For the past five years, I have served as preacher and minister for the church of Christ in Monette, AR. Monette is a small community of 1,500 people in northeast Arkansas, and the congregation averages about 50 attendees, the majority of which are ages 60 or older.
If you will pardon the cliché, our time here has been an emotional roller coaster. We’ve had some high-highs and some low-lows. I accepted the position fresh out of college, and it has been my only full-time ministry position. Lack of experience has been a serious handicap for me during my time here, with a lot of lessons coming from the school of hard-knocks.
Early on we were blessed with an influx of teenagers and younger families who had moved to the area. Our numbers grew to an average of 70 attendees, and morale was picking up. But after a few years, those teenagers grew up, graduated, and left for college. Those young families who had moved in moved again to new places. Conflicts arose that I did not have the maturity to handle, which resulted in people leaving. After five years of these ups and downs, it seemed as if we were right back where we had started. Morale was low, I was directionless, and the future seemed bleak. I knew that we needed help, but I did not know where to find it.
One day while I was at the campus of Harding School of Theology in Memphis, I noticed a flyer for Rural America Ministries. R.A.M. sounded like exactly what I was looking for: a ministry dedicated to the work of the church in rural America. I kept R.A.M. in the back of my mind for several months, until finally making the decision to reach out to them. That decision was rewarded when Jim Weaver, the director of R.A.M., offered to visit our congregation and give us an objective, third-party assessment.
Jim arrived in late September, a little less than three months prior to the time of this writing. While he was here, Jim sat down with a group of us and asked us several questions. Some were easy to answer, while others were tough to think about. But there was one that stood out to me above the rest:
“What role does prayer play in the life of the congregation?”
I didn’t answer, choosing to remain silent while the others shared their thoughts. But although my lips were silent, my brain was not. The answer repeatedly blaring across my mind was, “It doesn’t.”
Although I knew that a few of our members had strong prayer lives, corporate prayer was little more than a formality to us. Prayer was the parentheses that marked the beginning and the ending of service time, and we paid little attention to it other than that. We had gotten into a rut with the content of our prayers: praying for the sick to get well, for the bereaved to be comforted, and for the service to be pleasing, etc. Those prayers were less because we expected God to do something, and more because that is what we always prayed. Routine had replaced relationship, and most of us had not even noticed.
Jim gave us several suggestions on how to improve our ministry, but the first was to place a new emphasis on prayer. We took his admonishment seriously, and jumped into prayer as best as we knew how. Our leadership meetings, which had always been more focused on the material aspects of our ministry than on the spiritual, now feature time designated to prayer for the congregation. Our members vowed to pray for one another, and to send out text messages to let people know they had been prayed for. We dedicated a Sunday morning service to prayer, so that the entire congregation could go to God together. And we revitalized the content of our prayers as well, now praying that God would unite us, open the hearts of the people in our community, fill us with his Spirit and send us out as workers.
And God answered.
One of the first results that got our attention was the outcome of our annual Harvest Festival. Every year at Halloween we invite the community to stop by the church building for food, candy and games. This time, with our focus on prayer, we spent weeks leading up to the event praying that God would bless it to his service. He did. It was by far the largest turnout that we have ever had. I was able to make some new contacts and reestablish some old ones. Perhaps more importantly, the members of the congregation were able to fellowship and connect with people from outside the congregation. New relationships were formed. We were overwhelmed by what we knew was the power of God at work.
Throughout November and December, members have been sharing stories of how God has given them opportunities to witness and pray with people. People have come to the church looking for aid, allowing to us to begin relationships with them. Angel Tree contacted me to see if I would volunteer with them, and doing so has allowed me to not only meet, but also to serve families in my area. We have been praying for leadership, and godly men have begun stepping up into the role. Through God’s provision these past few months, we have been learning to have renewed confidence in Jesus’ promise, “Ask, and it shall be given to you.”
A word of warning though: God has not limited himself to delivering our requests. He has used our prayers to teach us and to change us. We have been learning that the church’s survival and success is not dependent on what we can or can’t do, but on what God can do through us. We have been learning to be patient, yet watchful; diligent, yet humble. And we are starting to catch on to the fact that whenever we ask our Father for something, he usually turns it into a teaching moment. When I asked God to give me opportunities to share his gospel with people, I was thinking that God would send people my way who were looking for someone to study the Bible with them. Instead, I was given people who needed furniture, food, transportation, and for some reason had come to our church to find it. God had answered my prayers for a chance to share his gospel by giving me chances to live it.
These lessons are not coming easily. I confess that I have been resistant to the Lord’s shaping of me over the past several weeks, and I know that I am not the only one of our congregation who is guilty of this. But even with stubborn folk like us, God’s mercy and persistence are evident. He is working, both within us and through us, to change both the outward and the inward focuses of the Monette Church of Christ. And because I am now experiencing the power of his work first-hand, I cannot help but be optimistic about the future.
Acts 2:42 says that the early church devoted themselves to prayer. Recapturing this devotion has already impacted our congregation for the better. I hope that whoever is reading this will do the same.