By George Whitefield
One of the most central things Christians do when they gather together is pray. They gather to hear the Word, and to cheer on the new members. The Spirit knits them together, and brings them Christ Himself. They hear, see, taste, smell, feel, and sing God’s love. And they respond in prayer. Prayer is what most sets a church apart from a social club or labor union or school or service agency.
What’s more, public prayers teach each believer a lot about what private prayers are about. In public: they pray when they don’t want to pray or don’t feel like praying; they pray when they have trouble concentrating on praying; they pray when they aren’t prepared for it; they pray the Word by drawing on Scriptures in the liturgy and readings; they pray for (and with!) those they are in conflict with; they pray about people and things they wouldn’t think to pray for or would otherwise forget to pray for.
They learn that there is great spiritual power where believers pray together with unity of purpose (also known as ‘in agreement’). Their prayers are at the core of their relationship with God, which feeds, nurtures, and energizes them, and ties them in with believers of then, now, and to come. And it is in the congregation that they learn how to pray when, say, their business goes bankrupt, they fail in college, their factory closes, or their spouse leaves. And most especially, where death and life meet. Prayer is the most common or ‘ordinary’ of the ways that the holy and the human come together. Thus, our prayers together are something far bigger than any one person, or even any one congregation.
When church growth specialists started to look at energetic churches to see what made them so vital, one of the themes that came up over and over again was that those congregations did a lot of praying. What they found was that these vital congregations prayed and taught about prayer: what it is, what is done through it and in it, methods of prayer and related devotions, and prayer in all settings.
Their church leaders: modeled a life of prayer, turned to prayer, described prayer’s role in their lives and in churchly doings, trusted that God would answer the prayers; honored those in prayer chains and groups during worship services, sought answers to prayer, learned how to recognize answers, accepted and sometimes even celebrated God’s replies, even when those replies weren’t what they were hoping for; constantly asked people about their prayer life, encouraged deeper involvement in prayer.
For these vital churches, prayer was a part of every activity of the church, yet it was not allowed to become routine. The staff and council and committees prayed together — real prayer seeking guidance and the power to do as guided, not rote or superficial ‘prayer’ that’s done as a matter of mere duty. They prayed for support; they prayed for individuals’ and groups’ needs to be met; they prayed for boldness for the Gospel; they prayed for specific healing. And they had people whose chosen ministry in the church was prayer: prayer chains, prayer teams, prayer circles, prayer watches, prayer walks, prayer retreats, prayer visitation, prayer vigils, prayer in worship services, and special prayer sessions of gathered friends for healing or help with a burden. The congregations were praying without ceasing. They prayed as if prayer really matters, because they knew it does.
And prayer was not allowed to be just a female enterprise, any more than leadership was allowed to be just a male enterprise. Males, including those without official roles, were brought (dragged??) into the prayer ministries. In fact, since prayer is something anyone can do, prayer activities proved to be a great place for people to start stepping forward in faith and start taking part in congregational life.
Such churches are well aware that God gives gifts to those who keep on praying, most notably the power to get God’s purposes done. And they are keen on tapping into a realm that is too deep for our bodily senses to pick up on, but that is there in everything and everyone.
Some of these churches have grown rapidly. But don’t think of prayer as a road to numerical growth : many churches have grown large and rich without a lot of praying, and a lot of praying churches stay average or small in size. (In statistical-talk : an emphasis on prayer has only a moderate correlation with numerical growth or financial donations.) God gives a different gift to churches that stress prayer : they’re more vital.
It sounds simple, but it’s not. On the one hand, if the church is to become (and stay) a praying church, prayer must be an obvious priority of the church’s leadership. It takes more than just praying, it takes teaching and encouraging prayer. On the other hand, too much talk about prayer will eventually become so much yada yada, in one ear and out the other. (Watch the teens; they’re the first to yawn.) And too strong an emphasis on ‘modeling’ a prayer life can quickly mutate into a concern for keeping up an image as praying people – something Jesus came down very hard upon. Wisdom calls for modesty, honesty, and balance.
“Once we spent a whole night in prayer and praise : and many a time, at midnight and at one in the morning, after I have been wearied almost to death in preaching, writing and conversation, and going from place to place, God imparted new life to my soul, and enabled me to intercede with Him for an hour and a half and two hours together ….. I cannot think it presumption to suppose that partly, at least, in answer to prayers then put up by His dear children, the Word for some years past, has run and been glorified, not only in England, but in many other parts of the world.”
STARTING A PRAYER MINISTRY
You are getting the idea of starting or reviving a prayer ministry at your church. So what’s the first thing to do?
But what do you pray for?
Pray for discernment and guidance: is this what the Spirit really wants for this church? (Maybe the Spirit wants not a separate prayer ministry that operates within everything. Maybe the prayer is supposed to grow from amidst whatever else the Spirit wants the congregation to emphasize.)
Pray for colleagues and support: the pastor. (Without the full support of the head pastor and/or the responsible pastor on a pastoral staff, it will not go far, if at all. If the pastor is not opting in, pray for a change of heart.)
Existing prayer-persons. (Perhaps someone or a small group of someones in your church has been loyally laboring in prayer all this time — usually in your womens’ circles or specialized ministries. You don’t want to trump them; you want to add to them.)
Congregational lay leaders. (The more of them support it, the faster the congregation’s prayer life will change.)
A core of one to six others who will commit to pray with you about this.
KEEP PRAYING. (….got it yet??….)
As you do, look for signs of confirmation (taken together, not each one on its own): comments from others; inner peace; sudden opportunities; unexpected support; things fall into place; ideas/actions coming out of Bible study groups, and from your own study of the Bible; it ‘bites back’ — the idea becomes harder and harder to avoid the more you or anyone else tries to hold back on it.
Also, hone down the vision, so you can easily share it with others, again and again so that it sinks in or catches fire.
Please, be in no hurry. When it happens, it happens. God’s timing is what counts. Get others to lead and take initiative. This is not something to be done alone. And, be ready to accept the idea that someone else may be called to be the main leader. Someone else may have the special set of gifts that takes the prayer ministry forward in depth, member involvement, and effectiveness. Most of all ….Pray!
What Christians most need to learn is that while most people are not called to a lay ministry of intercession, all Christians are to intercede as an outgrowth of their caring about others. For instance, even for those who refuse to go to church or never much think of God, when their father is sick, they pray for him, because they love him and find themselves turning to a power beyond themselves to bring healing.
In most churches, only one or two lonely souls have taken the next step: holding all aspects of the church’s ministry and its people in prayer before God. This is where a prayer team comes in. The prayer team’s duty is to stand before the Father in Christ’s name on behalf of each member, each loved one, each need, each task and challenge. They may even have to pray for the gift of love they need to hold people in prayer. But another part of the team’s work is to encourage and invite the believers to do their own interceding, to take what they really care about before God, and to work from that start to expand the circle of love in their hearts to include their brothers and sisters in Christ. Then, the members will find it easier to understand the value of the team, and to turn to it when they themselves are in need of prayer, or are being moved to repentance and need someone to pray with about it. It takes time for the whole wide field of prayer to make sense to people who don’t do it and who have not seen God work through it.
This article “Praying Together” by George Whitefield is excerpted from George Whitefield’s Journals (1960 edition, p.91, from 1737)
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”