Prayer meetings set off a light bulb for members of First Reformed Church in Saddle Brook, New Jersey.
"The experience demonstrated that 'church' can happen outside in the community--at the VFW, at a school, even at the Saddle Brook Marriott," says Christopher Wolf, the congregation's pastor. "It was a light bulb moment for our own church members."
This spring, First Reformed hosted a series of Hope and Prayer Gatherings throughout Saddle Brook, hoping to offer encouragement and rally the community, regardless of faith, creed, or race.
"The discussions and participation at the gatherings were excellent. This community has never been covered in prayer like this before.Members of the community who attended expressed gratitude and, Wolf says, some surprise. "It was new for people--the church coming closer, speaking to real life issues.
"People are suffering and struggling. Our communities need more than political and economic solutions. The time is now to turn things around; and it starts with prayer.
"We believe in the power of prayer and have seen God at work in many, many lives through prayer. So we are bringing that prayer power and hope directly to people through these gatherings."
Starting at 7:00 p.m., each session has a topic and a target group. There's a welcome, a brief talk about relevant issues and insights for that evening's topic, an interactive discussion on the Bible, a group prayer, and an opportunity for individual prayer requests. The first event, dubbed "Youth in Schools," took place at the Saddle Brook High School cafeteria and focused on young people, parents, guardians, teachers, aides, administrators, and others concerned about youth.
With about 25 attendees from various towns in the area, the night's first phase consisted of an open dialogue on the demands of growing up, such as peer pressure and drug and alcohol use. Then Wolf led prayers asking for patience, wisdom, and positive outcomes.
"People were inspired," he said. "People walked away thinking that we need to do something and we can do something. It was a great start."
Other sessions focused on service personnel (military, fire, police, ambulance); the economy and jobs; physical and mental health; and family, marriage, separation, divorce, and death.
"Through our prayers and this outreach, we are taking responsibility for the spiritual condition of our community and the people living here.
"I believe that each church is purposefully placed in a context and community to articulate and make visible the substance of the kingdom--Christ himself, salvation, justice, hope, compassion, healing, and peace.
"This is what 'being Jesus' to others really means—this is local mission engagement."
Wolf says Saddle Brook, a mostly working class area, has experienced some extreme problems over the past few years. Unemployment is rising; stores are closing; alcohol and drug abuse and mental illness are common.
"Our communities and citizens are facing unprecedented challenges today. Yet, because of these gatherings and the prayers, families, service personnel, businesses, young people, and people with illnesses will be encouraged and moved; consequently our communities will be stronger and more hopeful."
The Hope and Prayer Gatherings are open to all faith traditions as well as people who haven't attended church in a while or who have never attended church. The events are not trying to recruit new members. Preaching and teaching are part of First Reformed's mission, Wolf says, and church members are growing in awareness and compassion for the community, while also building relationships with community leaders.
"These gatherings are based on meeting needs of people regardless of where they are spiritually," he says. "We are making a purposeful transition from 'presence' to 'influence' in our community. We believe as a church that we have the calling and authority in Christ to not just be present--but to influence, lead, and impact the lives and the spiritual condition of the community. As churches, we need to see and respond to the suffering and needs around us.
"Just like Jesus, we need to bring light to darkness, not just admire the light while sitting in our sanctuaries."
The Hope and Prayer gatherings were intended to be a first step, Wolf says, and now the congregation will discern what God will lead them to do next.
Pray that the Hope and Prayer Gatherings will continue to have impact.
Pray for your church to bring light into darkness.
For ideas on connecting with your community in new ways, email firstname.lastname@example.org.