God Is Other People
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the curmudgeonly, older pastor (not me) who on entering a church came upon a newsprint banner spanning the front of the sanctuary. In bold letters it declared, “God Is Other People.”
This old guy made his way to the front, found a marker and added a large comma after “People.” Now the banner said, “God Is Other, People.”
This tale came to mind as I pondered a form of prayer that has come to be common in the worship of many churches these days, perhaps particularly smaller congregations. Members of the congregation are invited to offer their own prayers. A mic is passed, or run about, amongst the gathered worshippers.
This format has it’s upsides. It affirms that you don’t have to be ordained to pray. It surfaces the things that are on peoples’s minds and hearts. There are elements of spontaneity and informality which can be wonderful.
There are also downsides. Sometimes these “prayers” sound more like announcements. Frequently, the same people take the mic every week, while others never do. Sometimes it can feel as if the prayers are “insider talk,” with names and references known only to an in-group. The message others may take away is, “This is really close-knit group, and I’m not part of it.”
And of course, there’s the technology itself. Someone shouting, “The mic’s not on,” when a particularly soft-spoken person undertakes to pray doesn’t help.
Those who find this format compelling tend to say things like, “It draws us closer together as a community,” or “It helps us to know each other better.” Or as one person put it, “I wouldn’t have had any idea these things were going on in people’s lives.”
Yet as these comments suggest, the focus is on us — our closeness, our sense of community, knowing each other better. These are the kinds of self-evidently “good things” that are difficult to question. But, for me, they suggest the real problem in this format and trend. The focus is on us, not God. There’s less focus on the mercy, power and grace of God than on our many concerns.
It is surely true that God’s presence is often mediated to us through other people. But when “other people” or “our close community” or “these wonderful people” become a substitute for God something is missing. And like all idols, “other people,” will disappoint us.