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What if every Christian congregation was like this one?

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My daughter and her family attend a Southern Baptist church a few miles from their home in the Midwest, and when I visit them I make it a habit to attend the church’s evening services on Sunday and Wednesday.

When I was there in July I was confronted by something I’d never seen in any church. After a short talk on what the New Testament says about healing and laying on of hands, the pastor called a couple to the front and had them sit down.

The woman was recently diagnosed with cancer. She and her husband told the congregation about how the disease was discovered and what lay ahead for them, spiritually and clinically. Then the pastor invited the congregation to come forward — first, all the women who had beaten cancer, to form a ring around the couple. Next came all the women in the church. After that the deacons were asked to come forward and create a third ring, and finally, all the other men.

The pastor told them it was time to live the Gospel message by laying hands on the couple and praying for healing, starting with the innermost ring and working outward until everyone who wanted to pray aloud had the opportunity to do so.

As the people came forward the pastor said that although this was a Southern Baptist church (a denomination that doesn’t allow women to preach or serve as pastors) that didn’t mean women were excluded from the privilege and responsibility of intercessory prayer, nor were they prohibited from speaking such prayers aloud within the sanctuary walls.

That really got my attention. Here was a pastor who was clearly more concerned with fulfilling Jesus’ teaching than with violating what conservatives might view as appropriate denominational behavior.

I looked over my shoulder and noticed that several people were still sitting in the pews. For a long time afterward I wondered why. Only later did it dawn on me that they may either have felt uncomfortable adding their witness to those who had come forward, or perhaps they were offended that their notions of appropriate behavior had been violated.

A few women laid hands on the wife and her husband, and the rest of us laid hands on the person in front of us, and we began to join in the prayers of those speaking aloud. As you would expect they prayed for healing, for surrender to God’s will, for comfort and peace and all the other blessings that we want others to receive from the Lord.

But as I bowed my head in prayer I was impressed by something else that was going on. Rather than hear another talk about what the Bible says, these people were doing what they already know it says to do. Despite the minority who sat in the pews, they were acting the way Jesus wants a church community to act as a corporate body.

As they did so, I had the strong sense that the Lord was doing something more than they anticipated. He was knitting them more tightly together as a community of faith. He was building up the unity of this community. Jesus was setting aside the pettiness, bitterness, prejudice, cynicism and all the other elements of division that poison any organization by focusing them on a single purpose.

In doing so, Jesus was showing them what they could accomplish whenever they are truly united — able to look beyond their divisions to what they hold in common, so they could lay their concerns at God’s feet and receive his response.

In the aftermath of that service, I’m left to wonder what the worldwide Christian church would look like and what it could accomplish if every congregation was like this — united in surrender to Jesus.

Mark Azzara

About Mark Azzara

Mark Azzara spent 45 years in print journalism, most of them with the Waterbury Republican in Connecticut, where he was a features writer with a special focus on religion at the time of his retirement. He also worked for newspapers in New Haven and Danbury, Conn. At the latter paper, while sports editor, he won a national first-place writing award on college baseball. Azzara also has served as the only admissions recruiter for a small Catholic college in Connecticut and wrote a self-published book on spirituality, "And So Are You." He is active in his church and facilitates two Christian study groups for men. Azzara grew up in southern California, graduating from Cal State Los Angeles. He holds a master's degree from the University of Connecticut.

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