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"Shut up and pray" summed up the first day of this year's Catalyst conference. It was "eloquently" spoken by Eugene Cho, lead pastor at Quest Church in Seattle, who was leading a lab on "Start from Scratch: Creating Something from Nothing," one of many sessions that shook with the expectancy and excitement that has come to characterize Catalyst. Cho's comment also pointed to something deeper for us all to ponder.
His lab addressed a passion that drives a great many of the attenders, that entrepreneurial energy to start something new that will transform others. If it's not starting something new, certainly it is the passion to make a difference that nearly every one of the 13,000 attenders of Catalyst Atlanta 2013 share. This is a far cry from an academic conference. Weary from ministry demands, they sit on the edge of their seats, taking volumunious notes, scribbling down insights, turning an ear for any drop of inspiritation, soaking it all in.
The first day consisted of lab sessions and featured a plethora of people known for making a difference: Henry Cloud, Donald Miller, Rebekah Lyons, Leroy Barber, and CT's Andy Crouch. I attended labs by Jen Hatmaker, Ann Voskamp, Eugene Cho, and Mark Batterson.
I was impressed with each speaker's classic evangelical passion, a combination of deep love of Christ and a compelling passion to serve him in the church and world. I heard repeated calls to pursue justice, generous criticism of the institutional church, and an overall sense that there's a lot of work to do.
Two themes jumped out at me in the labs. First, nearly every talk was grounded in an Old Testament passage. Cho used Nehemiah's rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, for example, and Ann Voskamp dove into an obscure passage in 2 Chronicles 20. The passages became illustrations of wisdom—effective action driven by understanding. For example, Batterson exhorted us to step into the river (like Israel stepped into the River Jordan) if we want to see God part the waters. That is, leaders are not to wait around for God to act, but prompted by his Spirit, they should step out in faith and watch God show up.
We take this approach to Scripture for granted in our evangelical sub-culture. Put these passages in the hands of a Eastern Orthodox teacher, and Jesus Christ's redemptive work would be showing up everywhere. The Orthodox would take that passage about stepping into the River Jordan and wax eloquent about our need to step into the cleansing waters of baptism. Evangelicals are unique in mining the practical/wisdom aspects of such texts.
The other theme was lived spirituality, or intimacy with God. Hatmaker drove home the importance of personal discipleship; Voskamp talked about learning to be present in Christ's presence; Batterson spoke of the need to be consecrated. And then there was Cho's "Shut up and pray."
Tyler Wigg Stevenson, another lab leader and author of The World Is Not Ours to Save (InterVarsity Press), suggested to me afterwards that maybe this theme—along with the theme of the conference ("Known")—suggests that perhaps many activist evangelicals are on the verge of exhaustion. They are striving to do so much in their churches and worlds, but they are running out of fuel. Perhaps the conference organizers and lab leaders see this weariness and offer some rest: prayer and intimacy with the Father.
One cannot help but applaud such a move. As a seasoned veteran of 1960s idealism, I've seen what evangelical passion—for evangelism, social justice, the environment, rebuilding the church (yes, these were concerns even back then)—can do to people. I've seen a fair amount of burn out and resulting cynicism in my years. If you ground yourself in a desire to make a difference in the world, you dry up pretty quickly. There's a reason one of the most effective and persevering activists of our era—Mother Teresa—spent hours each day in silence and prayer.
Of course, given the context, prayer was extolled largely for its usefulness. If we are people of prayer and intimate with God, if we receive a fresh sense of consecration from him, if we pause and listen to him reaffirm his love for us, we'll be more effective than ever. This conference attracts the very people who are anxious to make a difference, so this is an effective strategy to encourage prayer, and it's true as far as it goes.
I wonder, however, if many won't leave the conference motivated to pray primarily because it will make them more effective in their ministries. As a former minister who more times than not prayed because I thought it would lead to effectiveness, I know the temptation first hand. Sometimes the call to prayer feels like calls to run on the same old treadmill, so that prayer becomes one more thing on the to-do-list for successful ministry.
Those of us addicted to effectiveness need someone to tell us that maybe our ideas of successful ministry and our passion to make a difference need to be examined afresh. What is really driving that? Are we trying to justify our existence through effectiveness? Or do we minister because we are already justified—no ifs, ands, or buts?
Eugene Cho addressed this briefly in his lab, as does Stevenson in his own way in his eloquent book. I suspect that most of us spend much of our lives trying to grasp that the radical idea that prayer is valuable whether it makes a difference in ministry or not. It is, in the end, a gift of the Spirit, a means by which we cry "Abba!" to a loving heavenly Father, who accepts the ineffective and loves those who make no difference in the world, even those who have made the world a worst place.
This approach to prayer is certainly what Jesus models in the Garden of Gethsemane. Sometimes prayer does not lead to more ministry effectiveness but only a cross. And yet prayer helped him to move forward that night in courage ("Not my will, but yours be done"), when all he could look forward to was the desertion of his followers and an ignoble death. I suspect that this story, more than others in Scripture, gets at the heart of true spiritual "effectiveness" and "successful" Christian leadership.
In the meantime, we have ministries we are responsible for. We need to figure out how to lead an organization and disciple youth and share the gospel and pursue justice, and a plethora of other tasks that require wisdom. And one of the best places on the planet to get practical advice and inspiration is these Catalyst labs.
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today.