I was recently at yet another annual National Prayer Breakfast in Canberra. It has been going on for over two decades now, and I have been to quite a few of them over the years. Sadly however, I and many other Christians are noticing somewhat of a downward slide at the event, and are wondering if it can fully recover.
The event is held late each year and is put on by the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship. Held in Parliament House, it really has two main features: a Sunday evening worship service held in the Great Hall, and the breakfast proper, held in the same venue.
Over the years it has had some powerful Christian speakers, including Charles Colson, Jonathan Aitken, and Margaret Court. Recent speakers have tended to be far less explicitly Christian. Indeed, last year we had the debacle of a Muslim imam invited to speak at one of the sessions. See here: billmuehlenberg.com/2008/11/10/islam-and-fifth-columns/
Of course who is invited to speak depends on several factors, such as who is currently leading the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, and other leaders involved with the Breakfast. Without going into a lot of details, it seems clear that a more biblical and specifically Christian program will be on offer if those in charge of it are more biblical and specifically Christian.
The truth is we have a bit of a mixed bag in terms of who is in charge here, and who invites the main speakers, and so on. Of course we have lost a number of outstanding evangelical Christian MPs over the past few years, so that will also impact on who is in the PCF, and how the programs are determined.
Anyway, the Sunday evening was somewhat disappointing on a number of fronts. First, it was clear that people are voting with their feet here. Numbers were well down, and the seating configuration was even changed to adjust for the lower numbers.
As usual, some MPs gave a bit of Christian testimony. A number of us were straining our ears to hear the word “Jesus” or “Christ” come from these testimonials. They were in very short supply indeed. One MP even spoke of her godly Buddhist mate, and warned about the dangers of fundamentalism.
Of course that term usually refers to those who take their faith and their Scriptures seriously. So she managed to offend perhaps a majority of those present on the Sunday night. A much more Christian testimony by the Anglican Bishop of Canberra was really the only bright spot of the evening.
And without being too critical, the musical group that performed on both days was interesting to say the least. What does one make of “The House of the Rising Sun” as a closing song for the Sunday night Christian worship session? Couldn’t they find something better than a secular song about a brothel?
Of course the real deal is on the Monday morning, when a bit of prayer is actually supposed to take place, along with a major speaker. On the prayer side of things, we had more disappointment. Indeed for years now to call this the ‘National Prayer Breakfast’ is a bit of a misnomer, since very little prayer is in fact featured.
That was certainly the case this year. While as per usual, some MPs read out a brief prayer for certain things, there was to have been a time where people at each table could spend some time in group prayer. That was fine except for one thing: after about 45 seconds the moderator told us time was up.
She later apologised, saying she had to keep the program on schedule. That of course tells us heaps, does it not? If time was slipping away, I would have thought that a song could have been skipped, or some of the waffle reduced. Instead, at a prayer breakfast, the one thing that was found to be expendable was prayer itself!
So besides having a prayer-less breakfast, we also had a Christless main speaker. Indeed, I strained my ears throughout the whole talk, but never once was Jesus Christ mentioned. The main speaker happened to be a Catholic gal who worked in Africa, helping to educate poor Africans and get them out of poverty.
All commendable stuff of course. But Christ was noticeable by his absence, while a St Jude was constantly mentioned. But we expect such (the mention of saints) from Catholics, and so I did not really mind this. But what I did mind was when we learned at question time that there is very little about this work which is explicitly Christian.
Indeed, she admitted that there are Muslims in leadership at the school, including a Muslim headmaster. People were invited to put in donations for this work. Needless to say I did not. If I am going to give money to worthy causes in Africa, I want it to be a work which is clearly and unequivocally Christian.
Christianity is more than just preaching the gospel. But it is never less than that. Of course good works should accompany the preaching of the gospel. And the history of Christian missions has been just that: people have heard the gospel message, and they have been immeasurably helped in all sorts of practical ways.
Both must go together. But I kept thinking throughout her talk: ‘Any atheist from Peace Corps could come along with a similar story’. If the emphasis is only on education and poverty relief – as important as those concerns are – without a clear teaching of the biblical gospel, then it is at best only a half-hearted effort.
If so, then we are simply left with the old social gospel, which thought that simply making people’s material conditions better was basically all there was to the work of the gospel. Such activity is an important corollary to the gospel, but it can never take the place of proclaiming the gospel.
Jesus made this quite clear when he said, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?” (Matt. 16:26) So while this Australian woman is doing a very worthwhile work in Africa, by not having a clear Christian witness, it just becomes another secular work.
Thankfully in such a work people are being looked after, but they must also have their souls attended to, or else in the end it is of little lasting value. So for these and other reasons the weekend event was less than impressive.
Reform or Withdraw?
All of which raises the old question, is it worth still attending such an event, or should concerned believers perhaps pull out, and start something which is truer to the gospel? It is a tough question, and an often debated one.
Indeed, a cursory study of church history will review that this issue has been faced time and time again. So often, a solid, biblical work gets off to a flying start, but over the years liberalism, worldliness and coldness sets in, and the true believers soon find themselves being in a minority.
What should they do? Stay and work for reform, or leave a decaying and dying institution, and start a new work? This has been played out so many times in the past. For example, most of the great American universities (eg., Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc) began as missionary training colleges! One would have never guessed that, judging by their decidedly secular and leftist nature today.
Therefore the decision about reform or withdrawal had to be considered time and again. When Princeton got to be so liberal, the biblical remnant decided to leave, and they formed Westminster Theological Seminary. The same happens in churches, denominations and other Christian endeavours.
So am I saying that the National Prayer Breakfast is beyond repair, and biblical Christians need to pull out, or boycott it, or start something new? No, I am simply thinking out loud here. But it appears to many observers that it has been going slightly downhill for some time now, and many of us are quite concerned about this.
Therefore the question arises, what is to be done? I do not know. We all must pray, think and study the Scriptures as we deliberate over such questions. Some might be called to stay in it, and seek to reshape it back into its original version.
Others might feel compelled to leave. Some might want to set up an alternative structure. These are never easy decisions, and are always costly to make. The breaking of fellowship is never something to be undertaken glibly or lightly. It is a serious matter, and it is deserving of much prayer and reflection.
But if present trends continue, I am not sure if I will be dishing out any more of my hard earned money for an event which involves very little prayer, and increasingly contains very little explicit Christian content. But as I suggest in the title, by all means, please keep it – and its organisers – in prayer. That we all must do.