GROWING A CHURCH
By David K Bernard
Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men (I Timothy 2:1).
Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints; and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel (Ephesians 6: 18-19).
The apostolic church was born in prayer. On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit fell upon 120 disciples as they waited in united prayer for ten days (Acts 1:14; 2:1). The early church maintained the habit of prayer (Acts 2:42). The first miraculous healing of the New Testament church occurred when Peter and John went to the Temple for their daily time of prayer (Acts 3:1). When the believers faced opposition and persecution, their response was to pray for boldness to witness and to see miracles take place by the power of God (Acts 4:24-3 1). The result of the prayer, witnessing, and miracles was spectacular church growth (Acts 4:4; 5:14).
Since God is the one who causes the church to grow, we can only expect genuine growth as we maintain a daily relationship with Him and depend upon His power to accomplish the task. The chief means of doing so is prayer. For this reason, prayer should be the first item on our agenda—”first of all” we should pray in every situation (I Timothy 2:1). We should maintain a constant attitude of prayer and a daily habit of prayer. We should be “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18). “Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2). “Pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17).
We must pray specifically for (1) the opportunity and (2) the ability to proclaim the gospel effectively. Paul requested, “for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:19). “for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ” (Colossians 4:3). Clearly, prayer is essential for effective ministry and church growth.
PURPOSE OF PRAYER
As discussed in the preface and the introduction, through prayer we receive the divine call for Christian service as well as divine direction. Furthermore, through prayer we receive the desire and power to do God’s will.
Prayer is not a mechanical process whereby we earn favors from God. Rather, it is the means of communing with God and maintaining our relationship with Him. We do not purchase power from God by so many hours of prayer and so many days of fasting. Rather, prayer and fasting are the means by which we conform our minds and bodies to God’s will.
In prayer, we submit to God and make His priorities our priorities. Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10). Prayer does not convince a reluctant God to act on our behalf, but it gives God permission to work in our lives as He already desires. Since He has given us freedom of choice, He does not force His will on us, nor can we assume that He will automatically act on our behalf in the absence of our invitation.
Prayer does not change God’s attitude, but it changes our attitude so that we are ready to receive what God has planned for us. Prayer molds and transforms us so that we are prepared to receive the answers that God wants to give us. Prayer also emphasizes to God and to ourselves our true needs, desires, and priorities. Prayer extends the work of God into the lives of family, friends, and others in need. Finally, prayer draws attention to the work of God, reminding us that we are dependent upon Him and that He deserves the glory for answered prayer.
In short, prayer enables us (1) to discern God’s will and (2) to do God’s will. Through prayer we receive the ability—including desire, understanding, strength, encouragement, and determination—to live for God and work for God. When we pray in faith according to God’s will, we have confidence that He will hear and answer us. (See Matthew 21:21-22; I John 5:14-15.)
Since prayer is not a mechanical process, some times we may pray for hours with seemingly few results. Despite an hour of prayer, a preacher may deliver a mediocre sermon, especially if he has neglected to study. On the other hand, his normal prayer time may be stolen from him by unexpected developments, forcing him to go to the pulpit with only a few moments of communication with God, and yet he may minister under a powerful anointing. The reason is that God is gracious and He supplies what is lacking. We can preach from the overflow of the Spirit, drawing from hidden reservoirs created by a consistent, long-term relationship with God. If we frequently skimp on our prayer time, however, we find that the reservoirs run dry.
When the disciples could not cast the demon out of a possessed person, they asked Jesus why not. He explained, “Because of your unbelief. . . . However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:20-21). The point is not that there are special demons whose expulsion requires an extraordinary amount of prayer and fasting as some form of payment. Rather, a spiritual work requires faith, and a great spiritual challenge must be met with great faith. The strength of our faith is related to the strength of our relationship with God. We can not simply conjure up such a relationship on the spur of the moment, when we suddenly face a great need. Instead, we must build a strong relationship with God by consistent communion with Him through prayer and fasting.
Each person, and especially each minister, needs to schedule prayer when he can devote both quality and quantity of time. As the early church grew, the apostles had to restructure their organization and adjust their workload to make prayer and study their priority. They said, “We will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
The morning is a good time for me to pray, before I face the distractions, interruptions, and busyness of the day. On a typical weekday (Tuesday through Friday), my goal is to arise at 7:00 AM. I, arrive at the church by 8:00 AM, and close my office door until 9:00 AM. This gives me an hour of uninterrupted time for prayer, meditation, Bible reading, and Bible study. I do not use this time for sermon preparation, although sermon ideas may come to me. Rather, my goal is personal spiritual renewal and growth through prayer and the Word.
This schedule is sometimes altered by travel, surgeries, and other urgent situations, but if I can keep it at least seventy-five percent of the time (three out of four days), then I count it a success. On Saturday, Sunday, and Monday my schedule is different. Saturday is usually full with special activities and preparation for Sunday, and for me the evening is the best time to pray and study. On Sunday, I pray and study before the morning and evening services. On Monday, my day off, I have devotions with my wife and children in the evening.
Other opportunities for prayer arise each day, such as when visiting people, during counseling, and before and after worship services. We can cultivate an attitude of prayer so that we maintain a constant communication with God throughout the events of the day. Sometimes I pray and meditate while showering or driving, although these times obviously do not allow for total concentration. When I receive a telephone call about a sickness or other urgent need, I typically offer to pray over the phone, and many times the caller receives an immediate touch from God. When counseling people about an important matter, I usually pray with them before and after our discussion, not merely as a ritual but to ask for God’s immediate help. This time of prayer reminds us that we must look to God for answers; helps set the proper tone for the discussion, begins to implement the course of action that we decide upon, and pro vides an opportunity for miraculous intervention.
Many times, prayer is the means of receiving the necessary wisdom from God to address a problem. I frequently rely on the promise of James 1:5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” When I face a pastoral problem, I try not to act hastily; if I do not see an immediate answer, I will delay a final decision until I have prayed about the situation for several days. I try to remember the admonition of James 1:19-20: “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
Taking time to pray is particularly advisable when someone has a wrong attitude or is heading in a wrong direction. Over and over again, I have seen an answer come supernaturally after several days or weeks of prayer. In many cases, God deals with the person’s heart so that he or she corrects the problem without the need for direct pastoral intervention.
Of course, we should not use prayer as an excuse to avoid taking a necessary stand or to avoid con fronting a difficult situation. Even when such action is required, however, prayer can help us to know what steps to take, how to take them, and when to take them. Prayer helps to purify our motives and emotions so that when we do address a problem we will do it with “the wisdom that is from above,” which is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and Without hypocrisy” (James 3:1 7).
The growth of our church has placed increasing demands on my time. It is a constant challenge to be faithful in prayer and study. Periodically, I must evaluate and adjust my activities so as to maintain the priority and habit of prayer. At such times, I have found it helpful to record the amount of daily prayer and Bible reading, not as legalism but simply for accurate information and self-examination
In my early ministry, I often struggled to find time to pray more than fifteen minutes, until one year I made a commitment to pray an average of one hour per day for five days per week. I logged my prayer time on a calendar to ensure that I would keep my commitment Of course, we should not emphasize quantity over quality, and we should not evaluate ourselves or others primarily by minutes or hours spent in prayer. Some people can seemingly spend much time in prayer without attaining maturity of life or ministry; we must seek a balance in this area as in all other aspects of spiritual life. Nevertheless, that year of disciplined prayer helped me to reach a new level of prayer, both in quantity and quality.
I also receive great strength from the prayers of others. Sometimes, my prayer time is less than ideal due to tight schedules, physical and mental exhaustion, events out of my control, or simple neglect. Nevertheless, God has been very gracious to give blessings, strength, renewal, and revival to me personally and to our church. I am convinced that this continuing work of God is due in large part to the faithful prayers of my wife, my parents, my mother- in-law; and the saints who uphold me daily in prayer. As the challenges and opportunities grow, the need for prayer grows, and seasoned prayer warriors are an important key to continued growth.
Since prayer is essential for church growth, we must make prayer a priority in the life of the church. The pastor must consistently emphasize prayer, structure prayer into the regular schedule of the church, and personally be an example in this area.
For the first four years of our church, we held services on Sunday afternoon and Tuesday evening, as we shared a building that was occupied at other times. I was accustomed to attending three services a week, and the span from Tuesday to Sunday seemed far too long. Therefore, my wife and I conducted a prayer meeting in our home on Thursday night. While we did not stress it as a regular service, we encouraged everyone to attend when they could. Soon we had a faithful core of regular attendees, and as the church grew, many more attended on occasion. Sometimes we would have as many as thirty people. We began at 7:30, sang and took prayer requests for ten or fifteen minutes, and then prayed until about 8:30. At the end, we usually gathered around those who had special needs to focus prayer on them, and then we praised God together for victory. Afterwards, most people stayed until 9:00 or 9:30 for fellowship and refreshments.
This weekly prayer meeting proved to be one of the most important factors in establishing our church. It helped us to develop a consistent prayer life as a body and drew us into close fellowship. Many people won victories and many lives were transformed in those prayer meetings. New people learned how to pray, intercede for others, and yield to the gifts of the Spirit.
These prayer meetings also set the stage for great moves of God on Sunday. Time after time, we would present requests to God on Thursday and see them answered by the weekend. People whom we prayed for on Thursday would come to church on Sunday and repent, receive the Holy Ghost, or receive healing. It was a vivid, unforgettable lesson on faith and on the power of prayer.
We followed this schedule for four years, until we moved into our own building. We now hold three services a week, and we have prayer before and after each service. While our schedule changed, we did not want to lose the emphasis on prayer. Here are ways that we currently promote prayer in our assembly:
• We schedule prayer thirty minutes before each worship service and encourage every one to attend. Prayer rooms for men and women are available for this purpose. The youth have their own prayer meeting before the Sunday night service.
• Every service ends with an opportunity for prayer. Every Sunday morning and evening message ends with a strong appeal for immediate prayer.
• Before each service, a team of men called the pastor’s prayer partners meets to pray for me. A few minutes before dismissal, they gather around me for focused prayer. We have four teams with leaders; each of them takes a week.
• For urgent prayer needs, we have a prayer line answered by two people, one from 7:00 AM till noon, and one from noon till 9:00 PM. They are retired ladies who are usually at home and who have an answering machine. Someone with an urgent need can call either the prayer line or the church office. The prayer line operator then calls the prayer team leaders. Each leader in turn calls a list of volunteers who have pledged to take time to pray whenever they receive a call. Thus, within a short time, a number of people can be mobilized to pray for a special need. Many times, we have called the prayer line because of an accident, sudden ill ness, or other crisis, and soon the person in need received healing or deliverance.
• My wife and other leaders conduct ladies prayer on Tuesday morning. On alternate weeks they also have Bible study.
• We hold a prayer meeting on Thursday night, with a different leader and a specific prayer focus each week. Here is a typical schedule for four weeks: (1) Daughters of Zion (mothers praying for children). (2) A designated care group. (See chapter 6.) (3) Outreach team. (4) Single adults. Regardless of these designations, everyone is invited every week, and everyone is encouraged to attend at least once a month.
In addition to the foregoing, the church depart are encouraged to schedule regular prayer times. For instance, the Sunday school staff meets every Sunday morning from 9:15 to 9:30 for prayer and announcements, with classes beginning at 10:00. Any meeting on Sunday afternoon, including choir practice, ends at 6:00 so that the participants can pray before the evening service starts at 6:30. Youth activities are scheduled for Friday night, and once a month they hold a prayer meeting or a prayer journey. Periodically, the men schedule a Saturday prayer breakfast or a prayer night, as do the women.
• During the week, the church is typically open for individual prayer from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM (office hours) and 7:00 to 10:00 PM (various group activities). Keys are provided for people who wish to pray at church early in the morning or late at night.
• On occasion, we schedule a twenty-four-hour prayer chain, in which people sign up for one or two hours each; an all-night prayer meeting; or a week of prayer and fasting, in which people volunteer for certain days. These events help people to press beyond the routine and help unite the church in prayer.
• A prayer coordinator regularly publicizes these various opportunities for prayer and communicates with the World Network of Prayer. Local prayer requests and victory reports are announced in the weekly bulletin. Requests, reports, and instructions from the World Network of Prayer and from home and foreign missionaries are posted on bulletin boards in the fellowship hail. To encourage focused prayer for missions, in each prayer room are pictures of our Partners in Missions along with flags of various countries and a world mission’s map.
Prayer is a spiritual endeavor that we cannot reduce to a ritual or a program but that requires intention and structure. For us to be prayerful and our church to be prayerful, we must plan to pray. And planning is our second principle of church growth.