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  • Writer's pictureAlice J Stewart

Holding Space, Prayer, Learning, Action

Main Idea: Action is necessary


The phrase "holding space" is probably not of Christian origin, but it's nice anyway. It's a way of listening and being present with someone without trying to fix or change them.  

Prayer can be of various sorts. One ubiquitous type, intercessory prayer, asks God to do something: be with, heal, change, help, comfort. 

Learning is a way we can "do" something that changes ourselves. We can research, read, take a class, be in a Bible study, attend a seminar. We can even have a conversation with someone and learn something that we hold onto, something that we can use later, or maybe learn something that changes us. 

And then there are actions. In church and other spiritual settings, these might include missional or outreach or social justice efforts. Sometimes they are actions on behalf of a church committee or worship team. And in church settings, these are usually also actions within our purview. We do not feel the need to have a particular role or be given permission - or we've received that role or permission fairly easily. 

All four of these activities are beautiful and necessary in our lives, especially our spiritual lives together. Individuals, congregations, and denominations may have greater or lesser comfort levels for each activity. I've been in congregations that were outward-focused and worked tirelessly for community and civic life. And I've been in congregations that jokingly called themselves the "frozen chosen." They were far more comfortable holding spacing and learning than in publicly praying or committing to action. 

Now, let's consider these four activities and the struggling, shrinking mainline church. Let's take them one by one. 

1. Holding Space: I can't remember the last time I went to a church, and someone didn't come up to me out of the blue and start talking about the shrinking church. I rarely meet with any emotions other than fear and sadness. And these are people who don't know that my life is all about helping struggling, shrinking churches! In these situations, the best I can do is hold space for people and listen. It's unhealthy to wallow in grief and fear for long periods, but it is also unwise to avoid full expression of emotions. 

2. Prayer: Praying for an expanding family of brothers and sisters in our pews, for a financial statement that isn't dreadful, and for the return of children's voices in our buildings - all of these prayers are wonderful. We can't imagine that God wouldn't want us to have these blessings, so we sometimes pray harder or wonder if there's something wrong with our praying. But our Father is far more wise than we are. We don't like to think that God's plan is for us to grow smaller, but maybe it is. That's a bit scary and requires discernment - and discernment requires prayer. 

3. Learning: For smaller, shrinking, and struggling congregations, there is SO MUCH to learn. The quantity of knowledge is daunting, and it's tough to know what is truly useful. Beyond learning about changes in the church, lay people may also need to learn more to take the load off of clergy. This can mean learning how to preach, taking an in-depth scripture class, or committing to an Education for Ministry certificate. Losing staff may mean learning website editing, social media, and computerized bookkeeping. When a small congregation divides and conquers these learning goals, it brings us closer together. We can rely on each other, commiserate, and "geek out" on what we're learning. 

4. Action: Sometimes, we feel like a small group of committed Christians can't do much. We're outnumbered in almost any crowd. A hockey team celebrating at the local diner might outnumber us some days. And yet we find ourselves increasingly called upon to make actionable decisions and take up more responsibilities. Many of us were frequent volunteers over the years, but now we're called upon to do yet more - even as we are older and more tired. Burnout in the congregation? The struggle is real! But choosing not to act as we see our "numbers" decrease is the height of irresponsibility. We can't expect our clergy or denomination to rescue us from our responsibilities. We've been told a million times that "we are the church," but we don't behave as if it were true. But we few lay people are the only ones who can save our church. Our clergy and denominational leaders will not be upset if we make a decision we're afraid they won't like. They will love it. I've even heard of a congregation that walked up to a bishop and handed over the church keys saying, "We've decided to worship at ______ church." The bishop was thrilled!

Smaller, shrinking, and struggling churches must be involved with all four behaviors or activities. We are drawn to one or two of them, but we must embody all four. Take up all four. All four are not only for larger churches. They are most important for the smaller and getting-smaller of us all. 

What is the one behavior or activity you are most comfortable with? What is the one you need most help with? What is the one that - if you ignore it - may kill your church? 

Comment below! 


Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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