Americans seem to have a love/hate relationship with the Church. What's your experience? And how does your experience compare with others? Rick D. Padgett heads up Westgate Ministries in Portland, Oregon, is the author of the new book Get Prayer and Get It All, and blogs at www.RickDPadgett.com. In this Q&A, Rick talks about both the highs and lows of Christian community.
Q. How would you describe the first church you attended?
A. As a brand-new believer I had a moment of beginner’s luck. My very first church experience was shaped by a rare group of people who had captured the prize of authentic community. They enjoyed being together in a way that was contagious. I seized every opportunity to be with these people. I was a new Christian with no church background, yet I had been born into this Christian fellowship as my first church experience. I had no clue how rare and valuable this experience was; I was even less aware it was foreign to many Christians. In a sense, I was a novice fisherman catching a thirty-four pound salmon, oblivious that most fishermen never catch such a prize.
Q. What could have happened instead?
A. My first church experience could have pointed my life in any of three different directions. It could have simply been a “nice” experience, to add to my list of other “nice” experiences. It could have ended in a major disappointment, causing me to forsake Christian community as so many others do. Or, it could have been a transformational experience, forever changing my life and marking me with a longing for authentic community. In God’s kindness it became the latter. At the time, I didn’t even realize it, but my initial experience of authentic Christian community deeply imprinted itself on my life. I have been seeking encores ever since.
In God’s wisdom, after this initial impression of authentic community, I went into a desert of isolation. Through college and early marriage, and the initial years of ministry, I always longed for that first experience of community. In 2003 all that changed.
Q. What brought you back out of the desert?
A. Like most big moments in my life, I didn’t see it coming. It started as a simple experiment—just me and one other man meeting to pray together. We had only two controlling ideas: that we needed to meet together weekly, and that our conversation should be both horizontal and vertical. We also based every week’s prayer and conversation around a passage of Scripture.
My friend and I started a yearly Bible reading program and found that reading the same Scriptures apart helped us find a Scripture focus in our weekly times together.
With these simple tools in hand we launched out. We met weekly, building our conversation with each other and God on a specific passage of Scripture. This was not a Bible study or a prayer meeting, both of which set an agenda. Instead, we inquired of God during our meeting: not insisting on our questions, but rather making room for His questions.
Q. So, what happened?
A. Something began to happen that went beyond our limited experience and expectations. This regular, intentional, structured, and yet open agenda made a place for God to show up. It seemed to attract the Holy Spirit’s attention. I was often reminded of His promise, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).
Not only did God show up. More people showed up. It was uncomfortable at times, especially when visitors showed up expecting a scheduled format. Then again, the rewards were huge. As God invaded our little gathering, isolation left us. In every meeting, it became obvious that God knew our hearts, and that emboldened us to share our hearts with each other.
After living in a wilderness, we found the gift of authentic Christ-centered community being restored to our lives. I often have called this, “The best part of my week.”
Q. Tell me about the name of your group.
A. Actually, it’s more of a nickname. We called ourselves Forge 218, after Genesis 2:18, which says, “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.’” We, like Adam, were learning that even in the most beautiful surroundings, we were not created for isolation.
Forge 218 continues to this day, operating under the same simple rules. For more than a decade it has been a well of life to all who participate. It also happens to be where I discovered everything I now teach about prayer.
Q. What’s the biggest secret you’ve discovered?
A. After years of longing, I discovered that simple authentic corporate prayer is God’s strategy for us to experience His “all” with our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. As a result of my earlier desert experience, I have learned to compare its simplicity to manna, to thank God for it, and enjoy it for what it is—bread from heaven.
Forge 218 has now piled up years of sustained community built on this model. The model is both embarrassingly easy and profoundly important. We had stumbled onto the secret to the Second Commandment. We took this commandment out of the theory box and turned it into a living demonstration.
The simple strategy of building prayer-centered community has transformed our relationships with brothers and sisters, empowering us to be both lovers of God and lovers of His people.
Q. For you, what’s the bottom line?
A. When prayer and obedience to the First and Second Commandment are joined together, we will witness God’s power and understand why the Lord said, “It is not good for man to be alone.”
Among other things, it will help us practice the Four Common Laws of Love with God and with one another: (1) being together, (2) setting our eyes on one another and God’s Word, (3) hearing one another’s voice, and (4) sharing joys and sorrows.