We are highlighting Leadership Journal's Top 40, the best articles of the journal's 36-year history, presenting them in chronological order. Today we present #27, from 1990. Countless readers told us how Jack Hayford's practice, mentioned in this article, of praying on Saturday night over the seats that would be occupied the next day, stirred them to similar preparation.
I was 22 when I took my first pastorate, a small congregation in Fort Wayne, Indiana. At best we averaged forty-five people in worship.
Before that peak, we had one rough stretch. As some members moved and others went away for the summer, our average attendance over a five-month stretch dropped steadily from forty-seven to forty-four to thirty-three to twenty-two and finally, by the middle of August, to eleven.
One Sunday morning only eight people attended church. When my family came back for the evening service, nobody else showed. No one.
I sat discouraged in the front row next to Anna, my wife, and our baby, who was lying in a bassinet.
I already was defeated after the morning service, but now I felt simply awful. What in the world am I doing here? I thought. If we had had enough money, I would have packed my family in the car and left town. But we didn't have it.
As I was sitting there, I made what I later realized was a crucial decision.
"Honey," I said to my wife, "you stay here with the baby and kneel. I'm going to the nursery to pray. If I we don't pray right now, this will beat us."
While praying in the nursery, I saw a mental picture of the church building on fire-not burning up, but flames were going up from the building, and the cinders were blowing east of the church and raining on top of houses, igniting them. I felt the Lord was telling me he was still intending to bring his "fire" to that church.
I was strengthened and encouraged to stay at the church, which I did for another two years. I can't say the church exploded with Spirit-filled enthusiasm after that. In fact, it never became much larger than it was at its peak. But in those two years, we had a number of families from that housing development to the east start attending.
That incident reinforced for me the priority of prayer in ministry and especially in preparing to lead worship. A pastor, of course, must do many things to prepare to lead people weekly in worship, from preparing a sermon to making sure hymnals are in place. But before I attend to technical matters, I've learned to attend to spiritual concerns.
What Distracts Us from Worship
Prayer helps my heart, mind, and soul focus on the meaning and direction of worship. I make prayer a priority because it dissolves the distractions of worship. My story illustrates a leading distraction: the yearning for superficial success. Certainly, I was concerned about the spiritual welfare of individuals at the time, but I confess I was also overly concerned with mere numbers.
But the yearning for "successful" worship can take other forms, each of which undermines our ability to lead worship in a right spirit.
1. Seeking a smooth service. During one recent Sunday service, I became angry. A group that was to make a presentation didn't show up on time; it was a rainy day, and the van that was supposed to bring them was late. I became irritated and said a couple of abrupt things to a staff member on the platform.
At once, I felt rebuked. First, I realized this group's tardiness wasn't anybody's fault. Second, I remembered the strength of our service isn't in its smoothness; that's not the source of its power. So I immediately apologized to my colleague.