Question: How can a church organise its prayer life to the best possible advantage in an area?
AT BILLY GRAHAM'S GREAT 'AMSTERDAM 2000' CONGRESS, there was - among the many scores of voluntary seminars - one session entitled 'Financial Prudence.' From among all 11,000 delegates, not a great many turned up! But come to the theme of 'The Bible' or 'Prayer' in the life of the church - and our pulses begin to race. Let's take Prayer right now, then:
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:1-4)
At prayer, in All Souls, Langham Place.
'I urge; I exhort' - this is an apostle speaking! Yes, and it is the joint, corporate life of the church that is in mind, in this section of what are called the Pastoral Letters of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. How to safeguard and lead the flock that has been entrusted to God's chosen leader in a locality? Are you such a leader - if not of an entire church, then perhaps of a part of the fellowship within it?
Joint, united prayer - it's axiomatic in the work we are doing; actually it IS the work.
Take the old-fashioned Prayer Meeting, to start with. Whatever has happened to it? For it is an essential part of New Testament 'spirituality'..but in village after village, town after town, it seems to have disappeared. Or, if it is still in existence, it seems to be relegated to a category of 'left-over' events at the side of church life, designated for 'left-over' people - those who have nothing better to do! But combined prayer is an essential for a living church.
Prayer is an education! We learn from 1 Timothy 2:1-4 of four types of prayer. First there are REQUESTS. The Greek New Testament has it as 'entreaties' - that is, heartfelt pleas to God. These happen when a church is up against big challenges, and we fling ourselves upon the Lord. Sometimes we may even call a special prayer meeting for a particular purpose.
But secondly there are PRAYERS ; the word seems to imply the general obtaining of good things from the Lord. Thirdly, INTERCESSIONS - that is, the praying on behalf of people and situations. Fourthly, we have THANKSGIVINGS , from the Greek word 'eucharistia' - the praise and thanks that are integral to the prayer life of a church.
All four strands featured in the life of the early church.
In Acts 4:18 Peter and the apostles were ordered by the authorities to stop preaching Jesus. When they were released they reported back to the fellowship gathered together (v.23). In the face of this ordered shut-down of the preaching, what did the church prayer gathering do? Why, they engaged in what 1 Timothy 2:1 calls 'eucharistiaz' - thanksgiving! That is an educational eye-opener. Instead of entreaties for protection from the authorities, they praise the Lord ! It's all there in Acts 4:24 onwards. They only start praying for good things ('proseuche') at verse 29. And what do they ask for at that point? Protection? Not one little bit:
'Now Lord, consider their threats, and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.'
'Make us bolder still - more of the same, please!' Christians encourage each other when they get together. As a preacher once put it, "Heaven fights for those who pray." Such praying protects the fellowship, stretches our faith, enriches our experiences and widens our vision - both upwards, of the Lord, and sideways, to the furthest horizons. Secondly:
Paul goes on in 1 Timothy 2:2 to urge prayer for 'kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.' That is supposed to be the outcome of effective and combined prayer. As historian T.R. Glover has put it, Christianity stabilises society without sterilising it. "Peaceful and quiet lives in a community" - this is the designed by-product of a praying church.
Every church, big or small, should cultivate the 'Asian corner-shop' mentality. There on the street corner they know and recognise their customers, even down to the names of their children; there's intimacy, trust and service - and this communicates to the surrounding neighbourhood. None of those qualities will you obtain from the out-of-town superstore. We have to develop and practise such intimacy - even in the bigger churches - and so spread trust, goodwill and protection around us. The united prayer gathering provides the best focal point - with all the arrows of concern and service pointing not inwards towards ourselves, but outwards to the needs and situations of others.
A central prayer gathering is vital in the life of a church that is to have any influence outside of its own membership - a gathering when nothing else is being organised in the church schedule, and with the expectation that every single appointed leader and worker in the church - together with the entire church council and eldership - will be present. Nobody should be appointed to any position of influence or leadership who cannot pledge their presence at the church's prayer meeting - excepting, of course, spouses who must take turns with family responsibilities.
Pastors should block the prayer meeting time off in their personal calendars, and take no outside engagements on prayer meeting night - and lead the meeting themselves. That gives a signal to the rest of the fellowship: prayer matters! Of course it is all hard work. To pray and intercede for actual people and situations is demanding; intercession is about the first thing to go out of the window! People will gladly replace it with a song session, testimonies, a 'sharing time'; but the temptation must be resisted. Result: a household, a road, a local community - yes, even places the other side of the world are going to be affected by those 'corner-shop' intercessors as effectually as if they were actually in those countries themselves!
At All Souls Church in London , I was sometimes asked by outsiders, "Do you aspire to be a mega-church?" The answer must always be No. Far more important is for every church - big or small - to aspire to be a world church. For if you look at 1 Timothy 2:1-4, the assumption is one of influence that stretches to the end of the world; our prayers are to be 'for everyone.. for kings.. all those in authority..all men to be saved.'
So the praying church is to be like a world web-site on the Internet - with threads reaching out to the furthest places. And the power released through prayer can leap over the widest ocean, cross international boundaries, penetrate prison walls! The former Romanian pastor, Richard Wurmbrand - jailed in solitary confinement for fourteen years during the Ceaucescu regime, once wrote, 'If you do not pray for Christian martyrs, suffering for their faith in other parts of the world, I wonder who you do pray for?' This is the apostolic way . The famous English evangelist 'Gipsy' Smith(1860-1947) put it as follows:
In the model church, the people will love to pray. They will love that more than anything else. They would rather go toa prayer meeting than to a place of entertainment. When the church of God uses the apostolic standard, it will be a praying church. That will be its chief characteristic. These people prayed.
AMEN? This is, of course, happening in many places. When the church prays, God works! It is His chosen way by which we co-operate with His purposes.
And what advice for actually running the church prayer meeting? Let's save that for another item.