The Great Commission: moving from “casual” to “devoted” prayer
Most churches pray. But, not all are praying churches.
Churches do pause to pray during their activities. Sometimes, these prayers are offered out of ritual. Often, I think they are truly offered out of sincerity. My concern, however, is that many/most churches don’t hold prayer as the engine and fuel behind every spiritual advancement.
A short examination
In his book Effective Evangelistic Churches, Thom Rainer found that the most evangelistic churches placed a strong emphasis on corporate prayer. Those churches did not simply depend on outreach programs to reach their communities. These churches prayed in earnest for the salvation of individuals. When I first read this book, my initial question was: “does that mean that when churches are in decline or have plateaued, does that mean that these churches are not praying churches?” That is highly probable!
In a later article by Thom Rainer, he stated that “I also noticed in my research that the decline in churches across America has been commensurate with the decline in corporate prayers. For many churches, a time of prayer is limited to one or two people voicing a public prayer in the worship services. There is no intent to involve all the people in prayers…sadly, most of those churches only have list of those with physical needs and perhaps the name of a few missionaries. The list is hurriedly prayed over so the small number of people at the meeting can get to “more important” activities.” Ouch! The prayer that Dr. Rainer describes here can be characterized as nothing less than “casual.”
As churches are praying casually, should we be surprised that evangelism efforts have diminished or are held only in the “big event” format? I believe that when churches stop praying together, their focus naturally turns inward. The “consumer orientation” with which we are all too familiar invades and saturates the church. Folks care more about themselves, their needs, and so on than the lost and the hurting. The church becomes a place where “my needs are met,” not a place where we are at once a battleship to advance God’s Kingdom, as well as a hospital for the hurting.
The needed shift
Immediately following Jesus’ ascension, the disciples went back to the upper room, where they had spent time with Jesus. The first thing they did was pray. After Pentecost, they did the same thing: “and they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
The early church emphasized corporate prayer in their gatherings! Although we don’t know what their corporate prayer time looked like, we do know that it was a time of “devoted prayer.” The word devotion has many connotations: “dedicated,” “strong affection,” “set apart,” or “zealous.” In these verses, I believe that Luke was going for exactly those meanings. Jesus had been with his followers for 40 days, He had ascended into heaven, the promise of the Holy Spirit had been received, and now the early Church was living out Christ in/thru them. These early Christians had devoted themselves exclusively to Jesus and His purposes, and their life was characterized by these very things! They prayed with zeal!
Prayer and worship belong together. My question is: “can the prayer time at my church be characterized as a time of zeal, as a time of devoted prayer?” We must find ways to make corporate prayer a more vital time of our worship services! Pay attention to the words of Dr. Rainer: “In one of my early research projects on American churches, I discovered that the most evangelistic churches placed a strong emphasis on corporate prayer. Those churches did not simply depend on the latest evangelistic program to reach their communities; they prayed in earnest for the salvation of persons, as well as offering many other intercessory needs.”
What I have seen in my own experience, as well as my own research, is that churches who are effective in outreach and evangelism emphasize prayer as a vital part of their corporate life. Like the early church at Jerusalem, these churches devote themselves to prayer!
The need to evaluate
Unfortunately, we don’t know the mechanics of how the early church prayed. We don’t know the form, the method, the amount of time they spent on prayer, and so on. So what do we do? The first thing we should do is assess or evaluate each of our church’s prayer life. In an article by Daniel Henderson, Henderson states that “pastors can easily embrace an exaggerated sense of the prayer participation in their church. Sometimes we elaborate because of our desire to see more than really exists. Other times, we are just unaware of the true condition of the prayer ministry because we are far removed from actual involvement in the heart and soul of the praying.” Careful evaluation is needed! Sometimes we as leaders don’t fully know what is occurring in our congregations.
Discipleship and intentionality
After evaluation comes discipleship. We must help the entire body develop devoted prayer. From the reading of the book of Acts, as well as other New Testament books, I strongly believe that discipleship starts at the corporate level, during the main, weekly worship service. I know what you are thinking – our worship service is already packed full. How can we possibly add more to it? Maybe we need to rethink what elements make up the weekly worship service. Maybe we need to sing one less song or decrease our sermon time by 5-10 minutes, to encourage our body in devoted prayer.
There are ways to make prayer a more vital part of the worship service: have a 30 minute prayer time prior to the worship service, to ask God’s Spirit to guide the pastor as he preaches, as well as to work in the hearts of those who will hear the Word. Another way to make prayer a vital part of the worship service is to divide the elements of prayer (Thanksgiving, Confession, etc.) throughout the worship time. Another idea is to have members/attendees pray silently and intensely over specific requests/needs. Incorporate into Sunday worship different prayer focuses throughout the year: weekly prayer for strategic mission initiatives/partners, prayer for the persecuted church, prayer for world evangelization, prayer for our lost neighbors, and so on
Although I do believe that devoted prayer should “start” at the corporate level, we as leaders also need to equip our body with other strategies to pray throughout the week. For instance, find a prayer coordinator, teach children to pray, develop prayer guides for families, have seasons of intense prayer at different times of the year, develop prayer through community/life groups, and so on.
What about you? What are other effective ways to move the Church from casual to devoted prayer?
Kris Eldridge lives in Atlanta is the founder of Outreach Ministry Solutions. His focus is consulting with churches to help them reach their communities.
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