Monday, April 07, 2008

Church and prayer

I have been reading through the book of Acts lately and will be preaching on it for the next 10 weeks. One of the big ideas in Acts is the relationship between dependent prayer and spiritual renewal. The early Christians were a praying people. Over and over in Acts you see the church in prayer: when the apostles needed a replacement for Judas Iscariot (chap. 1), when they first met resistance from the Jewish religious leaders (chap. 4), when they needed deacons (chap. 6), when Peter was imprisoned (chap. 12), and when they were ready to take the gospel internationally (chap. 13), the early Christians met for prayer.

And it appears they didn't just pray now and then or when it was convenient. Acts 1:14 says "They all joined together constantly in prayer." Acts 2:42 says "They devoted themselves to . . . prayer."

So my question is, How can we in our churches today experience a sustained level of fervent, corporate prayer?

As a pastor, I've run the gamut of ideas: weekly prayer meetings, early morning men's prayer groups, National Day of Prayer gatherings, round-the-clock prayer campaigns, and the like. These meetings typically draw the same small core of people that show up for everything else, and they run out of steam pretty fast. They often die a slow, depressing death. It takes months or years for the church to feel ready to try prayer again.

This is going to sound uncharitable, but one thing I've observed is that prayer meetings and prayer groups often attract people with a defective view of justification. For these individuals, prayer is a means of performing before God and achieving status with people. Curiously, however, they outdo many other, more mature Christians in the area of prayer and set an unrealistically high bar for the church. So the prayer ministry of a church, in my experience, is often the place some of the most unbalanced, undiscerning Christians wind up. Don't get me wrong. As Richard Lovelace puts it, "Even bad prayer is better than no prayer." But prayer groups not grounded in the gospel are not very attractive to the wider body of Christ, and can even kill a prayer ministry altogether. I certainly don't want to tell a brand new Christian to go to a prayer meeting led by one of these folks.

Yet I'm convinced there's got to be a way the church today can experience prayer on the level of the book of Acts, without adopting a wacky theology of prayer.

I think that prayer is probably not going to happen very much in our churches unless there is first a deep sense of need. Again to quote Richard Lovelace in his book Dynamics of Spiritual Life, "the minimal prayer accompanying many projects in the church may indicate that what is being undertaken is simply what human beings can accomplish pretty well by themselves."

Not until we see what desperate straits we're in, how weak we are, and how great the challenges are before us will Christians meet together with urgency and faith and ask God to rend the heavens and come down. Maybe we need to start by asking God to "pour out . . . a spirit of grace and supplication" on the church (Zechariah 12:10).


Matthaeus Flexibilis said...

Lee Irons has a good post on prayer over at his blog. It's more about personal rather than corporate prayer, but it's worth passing on. He quotes R. L. Dabney on the subject and then suggests this:

So try something new. Follow Dabney’s encouragement and think of prayer as something that you already do without realizing it. Or, perhaps more accurately, as something that your regenerate heart wants to do, if only you would capitalize on those irrepressible promptings from the Spirit and turn them into conscious prayers. Instead of thinking of prayer as something arduous and requiring tremendous amounts of discipline and effort, see it as something easy. As soon as the thought, “I should pray about this,” pops into your heard, do it right then and there. Just talk to the Lord, even if for the briefest moment, even for a second or two (what I call “arrow prayers”).

Even when you have sunk into a pit of spiritual emptiness, where even the thought of trying to crawl out makes you feel exhausted and hopeless, the irrepressible promptings of the Spirit are there, perhaps nothing more than the simple, abject cry, “Lord, help me!” It is not really the case that we are prayerless. It is just that we have such an exalted conception of prayer that we have overlooked the many prayers that we have despised as unworthy of the name of prayer.

The last sentence is golden to me.

Mike said...

Ooh, yes - I like that too.

Karl said...

Mike, your thoughts on who often drive the prayer ministry really ring true, and yet I'd never thought about it that way before.
I also like the Dabney quote!