How Can Prayer Shape a Church


By: Larry Lea

Do you face the dilemma of too much church business and not enough prayer? Most pastors do. Let me suggest a prayer goal that changed my life. The power of prayer is the key to all that has been accomplished at Church on the Rock during the past four years. I realize this afresh every morning as I look at a circle of more than 100 intercessors who line the perimeter of our sanctuary.

This 6 a.m. prayer meeting came into being simultaneously with the birthing of the church. That took place on an icy day in January 1980 when 13 committed people gathered in the back room of a skating rink. Today, more than 4,000 meet each Lord’s day for worship here in a Texas town of 8,000, located 35 miles east of Dallas. Growth like that cannot be achieved through human endeavor; it can only be attributed to the Holy Spirit’s drawing power in response to intercessory prayer.

To me, prayer is the highest call of all. That’s why I consistently emphasize it. I am happy to report that people respond to that emphasis. Some 500 people pray at least 60 minutes daily for the success of God’s Word through the ministries of our church.

I didn’t give prayer the priority place it deserved when God first called me, even though deep down I knew the call to prayer must be primary in a minister’s life. As a student in Bible college God spoke to me through His Word, showing me that a man must be called to pray if he truly is to answer a call to preach.

The following seven years of my life were exasperating because during those years I usually felt defeated by my lack of discipline in a prayer life. Maybe the most dangerous part of my struggle was that everything looked successful. From 1972-1978 I served as the minister of youth and evangelism at Beverly Hills Baptist Church in Dallas. During those years, this exciting church grew from 400 to 4,000. Our youth group topped 1,000, and monthly I preached to more than 3,000 young people in an evangelistic crusade setting. Simultaneously, I was finishing a master’s program at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Amid all this, the call to pray loomed as an illusive goal which I never seemed able to reach.

Outwardly all seemed great; inwardly, I felt like “dead men’s bones.” I was mastering the busy work of Martha while desiring the eternal work of Mary. Sitting at Jesus’ feet and hearing His voice was my heart’s desire. Yet the discipline to put away my church business for the quality time He required seemed unreachable. I cried out to God in desperation and failure, and He opened a way of escape.

After the sudden death of my pastor in 1978, I was called to become senior pastor of Beverly Hills Baptist Church, the church I loved and served as youth pastor. It seemed only logical and right to continue to minister in such an environment of growth and success. Nevertheless, at this juncture in my life, the Lord taught me an invaluable lesson. He showed me that sometimes His will appears contrary to what is logical and right.

During those days I met B.J. Willhite, then pastor of First Assembly of God in Kilgore, Texas. While I was preaching a revival in this small assembly, I learned that Pastor Willhite had been rising for prayer before 5 a.m. for 30 years. The revival in Kilgore lasted seven weeks and more than 400 people were saved. But this revival was as much for me as for those who were saved.

I began to rise early with Pastor Willhite and, for the first time in my life, day after day prayer became my central focus. While in prayer, God’s Spirit opened my heart not to pursue the pastorate at the large city church but to resign my position, move to Kilgore and learn to pray.

To all of my friends I had made a tragic mistake in not pursuing the pastorate of that large church. To me, for the first time since God’s initial call to pray, I began to answer the highest call of all. So for the following 18 months, my wife, our three children and I lived with my mother and father who resided in Kilgore.

The vision that produced the Church on the Rock came to me during those months of prayer. Today’s early morning prayer meetings could be called a continuation of what was being built into my life while in prayerful fellowship with Pastor Willhite. And now, as pastor of prayer, B.J. Willhite administrates the extensive prayer ministry of the Church on the Rock.

Why Pray an Hour?

Once, when I was at my busiest for God, a word was dropped in my heart from Jesus’ question to His sleepy disciples: “Could you not tarry one hour?” This word concerning one 60-minute prayer time haunted my faulty prayer life until finally conviction gave way to surrender, and spiritual victory ensued. I do not know why Jesus asked, “Could you not tarry one hour?” Nor do I know why my heart was so convicted to seek God as a discipline for one hour daily. All I know is, when in 1978 I prioritized the first hour for God, everything began to change.

In October 1983, I flew to South Korea, to study church growth at Yoido Full Gospel Church. After Paul Yonggi Cho gave his first message (on prayer, of course), he said, “Now let us pray for one hour.” Some 250 ministers and I knelt for an hour of prayer. For three months at Church on the Rock I had preached,
“Could You Not Tarry One Hour?” For five years one hour daily had been my minimum prayer goal. Could it be now in Korea that Cho was about to confirm what was going on in my life and my church?

After praying for one hour with Cho, we went out to sit in the sun for a photograph session with the entire group of ministers. I was asked to sit by Cho. When the picture session was finished, Cho very calmly took my hand, looked into my eyes and said, “Something supernatural happens when you pray one hour.” I said
nothing, my mouth just dropped open!

What to Pray?

Someone might ask, “What do you pray about for an hour?” First, let me clarify, I’m not talking now about study or meditation. I’m talking about an hour spent primarily in petition, supplication and thanksgiving.

“What to pray” is an excellent question. It seems that gets at what the disciples asked Jesus in Luke 11:1 when they said, “Lord, teach us to pray. ” My little tract “Could You Not Tarry One Hour?” deals with a basic question about prayer: Can we or should we proceed in further petitions until we have prayed what the Master commanded us to pray?

I challenge you to take Matthew 6:9-13 and spend an hour with the Lord. Praising your way into His presence will cause you to petition your way into His power.

My teaching series went line-by-line through “the Lord’s Prayer,” taking each phase of each phrase in this prayer, an hour a day will become a minimum. I realize this teaching may seem very elementary to some people, but it became a victorious prayer formula for me. The formula goes like this: the Master’s prayer
command, plus the leadership of the Holy Spirit, equals a victorious hour in prayer.

Why Did Jesus Pray?

For Jesus the highest call was the call to prayer. If anything can be gleaned from the Gospel writers’ accounts of our Lord, it is that the power source for His life and ministry was prayer.

Early in His earthly ministry, we find Jesus ministering in Capernaum. Well into the night He poured out healing and deliverance to the broken of that place. Mark 1:32-34 records, “And at even, when the sun did set, they brought unto him all that were possessed with devils. And all the city was gathered together at the
door. And he healed many that were sick of divers diseases, and cast out many devils; and suffered not the devils to speak, because they knew him.” No doubt, Jesus was spiritually, emotionally and physically exhausted after such activities. Then we see His secret, “And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed” (Mark 1:35).

The disciples followed Jesus and found Him at the place of prayer. They saw the divine link between prayer and power. They asked, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Whether He was raising the dead, cleansing the leper, opening blind eyes, feeding the multitude, or preaching the kingdom, they saw one distinct pattern. Pray, then preach! Pray, then heal! Pray, then obey!

The priority Jesus places on prayer is graphically illustrated in Matthew 21:12-16, a passage identified as the cleansing of the temple. Notice the progression of concepts about the Lord’s house in these verses:

1. A house of purity, verse 12.

2. A house of prayer, verse 13.

3. A house of power, verse 14.

4. A house of perfected praise, verses 15, 16.

In this action Jesus shows the intent of God’s heart. To lead us from purity to prayer; from prayer to power; and from power to perfected praise is the heart of the Master’s work in our churches.

Jesus’ life on earth was nothing more than a walk in the Spirit from one prayer place to another. Finally, His disciples followed Him to Gethsemane where He received instruction and strength to suffer. In Luke 22:40 He came to “the place.” This was not a random place but a designated prayer spot. He had “the place” for seeking the face of His Father. How we need a place which is designated “the place.”

After Jesus finished His role on earth as a suffering servant and risen Lord, His primary ministry of prayer continued. Hebrews 7:25 states, “Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.” With His redemptive work finished at
Calvary, His high priestly ministry of intercession continues at the right hand of the Father. For Jesus, prayer is the highest call of all.

What Does Prayer Bring?

The first supernatural thing that happened to me when one hour became a way of life was simply an awareness that I was free from the guilt of prayerlessness. From that point revelation began to come sweetly!

When Jesus said in John 20:21, “Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you,” all the disciples knew to do was form a prayer meeting and wait for revelation. Then came Pentecost! Then came preaching! Then came people! With the people came the problems! Nevertheless, the apostles didn’t break the pattern. They said in Acts 6:4, “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” Notice the order of their priorities: prayer first, then the ministry of the Word. Today, in general, our priorities are the people first, our preaching second and prayer as an addendum plea for help! I contend the power of preaching the revealed Word (a word living in us by the Holy Spirit’s revelation) is directly contingent on prayer. You have as much inspired revelation as you have determined intercession.

Leonard Ravenhill once said, “At Pentecost, Peter preached one sermon and saw 3,000 saved. Today, we preach 3,000 sermons and see one saved!” What’s the difference? The difference is simply that Peter preached out of the flow of revelation that was birthed in prayer.

Think of it this way: Revelation comes only from God; therefore, I must be vitally linked to Him in order for the flow to continue. That’s where prayer comes in. Prayer is the discipline that vitally links us with God.

Moses prayed 40 days then came the revelation of the Ten Commandments. Isaiah was in the temple, no doubt interceding for the nation of Israel, when the heavens opened wide. Ezekiel was seeking God when he saw the wheel in the middle of the wheel. Daniel had fasted and prayed when he saw an angel like unto the Son of Man.

Where was John when “The Revelation” was released? One might answer that John was in awful exile for crimes he never committed. I answer, “John was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” Suffice it to say, revelation for service comes only through intercession.

First John 5:4 says, “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” The converse of that truth would read, “That which is not birthed by God will not overcome the world.”Could this be the simple explanation why so much that we do does not truly succeed? Could it be that if we wait and allow the Spirit of God to give clear direction concerning the next step in ministry that indeed that step would overcome the world?

Pray and Obey

I wish I could claim originality for our slogan for church growth. In April 1981, while attending a church growth conference at Word of Faith Temple in New Orleans (Charles Green, pastor), I first met Cho. I was one of a thousand preachers at the convention and didn’t dream of a personal interview with him. But on the last night of the convention, I told my wife and associate pastor that I felt something very unusual was about to happen to me that night. All during the service that evening the Holy Spirit seemed to prompt my spirit to be alert. Then Cho ended the service, but nothing unusual had occurred. Suddenly, Charles Green appeared from behind the auditorium stage beckoning me to come with him. Along with my wife, associate pastor and his wife we wound our way through the back halls of the civic theatre. Pastor Green later said he felt a compulsion to get me with Cho that night.

When finally confronted with Cho, I asked the only sane question that came to mind, “How did you build the greatest church in history?” His answer was brief and to the point: “I pray and obey!” From that time to this, “pray and obey” has been the watchword of Church on the Rock.

Although our church has now developed a functional cell system ministry with 140 groups (approximately 3,000 people), I do not recommend approaching home ministry (or any ministry) without prayer. Then, out of obedience to a commitment birthed in prayer, you can proceed with confidence.

This is how our cell ministry was birthed. Seeing we-four elders and I-could not successfully shepherd 300 people in 1981, we sought the Lord in His Word for a real solution. We were convinced the home ministry was the what to do, so we sought the Lord daily on when and how to implement this biblical revelation.

Three basic revelations came to us before we implemented the home cell ministry:

1. The pastor and elders had to be convinced that God had spoken to us to proceed. Also, we had to be willing not only to start the program but to lead it throughout the church’s life.

2. We had to make a commitment to training leadership. To join our church, a person must go through a 10-week “Finding the Rock” course. This course includes basic Christian foundations and reveals the vision of the church. We added two more courses to train our leaders. The second three-month course deals with how the leader relates to other members in the body of Christ, emphasizing his response to spiritual authority. The third course is designed to teach the practice of leading a home group meeting.

We call our cell meeting the “Care” ministry of the church. Care represents an acrostic for Contact And Relate Everyone.

3. We had to identify the purpose of the “Care” ministry. That purpose was to establish a network of personal ministry to minister to each person individually in the body and to teach each group to be a light in a dark world. More simply, our dual purpose is fellowship and evangelism as co-equal priorities for each

With these three purposes established, we shared with the congregation (then about 1,500 people) the vision of “Care” ministry and began with church-wide participation and commitment. We are continually training leaders and starting new groups. We started with eight groups three years ago; today, there are 140 and counting.

We are thankful for what God has done and continues to do through our cell ministry. It is overcoming the world because it was birthed in our spirits by prayer. But I believe it would be a mistake for you to take my cell system if you did not seek God and hear clearly His will and way for your church. No matter how
biblical the plan may be, if it is not originated. energized and undergirded with prayer, it will not overcome the world.

Larry Lea founded Church on the Rock in Rockwell, Texas, with 13 members. Within five years the church had a membership of over 7,000 with a pastoral staff of 21 and more than 340 home CARE (cell) groups in a town of about 10,000 people. Pastor Lea is the author of Could You Not Tarry One Hour?, a book of revolutionary teaching on how to pray. Lee also conducts prayer clinics in churches across America.

(The above material originally appeared in Ministries Magazine.)

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