KEYS TO A PRAYING CHURCH
What can your church do to grow strong in prayer? Why should you make prayer a priority in your church’s ministry? This booklet will answer these questions. It will also suggest a number of concepts so basic that they may rightly be called “keys” to prayer.
But first, why all the energy spent on promoting prayer in this past decade?
Dr. Peter Wagner, prolific church growth writer and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, has spent the last several years researching prayer movements in the church. His summary comment: “I sincerely believe that we are now in the beginning stages of the greatest movement of prayer in living memory.”
If Dr. Wagner is right, we should expect to see earth-shaking results in the church. Reformation and renewal have always been rooted in prayer.
Dr. J. Edwin Orr, who has made a lifetime study of prayer movements in the church, said a few years ago, “There is a greater movement of prayer growing now than ever before in history.” His lifelong studies led him to conclude that “whenever God sets about to do a new thing, he always sets his people praying.” Seeing the new movement in prayer, Orr anticipated with excitement a worldwide revival in the church.
The headwaters of this worldwide prayer movement are in Korea. There the church is growing four times faster than the population. If this continues, 50 percent of the Korean population will be Christian by the year 2000. Church observers credit this dramatic growth to prayer, noting that most Korean churches open their doors at 5:00 a.m. every day for prayer. Many Korean Christians regularly pray through the night on Fridays and spend whole weekends at prayer retreat centers. Korean pastors typically spend 1 1/2 to 3 hours per day in prayer.
Many North American churches are also waking up to the importance of prayer. More than five hundred now have regular 5:00 a.m. prayer meetings. Many have begun around-the-clock prayer vigils. A growing number of churches have made prayer a high priority and have experienced a surprising harvest of blessing.
For some, a new sense of the importance of prayer has come almost spontaneously. For years one large California church held a midweek prayer meeting that was sparsely attended. In recent years, however, numbers have increased to such an extent that the meeting has had to move to the auditorium. Hundreds of interdenominational prayer concerts are attracting thousands around the United States and Canada each year.
This booklet is written to help you answer the question “What can our church do to grow strong in prayer?” The eight “keys” to prayer listed below are basic concepts that are essential if your church is to be a house of prayer.
1. PRAYING LEADERS ARE ESSENTIAL.
Many leaders in the church today are not, by biblical standards, praying leaders. Two thousand pastors who recently attended a pastors’ conference in Dallas, Texas, were surveyed regarding their prayer habits. Ninety-five percent admitted that they spent five minutes or less each day in prayer. Another survey of 572 pastors conducted by Peter Wagner revealed that pastors spend an average of 18 minutes a day in prayer. According to another poll, the average Christian today spends 3-5 minutes a day in intentional prayer. The same survey revealed no noticeable difference between leaders’ and church members’ prayer habits.
The Bible sets high standards for church leaders. Moses, David, Elijah, Daniel and many other Old Testament leaders were devoted to prayer. The apostle James holds up Elijah, “a man just like us,” as an example of powerful praying. He reminds us that Elijah “prayed earnestly that it would not rain and it did not rain for three and one-half years. He prayed again and the rains came” (James 5:17-18). The prophet Samuel regarded it a sin not to pray. He said, “Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you” (1 Samuel 12:23).
Jesus, our Leader of leaders, gave prayer high priority in his ministry-and expected his followers to do the same. He taught them many things about prayer; one parable in particular emphasized that they should “pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). When his disciples failed to keep watch with Jesus through his hour of
sorrow in Gethsemane, he urged them to “watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation” (Matthew 26:41). The apostles, over-busied with administrative duties, appointed deacons so that they could devote themselves to the Word of God and to prayer. Paul bathed his life and ministry in prayer and confirmed for all time that powerful and effective ministry comes through powerful and effective praying.
It takes praying leaders to develop praying churches. A stream will not rise higher than its source. Do you expect those following you to be strong in prayer? Then you must set the pace.
Praying leaders are not leaders who only talk of prayer, teach about prayer, encourage people in prayer, or organize prayer efforts. They are first of all men and women who pray. Promoting and teaching about prayer are no substitutes for action.
The church’s greatest deficiency today is in power-not in programs, strategies, materials, or ideas. And power for ministry can be released only through prayer. Jesus told his disciples, “Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these.” This statement no doubt
astounded the disciples, until Jesus went on to explain: “I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14: 12-14). In other words, the disciples would be powerful in ministry because Jesus Christ was on the throne of the universe. His response to their prayers was the key to their “great works.”
One pastor learned this lesson the hard way. Seeking renewal in his dying church, he spent several years studying at a strong evangelical seminary. Through reading, attending lectures, and brainstorming with other pastors in the same program, he learned all he could about church renewal and church growth. Faithfully he applied all that he was learning to his local church situation. But nothing seemed to work. His church was as dead as ever.
Having done his best with all he had learned and seeing no results, he was at the point of giving up. Then one day he walked out of his study into the sanctuary and, feeling led of the Lord, stood at the front of the church in the center aisle. He began to pray for his parishioners one by one. As he did so, he moved down the aisle, praying for those who would occupy each pew. Day after day he continued this practice. Soon the renewal he had wanted and worked so hard for began. Before long, worship services were full again and the church was busy with ministry activities.
This story does not mean to suggest a magic formula for renewal. But it does point out the missing link in spiritual renewal: the power released by the prayers of a praying leader.
2. GIVE PRAYER HIGH PRIORITY IN THE CHURCH’S LIFE AND MINISTRY.
Prayer clearly had a high priority in Jesus’ life. Luke tells us that “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). Mark reports that “very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”(Mark 1:35). On occasions he even “spent the
night praying to God” (Luke 6:12).
The New Testament church gave prayer that same high priority. When their leaders were threatened by the Sanhedrin, they “raised their voices together in prayer to God”–and after they had prayed, “the place where they were meeting was shaken” (Acts 4:24, 31). When Peter was in prison and scheduled to die, “the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (Acts 12:5) throughout the night. It is not possible to explain the power and effectiveness of the New Testament church without reference to prayer.
0. Hallesby contends that “prayer is the most important work in the kingdom of God. It is a labor for which there is no substitute in the kingdom of God” (Prayer, p. 68). Believing, persistent prayer is the first step required for victory against Satan’s influence. “We can do more than pray after we have prayed,” says A. J. Gordon, “but we cannot do more than pray until we have prayed.”
Of course, prayer has its place in every church and in every church member’s life. The question is, how important a place? We open and close our meetings with prayer. We offer congregational prayers and remember the sick and suffering. We usually offer mealtime prayers as well. But we need to look honestly at how much priority we give to prayer.
Martin Luther once described his struggle with the place of prayer in his life: “In a typical day I am charged with the pastorate of three congregations. I teach regularly at the seminary. I have students living in my house. I am writing three books. Countless people write to me. When I start each day, therefore, I make it a
point to spend an hour in prayer with God. But, if I have a particularly busy day and am more rushed than usual, ] make it a point to spend two hours with God before I start the day.” That’s one way of giving prayer priority.
3. CORRECT THINKING ABOUT PRAYER IS IMPORTANT.
Powerful, faithful, and effective prayer must be built on a correct mind-set about prayer. If we understand how prayer fits into God’s rule of our lives, we are more likely to give prayer its rightful place.
Where does prayer fit in with our relationship to God? To what extent does God need our prayers to work out his plan for this world? If our prayers are weak, will they hinder the outcome God has planned? If all things are predestined in accord with God’s will, won’t they happen whether or not I pray? If God is sovereign, all-wise, and loving, does he not make his decisions in accord with his character and thus have no need for our prayers? If he needs our prayers, does that mean that his plans are insufficient? How we answer these questions has much to do with how we pray.
Scripture instructs us on the place of prayer in God’s rule. James 4-:2 teaches us that “we do not have because we do not ask.” God is ready to give believers the very things they most need in order to live for him. However, this readiness on God’s part does not settle the question. Believers will have these things only if they ask. In the parable of the friend who calls at midnight, Jesus urges persistent prayer as the way to receive blessing from God. Those who pray halfheartedly, lacking in persistence, will not receive what they might have received had they prayed more faithfully.
James also teaches us that the prayer of a righteous person “is powerful and effective” (James 5:16b). Intercessory prayer has a powerful effect in our world. It makes a difference in the lives of those we pray for. It effects change. Lack of prayer, conversely, leaves things unchanged.
One extraordinary passage is Ezekiel 22:30-31. The context of this verse reveals that Israel had sinned greatly against the Lord and deserved to be punished(verses 1-29). But God, wanting to show mercy, says, “I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap in behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none. So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with fiery anger. . . . ” This passage leaves no doubt that if God had found a faithful and powerful intercessor-one like Moses, Samuel, or Elijah-the land would have been spared. Not finding such an intercessor, God poured out his wrath.
All of these passages make it clear that God doesn’t move ahead without our prayers. He has sovereignly determined to move in response to our prayers. God rules the world through the prayers of his people. This elevates our prayers to a position of highest significance in God’s way of working, so much so that we are
co-workers with God in what is accomplished in this world.
The great South African Reformed theologian, Andrew Murray, wrote his book The Ministry of Intercession to enforce two truths:
that Christ actually meant prayer to be the great power by which his church should do its work, and that the neglect of prayer is the great reason the church has not greater power over the masses in Christian and in heathen countries. . . .
that we have far too little conception of the place that intercession . . . ought to have in the church and the Christian life. In intercession our king upon the throne finds his highest glory; in it we shall find our highest glory too. Through it he continues his saving work, and can do nothing without it; through it alone
we can do all work and nothing avails without it. . . . The power of the church truly to bless rests on intercession-asking and receiving heavenly gifts to carry to men.
John Wesley had the same idea when he said, “God does nothing but in answer to prayer.”
God waits to be asked not because he is powerless but because of the way he has chosen to exercise his will. We are not pawns on a giant chessboard. We are involved. Only a cold, hard, mechanistic view of God’s sovereignty and predestination assumes that God discounts our prayer and simply moves in accord with a predetermined, once-for-all plan. This is not a biblical view of God; it more resembles a fatalistic, Moslemlike view of sovereignty that the Bible repudiates.
The church that clearly understands the truth that outcomes in history do depend on our prayers will not presume upon God’s goodness. Rather, it will be inclined to bathe every aspect of life and ministry in powerful and effective praying.
4. CLEAR COMMUNICATION OF NEEDS AND ANSWERS TO PRAYER IS VITAL.
A simple way to increase the amount of effective prayer within a congregation is to effectively communicate prayer needs and answers.
Almost all congregations communicate prayer needs. Bulletins carry announcements of the sick, injured, those who have lost loved ones, and other major prayer needs-including the need to give thanks or to rejoice when things have gone well. Needs that do not make the bulletin are sometimes announced in other ways.
There are many needs, however, that are too personal to put in the church bulletin or to announce from the pulpit. To do so would cause undue embarrassment to the person and might contribute to gossip. These more personal needs, however, can be addressed by other members of the congregation. Prayer chains, for example, can handle information that is more personal or confidential than those that are publicly announced, especially if the chain is of limited scope. Pray cells and prayer teams often handle very personal needs in a delicate and confidential way. The point is that an effort should be made to communicate all kinds of needs, even things like unemployment, mental illness, marital conflict, concern over wayward children, and problems like alcoholism, drug addiction, moral lapses or sexually- related diseases. These needs can be shared with smaller groups in such a way that the person sharing them gains prayer support and yet is protected from gossip.
In addition to communicating a broad array of needs, church leaders should be careful to communicate prayer answers as well. It’s not surprising that people grow weary of prayer when all they ever see are lists of prayer needs and announcements that call them to prayer. If we expect our prayers to make a difference, it’s important to watch for the answers and to report these to all who have been asked to pray. Communicating requests without answers dampens the faith of those who are praying. If the pray-ers don’t hear of God’s answers, they have no opportunity to praise the Lord that he has heard their prayers.
5. PRAYER SHOULD BE LINKED TO MINISTRY.
It’s possible for believers to use prayer for selfish reason. The prayers of self-centered persons will focus on personal health and well-being, personal success and fulfillment, financial prosperity, ease, pleasure, God’s blessing on their personal projects, personal happiness, and so on. Such prayers are not always wrong. We should seek God’s blessing for ourselves in every area of life. But if our primary focus is on getting more for ourselves, we are misusing prayer.
It’s possible for a congregation’s prayer to be self-centered also. Were God to summarize the content of many congregational prayers, they might sound like this: “God bless our church. Bless our pastor. Help him to preach good sermons. Give us a strong youth program. Care for our sick and sorrowing. Give all of us generous hearts so that we may meet our budget,” and so on.
Such prayers have their place in the church. The Scriptures encourage us to ask so that we may receive. The problem is with the focus; a self-centered desire to obtain God’s blessing, rather than a selfless offering of ourselves to God for his service and an acknowledgment of our need for his strength to accomplish his will.
God has called us to pray not only so that we may obtain a blessing but also so that we may be a blessing. The focus of our prayer should be the petition “Thy kingdom come.” In the last days of his ministry, Jesus repeatedly emphasized the importance of prayer (John 14:1@-14; 15:7,16; 16:23-24; Matthew 7:7; 18:19;
21:22). He was concerned that his disciples realize they could build the church only if strengthened by his hand.
A church strong in prayer will know how to link prayer and ministry. It will pray not only for its own needs but also for the needs of its community and for its efforts to reach the unsaved. The church will pray not only for the comfort of the distressed but also for the too-comfortable, that they may be distressed at their
complacency. It will pray for generous giving–but also for conversion growth. It will pray for ministries to church members, but it will pray just as urgently for the church’s outreach efforts. It will pray faithfully for its own wayward members, but it will also pray persistently for friends, neighbors, work associates, and others who are running away from God. It will pray for power to do the works of God, wisdom to serve its community, and grace to touch this world for Christ.
One congregation linked prayer to ministry by praying for one particular street in its neighborhood. They did not know the names of the residents; they simply prayed faithfully for all the households represented on that street. Within a few weeks they noticed that people from three homes on that street had begun to attend church. Before long, one family was ready to consider joining. The church credited these results to prayer.
Another church linked prayer to ministry by praying for a list of 60 unchurched friends, relatives, and neighbors of its members. After the church had prayed for several months, almost half on this prospect list had come to Christ. Most of them associated with the church that was praying for them.
Ministry without prayer becomes work in the power of the flesh. Prayer without ministry is complacent Christianity. The two belong together.
6. MAKE TIMES, WAYS, AND PLACES FOR PEOPLE TO PRAY TOGETHER.
When invited to pray with a group or participate in a prayer vigil, some people respond, “I can pray just as well by myself at home!” This is partly true-but also partly false. Those with weak and sporadic prayer discipline might be encouraged, strengthened, and challenged by praying with a group.
Why can praying with a group be valuable? There are several reasons.
First, it encourages consistency in prayer. We are more consistent about those things in our lives that are built into a regular schedule. Once we’ve committed ourselves to a group and a time, we tend to work other things around that commitment and keep it even if we don’t feel like it.
Second, praying with others expands our prayer life. As we listen to others pray, we learn from them things that will strengthen our own prayer lives. They are aware of needs and answers that we would have forgotten. They have ways of saying things that we never would have thought of. We pray with them, in and through their prayers. The Holy Spirit works differently in each one, using first one and then another to lift and lead the whole group.
Third, praying together strengthens our faith. If we only pray privately, we don’t know who else is praying or what they are praying for. How can we agree in prayer? Jesus said, “I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:19-20). Jesus’ power is evident in unified prayer.
Fourth, mutual praying makes the large task of prayer more manageable.
None of us can carry the whole prayer burden of a congregation. But when the broader task is broken down into smaller responsibilities, the impossible challenge is met by the group. Being with others who are praying and knowing that others are picking up other responsibilities of the overall task is encouraging to
those who are doing their part.
The most obvious time and place for people to pray together is the worship service. A one-hour worship service often contains five to ten minutes for prayer. Usually the leader chooses the content and verbalizes the prayer. Those gathered are invited to pray with the leader. Church meetings or ministry efforts also
provide the chance for people to pray together. Family mealtime prayers have given families one of the most regular and helpful ways to pray together. However, the church wishing to stimulate prayer can provide several additional ways for people to be together in prayer.
Prayer meetings, prayer cells, and prayer teams provide an excellent way for people to share together in prayer. It’s best if leaders do not dominate the prayer time, but rather create an atmosphere in which everyone present feels free to share and to pray. It’s helpful also to record prayer needs and answers so that people can remember these in their private prayers.
Commitments to pray for others in prayer partnerships, prayer triplets, or prayer support groups make our prayers for others intentional and specific. Usually the commitment to pray is reciprocal; each person shares their joys and concerns for the others to remember.
Prayer support teams link a number of persons who agree to pray for a person or cause. Members in some congregations commit themselves to pray for the pastor, who in turn regularly informs them of his concerns and needs. Prayer support teams of three or more may commit to pray for a particular individual, for an important cause, or for a person in a challenging ministry.
7. ENCOURAGE PERSONAL DEVOTIONS.
Private prayers are an indispensable part of every Christian’s life. It is the highest activity in which any soul can engage. In prayer we are able to have personal communion with the almighty God, in whom we live and move and have our being.
The Bible elevates personal prayer. Private prayer was important to Abraham (Genesis 19:27), Moses (Exodus 17:8-13), David (Psalm 5:3; 27:4, 7-9), Daniel (6:1-10), and the writer of Proverbs (8:17, 34-35).
Jesus advised his disciples not to pray in the synagogue or at street corners in order to be seen by people but instead to go into their own homes and shut the door and pray to the Father in secret. Jesus himself often withdrew to private places to be alone with his Father and to restore his spirit. Paul was praying
alone when he had his “third-heaven” experience. Peter was praying alone on the housetop in Joppa when servants of Cornelius came. John was deep in personal meditation on the isle of Patmos when Jesus appeared to him in a vision.
It is in private prayer that we most easily get in touch with our spiritual selves. When we are alone with God, there is no one else to impress. We don’t have to meet anyone else’s expectations. In personal prayer we dare to look into our heart of hearts to discern those most private problems and issues we need to place
before the Lord.
To say that prayer is important does not mean that it is easy. Many believers have experienced serious obstacles and hindrances to their personal devotions. Some struggle with knowing what to say. Others wrestle with wandering thoughts, and still others fight the nagging doubt that God does not hear or that he is not concerned. Perhaps the most difficult of all is our lack of desire to pray.
The church needs to encourage people in personal prayer. Emphasizing the need for private devotions in sermons, church education classes, retreats, young people’s groups, new members’ classes, and children’s schooling will help make personal prayer a standard for the Christian community. Leaders, of course, must be the first to make a whole-hearted commitment to this standard.
Any course on prayer should include a segment on personal devotions that answers these questions: What are personal devotions? Why have personal devotions? When? How often? What are some different approaches? Standard catechism courses for new member classes might also include a couple hours on this important discipline.
The church can also help by providing resources for personal devotions.
8. ENCOURAGE FAMILY DEVOTIONS.
Family devotions should be part of every Christian family’s experience. As the basic unit of society, the family provides the most natural group of persons to pray with and for each other. Deuteronomy 6:6-9 reminds us that the primary responsibility for spiritual training belongs to the parents:
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down, and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
Family devotions provide an excellent time and place for parents to do what this passage requires.
One of the greatest forms of support for a church’s ministry is praying families. Dr. Piterim Sorokin, a Harvard sociologist, called attention to statistics that show that while “two out of every five marriages end in divorce . . . for those families who have prayer and Bible study there is only one divorce in 1,015
marriages” (quoted in Elva Anson’s How to Keep the Family that Prays Together from Falling Apart, Chicago, Moody Press, 1976, p. 9). Family worship is basic to other kinds of worship. If family worship is neglected, other attempts at prayer are like sprinkling the foliage of a plant with water while leaving the roots dry.
Family worship usually includes such things as Bible reading, Scripture memory, reading of devotional materials, music, and prayer. Its value lies not only in the ideas transmitted but also in the quality family time-spirited conversation and loving and caring for one another through prayer.
Some ways churches can encourage family devotions:
a. Teach a course on family devotions. We can no longer assume that family devotions will be carried on from one generation to another. In too many cases the link has been broken, so that children growing up in Christian families no longer understand the value and the practical aspects of family devotions. A congregation could help its members significantly by offering a course that presents the importance of family devotions, gives creative methods, suggests resources, and includes testimonies of those whose lives have been blessed through family devotions. Newly married couples and those who are new to the congregation especially should be invited. Such a course should be repeated yearly.
b. Reinforce the value of family devotions. References in sermons will reach the whole congregation. The theme of family worship can be introduced into couples’ clubs, societies, youth groups, parent classes, and premarital counseling by means of special speakers or special topics. Every-member or every-family visitation can also pick up on this theme. Consider coordinating preaching with family devotions by announcing texts or series of messages in advance so they can also be used in family devotions.
c. Provide members of the congregation with resources. Some churches make available for their members resources like the Back to God Hour’s Family Altar, Daily Manna, or something similar. Denominational prayer guides may also be included for use in family prayers. The church library should carry a wide range
of helpful devotional guides, children’s Bible story books, and Bible helps that can be periodically displayed in the church narthex. Consider also giving new members specific guidelines and resources to use if they are not familiar with family devotions.
d. Hold up family devotions as your church’s expectation of its members. Challenge all leaders to have regular family devotion times. Reinforce this in pastor’s classes for new members who are joining the church.
This booklet has provided a wide spectrum of insights to think about and practical suggestions to implement in your church. We hope that the basic impression you come away with, however, is that God has chosen prayer as the key by which his church does its work. Through prayer we impact the world for God.
May your church be all that Christ means it to be. As you daily consider and apply these concepts, may your church grow strong in prayer, so that you experience the release of God’s power for dynamic ministry.
(The above material is one of the Healthy Church Series published by Church Development Resources.)
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