The first church I pastored had about 35-40 people in it. In five years I probably had only two really sad events – a baby born with disabilities who died shortly afterwards, and a member’s nephew who died in a motorbike accident. There were other illnesses, cancers, deaths, etc, but they were more related to the “normal” aging process. Still sad, but not heart-smashing.

My next congregation was somewhere in the region of 230 people with a subsequent increase in crises and tragedies, including road traffic deaths, miscarriages, and, most painfully of all, a suicide.

The next congregation I was associated with was one of over 600 people, although I was not a pastor in this church. I immediately noticed a massive spike in the number of really, really sad events. Every church bulletin had long lists of sick and dying people. Almost every other Sunday, there was somebody in the congregation, or related to someone in the congregation, who had received terminal diagnosis, lost a child, died in tragic circumstances, or had been in a terrible accident.

I’m now pastoring again, and I have no idea of the size of this church (never counted), but comparing it with the last church I pastored in, it looks quite similar, let’s just say 200+. I’ve immediately noticed that although there are many trying situations for people, there are far less sad things than in the big church I was a member in.

Big Question
This raises a big difficulty for larger congregations. How do you make people aware of the prayer needs of people in desperately sad situations without totally depressing the whole congregation all the time?

The bigger the congregation, the much greater likelihood there is of there always being some major sadness (and often more than one) in front of people’s minds. That kind of thing, week in week out, can take a massive emotional toll on people, especially those who are tender-hearted and sympathetic, who can all too easily feel the pain that others are feeling.

In other situations I’ve seen ministers who in some ways revel in the constant drama of it all and almost seem to live for the next crisis in order to hype it up and position themselves as indispensably important and involved.

Balanced Burden Bearing
Now, of course, we don’t want to be hard and unfeeling towards suffering people. We don’t want to resent them “disturbing the peace of our little lives.” We must be willing to carry the burdens of others who are suffering; carry them mentally, emotionally, spiritually, prayerfully and practically.

But most of us can’t carry all the burdens that are associated with being in a large congregation. And I don’t believe God expects us to either. It’s so crushing. So what can be done to get the balance right here?

First, congregations must give equal weight to celebrating the good things. Births, marriages, graduations, and healings shouldn’t be ignored or demoted to a tag-on in bulletins and prayer requests. We must rejoice with those who rejoice. If we don’t, then we present not only an unbalanced picture of life but also of God.

Second, pastors have to be careful not to share too much information with the whole congregation. The more details of a certain case that are given, the more painful emotions the hearers will experience. Much of the details should be reserved for people who are intimately involved in the situation – family members, close friends, elders. Otherwise, we are gratuitously afflicting people’s ears, minds, and hearts who can do nothing about the situation and who may not even know the people involved.

Third, most large churches are divided into districts or areas. If you are a member and you are finding that you just can’t handle all the agonizing prayer needs from so many people (and you can’t), why not mentally limit yourself to thinking and praying about only those who are in your area. It’s probably still a hundred people or so, but it’s a lot more “normal” a number to be concerned about.

Fourth, except in exceptional cases, maybe the public prayer could cover sick and needy people in general rather than sounding like a doctor’s report on a large ward. And maybe district prayer meetings could cover the sick and needy in more personal and detailed terms. That will cut down the number of needs to cover and carry in the congregational prayer.

There’s no easy answer to this. We don’t want to create a false impression that life is great for everyone and no one has any trouble. On the other hand, neither do we want to create the false impression that everyone is dying or suffering. Both create spiritually damaging climates that eventually depress and demoralize God’s people. The unbalanced overemphasis on suffering and sadness also leaves indelible marks on children and young people.

  • shawn anderson

    This is helpful to think about, even in application to a small church. The church I serve is around 35 households. We have a Daily Prayer Guide.
    1)Families and individuals have been divided into 31 groups (arranging single households or widows in the same slot).
    a)Find the box with your name in it and place a (1) there.
    b)Continue to number the blank boxes from 2 to 30.
    c)Use these numbers as days of the month and pray for those names that day.

    2)A blank box is placed opposite each group
    a)Add people to pray for in “friends” column; be sure to add unsaved friends that you would like to come to Christ.

    By everyone participating, everyone can be prayed for each day. AND if you have a larger congregation, then you could divide your households into 60-61 days. If you don’t have enough households to fill up 60-61 slots, then give college students their own slot. This would really support them.

    In this way, each family will be praying for all of the families in the congregation between 6-12 times a year, minimum.

  • Brenda

    You wouldn’t use this logic against having big families, would you? The more children you have the greater the chance for big sadness. Think about when your children get married and have children of their own all the extra sadness you could possibly have.
    So many times the trials we have had, have drawn my larger church together and while the magnitude of the situation can overwhelm us, the evidence of God’s nearness can leave us with more peace and brotherly love than before. Care pages and blogs can be life changing – in a positive way and being able to see how God upholds his people is so comforting, know that God will uphold me too in all my trials, big or small.
    Even if some of these trials were not in my church, but just in our community, there’s a big chance I could still hear about them, read about them and have the same feelings as if they were happenings to one of my fellow church members.
    Having a large church can also mean that there are many helping hands.
    Any thoughts? Should I cancel my ‘Voice of the Martyrs’ subscription?

    • David Murray

      Hi Brenda. Big families, like big churches, can have big blessing, as you point out and as I too have experienced. But, yes, with every child, there will be of course also a multiplying of trial and trouble. That’s not an argument against big churches or big families. It’s simply saying that we need to know ourselves and our limitations, and take steps so that we are not sunk with more than we can bear. Research shows that bad news is “stickier” than good news – we are drawn to bad news more than good news, and it takes five pieces of good news to balance out the effect of one piece of bad news. That means we (and our pastors) must adopt biblical strategies (e.g. Philippians 4:8-9) in deciding what news (church or otherwise) to let into our minds and hearts or we will suffer the mental, emotional, and spiritual consequences. I read Voice of the Martyrs, but I make sure I read about revivals too!

  • Shaz

    Thank you for this article. This is exactly the issue I am having with my current church to the point where I can’t face going anymore. My previous church was smaller with it’s own sad occurences, but not a huge long list. My current church which seems to be busy and bustling has a long list of prayer items both in the Sunday service and on the weekly news email, which I dread to read these days. I used to be part of the prayer ministry team until I had my own tragedy. My father was on that list for 3 months while he suffered and then died and I felt an intense embarrassment like I had been in the spotlight and felt incredibly self-conscious even after coming ‘off the list’. Since then I have found every prayer item depressing and I hide in the toilets during the coffee break. What to do? I’m seeking a smaller congregation for my own sanity.

  • Shaz

    In response to Brenda, I think it depends on your state of mind. I experienced a pretty traumatic loss and the fairly big church I used to love and be excited to be part of became one big mass of anxiety where I was constantly biting back tears and hiding in the toilets during the coffee break. Every piece of bad news (and good news on the flip-side) hit me between the eyes and it just became too much. Whereas outside of church I could limit my intake of news, just being in a church service or checking emails – it slapped me in the face every week. I had to step out of being on the prayer ministry team and a homegroup leader because it was like living it all over again with someone else, and then someone else; something I was just not emotionally ready to do. I now appreciate a much smaller fellowship. Although there are still these types of prayer requests, it is nowhere near as many or as overwhelming.