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.
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.