tropical climate. The tropical climate was lovely. The beach visited was breathtaking, and the Cuban hosts, especially the United Methodists of Cuba provided gracious hospitality. The island was indeed beautiful. My desire to go there was to witness, with my own eyes, the United Methodist Church in Cuba.
On two occasions I heard Bishop Ricardo Pereira, Episcopal Leader of the United Methodist Church of Cuba, speak at Rekindle the Flame Conferences, in the state of Georgia. Rekindle the Flame is an annual conference sponsored byRick Bonfim Ministries. Rev. Bonfim retired as a United Methodist General Evangelist. Both times Bishop Pereira spoke, he talked about the vibrancy and continued growth of the United Methodist Church in Cuba. Wait. The UMC in Cuba continues to grow? Why? How? Is it the people’s response to political pressure? What is fueling that growth?
Let me not leave you hanging in suspense. What was the major difference between churches here and there? Corporate prayer and fasting. Prayer and fasting occupies a more prevalent place in the rhythm of the United Methodist Church of Cuba’s weekly life. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, the congregations are invited to prayand fast from 9-11 a.m. On those days, a particular group gathers at each of the churches to pray. For example, women of the church would pray on one day. Other ministry groups would pray on the other days. Entire families attended the Friday evening vigil at the church from 9-11 p.m. Each congregational gathering was filled with joyful songs of praise and worship.
Could it be that the prevalence of prayer and fasting in the life of the United Methodist congregations in Cuba isfueling growth? It appears so and Scripture seems to support it. Not too surprisingly, prayer is fueling growth in many congregations in the US also.
Ministry strategies, plans and programs are important. Yet, if the strategies, plans and programs are implemented without the continual direction and undergirding of the Holy Spirit, they will not bear the desired fruit. It is the power of the Holy Spirit, in response to prayer and fasting, that leads us. Prayer and fasting makes all the difference.
It is the Holy Spirit who draws people to churches for an encounter with Jesus. It is the Holy Spirit who empowers the Body of Christ for ministry. It is the Holy Spirit who fuels the growth of congregations. It is the Holy Spirit who enables us as individuals and congregations to battle spiritual darkness and wickedness in high places.
It is not that prayer is absent in the lives of congregations. Church members pray daily and during worship celebrations. Yet, prayer meetings are not a part of the life of many congregations. The creation of more opportunities for corporate prayer and fasting would strengthen our ministries. While prayer is present. Fasting is often absent in thelife of many contemporary Christians and congregations. Corporate prayer and fasting is powerful.
Corporate prayer and fasting plays another role that no revitalization plan, program or strategy can fulfill without it. No plan or strategy can dismantle spiritual opposition. Human plans can address human situations. That is vitally important. Yet, only prayer and fasting can address, battle and dismantle the Enemy’s plans and strategies against ourcongregations, congregants and communities. Prayer and fasting enable us to identify and battle spiritual hindrances.
Let’s be clear. The Enemy does have a plan to destroy Christians and congregational ministries. Many congregations find themselves battling negative cycles that don’t seem to break. Spiritual hindrances are real and can only be destroyed through the spiritual weapons of warfare. Prayer and fasting makes us more sensitive to hear God’s direction and insight. Additionally, when we don’t pray, it is important to know that there are persons who are actively praying against the move of God. If we fail to participate in corporate prayer and fasting we will miss the opportunity to counter the wiles of the devil.
Jesus taught his disciples the importance of prayer and fasting. In Matthew 17: 21, Jesus shared that “some thingsonly come out by fasting and prayer.” John Wesley fasted and prayed on Wednesdays and Fridays and expected early Methodist clergy to do likewise. Corporate prayer and scheduled fasting was an element of the life of the early Methodists.
Every great move of God was preceded and undergirded by prayer and fasting. Every revival and great awakeningwas the result of prayer and fasting. What if what we really need now is to provide more concentrated time for prayer and fasting?
What if prayer and fasting would enhance our congregational ministry? In a 2016 Leading Ideas article, “7 of John Wesley’s Practices Can Change Hearts Today,” Roger Ross, shared an insightful truth. He wrote, “Wesley rediscovered what the church of his day had forgotten: prayer releases the power of God.” What if we have found ourselves in a societal situation similar to the context of John Wesley. What if we need to return back to the oldlandmarks of faith in order to successfully engage in ministry today? What if...
The Rev. Dr. Lillian Smith serves as pastor of Cheverly United Methodist Church. Her most recent book, Rooted Again:Re-Establishing Forgotten or Abandoned Connections with God and God’s Kingdom Mandate, highlights the importance of strengthening discipleship and dismantling spiritual hindrances to ministry.