Schmidt says prayers of discernment could change the church

By Madeline Pillow

Dr. Frederick Schmidt was plenary speaker for the March 5 Bishop's Convocation on Prayer.

Finding out why people aren’t coming to church has caused a frantic period of searching, Dr. Frederick Schmidt told the audience at the March 5 Bishop’s Convocation on Prayer. This has led to all the different ways church members have tried to bring in new members, including crafted sermons made not to offend, rock music in the sanctuary and coffee in the narthex.

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But Schmidt, who is Reuben P. Job Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., said what is absent from the church are prayers for discernment. And that through this significant type of prayer can be found the answers to what the church is and how the life of the church is nurtured.

Schmidt was speaking to about 300 clergy and laity who attended the event at Trinity UMC in Richmond.

About 300 clergy and laity attended the Bishop's Convocation on Prayer at Trinity UMC in Richmond.

“What we should be asking ourselves and those who come through our doors is not, ‘How would you like to contribute to the contract?’ It is not, ‘Can we convince you that the contract is important?’ What we should be asking is, ‘Who is God calling you to be as a part of the body of Christ?’ and that task should be undertaken with prayers for discernment,” said Schmidt.

“Those prayers—prayers for discernment—are, sadly, largely absent from today’s church,” continued Schmidt. “Our leadership conversations might be prefaced with an invocation, but they have little bearing on the progress of what takes place in the meetings that we have.”

The Rev. Kiok Cho led a workshop on "Contemplative Prayer."

“I sometimes tell my students the relationship between an invocation and a meeting of an administrative council is the same relationship between the national anthem and the progress of a football game,” Schmidt said. “We will pray, but then everything else that we will do is done on other terms.”

Schmidt said he finds power in prayers for discernment. “In spite of the nearly complete absence of those prayers from the church’s life,” he said, “prayers for discernment constitute the only spiritual discipline that I believe could change everything.”

In his presentation, Schmidt listed four things that praying for discernment requires, described the nature of prayers for discernment and discussed how these prayers could change the church.

Four things required to pray for discernment are a robust ecclesiology, a belief that God will show up, that the Church will believe the reality to which the Gospel witnesses, and that, guided by these prayers, questions would be divided between those for ourselves (“I” questions), the group (“we” questions) and God.

The Rev. Taylor Mertins led a workshop on "Worship as a Spiritual Discipline."

Quoting Alexander Schmemann, an influential Orthodox Christian priest, Schmidt said that a church that is not sold into society can use these kinds of prayers to ask what God’s will is for them and can listen with a freedom not afforded to churches with a societal agenda.

At the conclusion, Schmidt asked participants to give way to prayer that is the business of the church as well as being a church that is harder to manage as a result.

“God’s grace was never anything we could manage anyway,” Schmidt said.

Betsey Davis used prayer beads in her workshop on "Spirituality and Arts:
A Bead and A Prayer."

Following Schmidt’s plenary, participants had time to attend two workshops out of 11 focused on prayer. Workshops offered were: "Rare Prayer: Cultivating Old-New Resources for Congregational Life" led by Dr. Frederick Schmidt; "Praying with the Scriptures” led by the Rev. Judy Worthington; "Praying the Book of Nature" led by Beth Norcross; "Pastoral Care Prayer" led by the Rev. Lyle Morton; "Worship as a Spiritual Discipline" led by the Rev. Taylor Mertins; "Contemplative Prayer" led by the Rev. Kiok Cho; "Exploring Native American Prayer Traditions" led by the Rev. Larry Jent; "Teach Them How To Pray: Introducing a New Generation to a Life of Prayer" led by Paulo Lopes; "Piety & Mercy – the Twin Peaks of Vital Spirituality: Practiced in Worship, Lived in the World" led by the Rev. Roger Dowdy; "Spirituality and Arts: A Bead and A Prayer" led by Betsey Davis; and “Discipleship Circles: Inviting God into the Discussion” led by the Rev. Don Jamison.

— Madeline Pillow is editor of the Advocate.




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