When Steve Caton gets that glint in his eye and I see that hint of a smile working around the edges of his mouth, I know he has something unusual in mind.
Steve, the Director of Worship and Arts at Covenant Life Church, had just stuck his head in my door and said, “How about if we have the congregation go out into the community for some kind of service activity on that Sunday?” I knew exactly which day he was talking about: an upcoming Sunday when he and many key members of our worship leadership team would be out of town.
“Hmmm, let me think about that a moment,” I answered. After just a few seconds, I said, “OK, how about if we go on a prayer walk?” Right away Steve and I realized how perfectly the idea fit into the flow of our current worship themes. For several weeks, we had been exploring the theme of Vertical Habits (more on Vertical Habits in RW 84). Beginning with simple phrases such as “I praise you,” “I love you,” “Forgive me,” “Help me,” and several others, we had been thinking about the varied ways we can express our thoughts and emotions to God.
The last message in the series would focus on the phrase “I will testify.” We had already decided that the subsequent week would be all about the many ways that our congregation could live out its testimony by demonstrating care for our community. Following that Sunday with the prayer walk would be an ideal way to take our testimony and caring into the community.
Getting Everyone on Board
A quick e-mail to our church leadership outlined the general idea: a single, combined service that Sunday morning; a song or two and a brief message on prayer in the ministry center; “marching orders” for the walk; and then the walk itself. We would divide the congregation into seven groups, each led by a pastoral elder. Upon returning to the church, we would share a simple meal together to close the morning.
No objections were raised, although several of the elders did say that this was definitely going to push them beyond their accustomed comfort level! Steve and I immediately began to work on the details, beginning with an announcement in our congregation’s weekly e-mail. I recruited elders to lead the seven walking groups, while Steve started looking for someone to provide music for the brief worship time that would open the morning.
With his keen eye for graphic design, Steve also took responsibility for creating a mailer to be sent to the surrounding community. It was a large, eye-catching card that informed our neighbors about the walk (and also served as an excellent reminder to our own members). A key component of the mailing was an invitation to contact the church with prayer concerns, so that we could pray specifically for our neighbors as we walked through their streets.
Although the mailing was sent out just a few days before the walk, we received more than a dozen community responses with prayer requests. Some were very specific, asking us to pray for individuals as we walked; others were for general concerns—peace in the Middle East was mentioned several times—or for community agencies, such as a joint youth ministry and a local crisis pregnancy center. One bank manager sent us the first names of all her employees. Still others had no requests at all; the senders just wanted to thank us for taking the initiative to walk and pray.
Rain, Rain, Go Away . . .
On the morning of the walk, I woke up to see that my worst fear had been realized—it was raining. Even though I had announced that the walk would take place “rain or shine,” I was sure many people would choose to stay home. But a few hours later the congregation began to arrive with umbrellas in hand. As we later discovered, the rain would prove to be an unexpected blessing.
Worship began joyfully. I preached a brief message on the theme “Who Is My Neighbor?” acknowledging how rarely I pray for those who live closest to me—and admitting that in many cases, I don’t even know their names! The seven elders who would be leading the groups then arranged themselves around the perimeter of the ministry center.
I gave some suggestions for how to pray during the walk: if you see toys by a home, pray for the children; if you see a ramp, pray for a person with disabilities; if you see a broken-down car, pray for reliable transportation. Above all, I asked people to keep their eyes open and trust that the Holy Spirit would reveal the needs all around us.
With that, I invited the congregation to divide into seven groups after telling them that some of us would take a shorter route to accommodate the elderly and others who wished a less strenuous trip. Each of the leaders received maps I had prepared for their part of the walk, along with the specific prayers that had come in from that area. After a joint prayer of preparation, we headed for the exits.
Blessings Pouring Down
It took a little while to become comfortable with walking and praying in the midst of a large group of people, but the rain helped. Walking under our umbrellas, it was almost as if we were in our own small prayer spaces. I wasn’t tempted to talk to anyone else, and after a few blocks, I found that it was becoming much easier to stay focused on my prayers.
A half hour of walking went by very quickly—a report I also received from other groups—and there were lots of smiles as we returned to the church. People had noticed countless small details about our community as they walked. One group had been greeted by a neighbor who had been on the lookout for them; others had the chance to tell passers-by what we were up to. There seemed to be a real sense of delight at how much we had been blessed by the walk, even though our intent was to bless the community.
If You Want to Try It
If I could do it again, I would send the community mailer out sooner, giving more people a chance to contact us with prayer requests. I also would have worked harder on a directed prayer activity at church for those who weren’t able to walk with us. Other than that, my best recommendation is to keep it simple.
Worship, walk, pray, eat. In countless ways, a prayer walk can bless a community and return a blessing to the community of faith. I was surprised by how many of our people said, “We have to do this again.”
One last suggestion: You might want to pray for rain!
Prayers for the City: A Vespers Service
The following liturgy was used for a vespers service at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that also included a walking tour of the neighborhood.
Spoken and Sung Call to Worship
Light and Peace, in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Thanks be to God.
“God Himself Is with Us” PsH 244
Our Call to Be Light and Peace
Matthew 5:14-16; 2 Corinthians 4:5-6
Grant us, Lord, the lamp of charity that never fails, that it may burn in us and shed its light on those around us, and that by its brightness we may have a vision of that holy City, where dwells the true and never-failing Light, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Readings from the Prophet Isaiah with Songs of Response
Isaiah 1:21-26 / “Our Cities Cry to You, O God” SNC 266
Isaiah 9:2-7 / “We Will Glorify” SNC 21
Isaiah 65:17-19 / “Holy, Holy, Holy, My Heart” SNC 19
A Reading from the Revelation of St. John with Sung Response
Revelation 21:1-4 / “Lord Make Us Servants” SNC 204
Sending Prayer for Our City and Our Neighborhoods
Lord God, as we go to our neighborhoods now and in this coming week, by the power and promise of your Holy Spirit, open our ears
to hear what you are saying to us
in the things that happen to us
and in the people we meet.
Open our eyes
to see the needs of people around us.
Open our hands
to do our work well, to help when help is needed.
Open our lips
to tell others the good news of Jesus
and bring comfort and laughter to other people.
Open our minds
to discover new truth about you and the world.
Open our hearts
to love you and our neighbors
as you have loved us in Jesus.
Let us go forth in the name of Christ.
Thanks be to God.