The following conversations are fictitious - but they are based on experiences that are not uncommon:
- "Hullo, I just wanted a word with you as our leader here. Being a bit new to the fellowship I don't know when the church prayer meeting takes place."
- "Prayer meeting? Er, well actually we don't have one as such. We did, some years ago, but it died the death, I'm afraid. People now just don't come out to these things."
- "Okay, what a shame. Um..would it be all right by you if I talked to some of my friends and we began an informal prayer meeting in our place?"
- "Oh, well - I mean, you can do whatever you like in your own home. I certainly wouldn't want to stand in your way. But I doubt really if you're going to receive much encouragement."
- "Thank you, thank you! Well give it a try anyway. And we'd certainly be thrilled if you had the time to join us, if it ever gets going."
- - - - - - - - - -
- "Hullo Pete. Rachel and I have the blessing of the church leadership to begin a little meeting for prayer in our place. Maybe once a month; it could be even more, if the idea takes off. As a near neighbour, might you be interested to join us?"
- "Oh, wow; you mean a kind of sharing time?"
- "Well, not exactly. It would be more a prayer meeting."
- "Right! With testimonies and things like that? Of how the Lord has been working among us?
- "N-n-no. We hope we'd be able to get down to some real prayer together."
- "Got you! We'll have a real round-the-fire singing and praise time!"
- "You haven't quite understood me, Pete. I'm really referring to intercession on behalf of a dying world; remembering also the work of our own church, and of missionaries and people in various countries suffering for their faith."
- Yes, well, let me think about that. Of course you must remember that I do get a bit tired at the end of a day's work.."
- - - - - - - -
It takes a while for it to register in the thinking - that prevailing, intercessory prayer is hard work. Actually, it is the work. You can go to any part of the world - Korea, Romania, the Sudan - and visit those communities where there has been sensational increase in the life of the church..and prayer will be seen to lie behind all that is going on. Prayer is God's appointed way by which we may co-operate with his saving purposes. We pray, He works!
It only takes a couple of people to generate combined, corporate prayer in a home or in a church. Sometimes one person is enough. Best of all, if the church or organisation leader catches the vision of prayer as the centre of operations in a fellowship (see the article Your church could touch the world ). But how to get it all started? How to organise and actually run a prayer meeting?
My parents once started a prayer meeting in a church they had just come to lead. To begin with, they held it in the front room of their own home. My dad - ever the optimist - would set out the chairs, cramming them into every available space. Then my mum would follow behind, weeding them out and spacing the rows more widely. 'Eke them out," she would murmur. Her opinion was that nobody would come! Perhaps my mother's way was the better - in that if more people did come than had been anticipated, it was psychologically better to be able to call for more chairs to be brought in, than to be looking throughout the meeting at rows of unoccupied seats.
A prayer meeting never simply runs itself. Somebody needs to take hold of it, and make it the best mid-week event of the whole week! Here are seven tips:
1. Keep it publicised
On the whole, prayer meetings should not be tucked away in the corner of Christian ministry. It should be known that people have agreed together to meet and pray. Years ago at Cambridge university, the leading Master of one of the colleges was asked what one thing impacted him most in the life of the university. He replied, "The one thing that impresses me above all else is the fact that some sixty students meet after lunch for prayer every day ."
The 'Daily Prayer Meeting.' as it had come to be called, had been a feature of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union for decades; and people knew it was happening.
In business houses, in university campuses, in streets and in churches it is a witness to society as well as to the sleepier members of God's flock that prayer is seen to be going on.
2. Keep it structured
Certainly there are some who can arrive at a prayer meeting, sit in a semi-circle and pray, on and on, monotonously and without any break or variation. But for many of us that is a certain turn-off. Held in that way, numbers will only dwindle to a tiny faithful circle.
Keep it moving, and keep it structured, is the advice. If it is a mid-week church prayer meeting, let there be some music - whether piped or live - as people walk into the room. A bit of music, a well-lit room, informally-arranged chairs, perhaps even a bookstall..such preparations help to lift the atmosphere from one of subdued introverted hush.
A prayer meeting needs to move along - starting with a hymn or Christian song, and then turning to praise as the leader announces items for thanksgiving. "Keep the prayers short!" comes the encouragement, born of long experience that the attention time span per prayer may last no longer than twenty-five seconds.
On then to a Bible 'thought'. Not a sermon. Three, four or five minutes will be enough; a Bible verse, a story, an explanation and an encouragement..and then into further corporate prayer. The subject? Why, the forthcoming programme for the next week will be enough..and a few minutes is plenty for everyone. People can pray extempore, or can write out their prayer first. "It is just as spiritual to pray silently as it is to pray aloud", can be a reassuring sentence to hear from the front.
Another song or hymn can follow, and then - why not? - the special topic of the day; it may be the youth work, a training programme, the money! The shortest of reports is enough to give the basic details, and then into prayer again.
Keep it moving . How is the outreach going? Another leader bangs in some topics - perhaps aided by a well-prepared but brief Powerpoint presentation. Then can come a moment when members turn their chairs around a little and pray in small groups of no more than five or six; concentrating on the particular points just raised.
Time is passing - but there's just time for a song to focus ourselves onto the outside world, and we're into the international scene! Keep it tight, but some helpful slides on the screen show just what has been happening on the missionary front. There may even be one of the church's missionaries present - but keep their report down to a few minutes only; thisis a prayer meeting, remember. Still praying in small groups; there can be the added opportunity to remember those suffering and being persecuted for their faith. A final song, a closing prayer, and we're through.
Wow - did it really last an hour and a half? It felt more like thirty minutes. The secret was to keep the flow going.
3. Keep it informed
The preparation is vital. Up-to-date details and challenges, magazines, missionary prayer bulletins; the various up-front speakers need to be on top of their material and present it crisply and clearly.
It is an added-value factor if attenders are given printed hand-outs with some of the topics listed on them. Then, on leaving, they can take these away with them as reminders for their own daily prayers.
Is there a volunteer who can collate information for the prayer meeting? Such a person can do so much - including keeping in email contact with church mission partners and key agencies in different parts of the world. To widen the church's prayer embrace is a key task. This delivers a fellowship from looking in exclusively on its own affairs. Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria ..the ends of the earth - that should be the mandate for every church!
4. Keep it focused
The first thing to go out of the window in any prayer meeting is.. prayer.
Is this part of the Devil's strategy - to keep us from the one thing that threatens the kingdom of darkness? I have been to prayer meetings where greetings, music, speeches and reports take over - and a little sober analysis at the end discloses that not more than four or five minutes were spent in actual prayer.
We never mean it that way. But it is easier, by far, to keep talking, singing and watching the screen. All that is needed is a little discipline, exerted from the front. Those giving reports need careful briefing. For the best of reasons they tend towards deluging the meeting with everything that is upon their heart. Especially is this so with returning missionaries - and who wants to grudge them every last ounce of time that they can squeeze out of the limited schedule? Nevertheless, the message has to be drilled home for every up-front contributor: For every extra minute that you take, there will be less time for prayer.
Speakers would be amazed to learn by how much they overreach their allotted quota of time. If you allow someone three minutes, you can be almost certain that - without knowing it - they will take nine. Give someone five minutes and they will take twelve.
The way to beat the problem is either to allow someone two minutes (knowing that they will take six), or - perhaps the more honest way - to give them such a careful briefing that they discipline themselves to the sharing of not more than three main points for prayer. If an individual showers the listeners with thirty bullet points - all neatly sub-divided under categories such as Thanksgiving, Challenges, Recruitment and Future Plans - it is tolerably likely that not too much is going to stick in the corporate memory afterwards.
The best opportunity for a more unhurried report from, say, a returning mission partner, may be during Sunday service, or at its close.
5. Keep it cheerful
The music can help at this point. Keep off such hymns as At even when the sun was set, or Lord, it is eventide ; they tend to induce calm almost down to zero level. If the fellowship is fortunate enough to have a musical ensemble, and a few lead singers, let's use them, from even before the appointed start.
The whole approach is brisk, purposeful and non-spooky! The style is:
- Supernatural - without being unnatural
Childlike – without being childish
- Purposeful - without being fanatical
Directive without being manipulative
The leader sets the tone from the beginning. If the size of the gathering warrants the use of a microphone, we should get within six inches of it and speak, not down, but up ; not with shy diffidence, but breezy confidence. This is a thrilling occasion - we are going to be approaching the very courts of heaven itself!
Laughs? They may spill out at times, as an expression of the joy of being together in prayer - the most important service we can ever bring to the Lord. There will be stories within some of the reports, and at times we may feel weepy, as we bring to God's throne those who are suffering for their faith in lands of persecution.
But throughout, the tone ought to be one of great confidence in the rule of Christ over his world-wide family; and it is that spirit which will keep the meeting cheerful!
6. Keep it timed
This is pretty important in Western societies. In Africa Korea or China of course, the sky's the limit; you can go on until well past the appointed finishing time! But in Europe , America and the Antipodes we tend to watch the clock rather more.
Thus, if a prayer meeting is allowed to start five minutes late - to accommodate those who have been delayed in coming - be sure that within a few weeks you will be starting ten minutes late. At the other end, if the meeting is allowed to run on by an extra few minutes, because the time has been gobbled up by over-long reports, it is quite likely that there will be a steady drift away of numbers attending.
It is up to the leader to keep an eye on the clock, and to exercise a little control, even at the expense of cutting out an item, or - as I have sometimes done - summing up an issue in a single all-embracing prayer of my own. This may sound a little harsh, and even 'un-spiritual'; it can run counter to the desires of experienced saints in the fellowship who are perfectly content for the meeting to run on and on. But if the main body of the meeting has confidence that the leader is in charge and will release them to catch their buses or trains at the appointed time, the incentive will be there for busy people to come again, in the knowledge that they will not be let down. And the prayer meeting will grow!
7. Keep it reined
All I mean by such a phrase is that - particularly in the context of the local church - the leader is wise to retain sole leadership of the prayer gathering, except when away on vacation, or in an emergency. Others may indeed be better at leading prayer meetings (and certainly their abilities can be incorporated); yet by keeping exclusive hold of the overall leadership, the minister or leader is conveying several unmistakable messages:
- I am always pledged to be here, barring the unforeseen
- As this is the church at prayer - and not just another organisation within the Church - let the importance of this meeting be manifestly obvious by the fact that the leader will be in charge, summoning and uniting the whole church family.
- If there is any special news to share with the church family, I as your leader will make sure that you receive it first from me directly. The prayer meeting will know the latest before it gets to anyone else!
How to get that prayer meeting started? Let us not say, "Oh, we tried it in the past, people will never come; our fellowship simply hasn't got a vision for united prayer."
In the last analysis it is up to us - the leaders - to create that vision. Let us see if, with the Lord's help, we can bring it to pass.