At the beginning of every year, Pastor Gary Grogan from Stone Creek Church on South Race Street in Urbana leads his congregation in a week of prayer meetings for the New Year. From Jan. 5-11, 15 hour-long prayer services punctuated the week. The week concluded with a 24-hour prayer vigil, from 7 p.m. on Friday to 7 p.m. on Saturday.
Wicker baskets placed near the front of the sanctuary held hundreds of prayer requests written on notecards submitted by people in the 1,400-member congregation. At the three services I attended, participants were encouraged to take a stack of prayer requests and "lift them to the Lord" during the hour of prayer.
My stack of requests included someone who recently had lost a job, a newly divorced person searching for work, someone struggling with loneliness, a mother whose son's cancer has recurred, a college student struggling to know God's will and a single mother in a court battle for her children.
About 25 people were at the meetings I attended. Music played in the background. Most sat scattered in pews throughout the sanctuary. A few paced as they prayed, meandering up and down the aisles and flipping through their stack of prayer cards. Most prayed silently, although a few quietly prayed out loud. During the hour some went to the front of the sanctuary and knelt at the altar. One woman at the altar wept.
An 8-page booklet handed to me at the start of the prayer service said, "A perfect New Year's solution would be to have a deeper commitment, a deeper love and a deeper worship for the Lord. He wants our undivided attention in spite of the distractions and temptations that lie waiting around the corner. ... Instead of a New Year's Resolution, how about a renewal? We like to think of the clean slate, but we have our part to do. How can we be the kind of people whose lives strive for that ONE THING? What holds us back?"
Some of the questions in the booklet included, "Where do I want to be at this time next year?" "What do I need to stop fixating on?" "What consumes my thoughts?" "What has God already told me?" "Do I trust in my own strength and abilities?" "What do I need to leave behind?"
During one service, I flipped open my personal journal to a place where I recorded what several different pastors and leaders told me during November and December they want to be sure and address in 2014. Some of those include:
"In 2014 I want to give up always having to be right." I thought of the constant need for confession and forgiveness all of us have.
"It's not about me. It's about God." I thought of Psalm 145 and the words, "Great is the Lord and worthy of praise. His greatness no one can fathom."
"I don't need to think much about my 'so-called' successes — the hundreds of sermons I have preached and the thousands of counseling sessions I've conducted." I thought of the words from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, "Don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing."
"Good listeners are rare. I want to listen more in 2014 and practice keeping my mouth shut." I thought of the importance of asking people two simple questions, "What's been the best part of your day?" and "What's been the hardest part of your day?" Both questions often open the door for others to talk and allow you to be one of those rare good listeners.
"I want to take my pain on the front end, not the back end." I thought of scores of meetings in 2013 where it was obvious that if we wait to take our pain on the back end, it always is worse.
"Every leader has skeletons in the closet. I want to be more transparent next year." I thought of how you don't have to tell people everything you know. You shouldn't. But more honesty, truth-telling, and transparency certainly are good ideas in 2014.
"I don't want to be surprised by opposition. Instead, I want to spend more time praying for perseverance." I thought of what I told the pastor who said that to me. "God never will abandon you. Certainly not in 2014."
I was lost in the comments in my journal when the leader of the day's prayer service called the faithful to the front of the sanctuary. After putting us in a circle, he led us in communion. He said, "You can see from the hundreds of needs expressed on these cards that we constantly must pray for each other in 2014. So keep praying, friends. Don't ever, ever quit asking God for help."
As I walked to my car, a man getting in the car beside mine looked at me and said, "Hey brother, good to pray with you. Keep pressing in to God this year. He loves you."
Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via blog.pastortopastorinitiatives.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow him on Twitter at @donfollis.