It's usually helpful for a church to have many different ways of praying. Each different way brings forward something different to our mind, something we haven't given over to God before, something else to praise God for, something that we take to heart. Each facet to a church's prayer life gives an opportunity for each newcomer to step forward in faith. But your local church doesn't have to pursue every approach to prayer; it would then become 'something to do' instead of 'something to be'. Just try things one at a time and see how they take hold. If a certain approach doesn't catch on, leave that and go to another. You cannot force real prayer.
Prayerwalking Your Neighborhood
Most churches feel somewhat disconnected from their neighborhoods. It's an almost-sure bet that many people in your church's neighborhoods think your church is aloof from them. One of the many things churches are doing about this is 'prayerwalking'. The basic idea is that the church's prayer ministry team (and other concerned members) go in pairs to walk through various parts of the neighborhood, and pray there. This may be :
- in front of the house of someone in material need;
- at a street crossing run by gangs, pimps, or pushers;
- where people earn a living;
- where the local occultic followers gather;
- in front of each house or apartment building for the potential believers who live there;
- at roadside memorials, crime scenes, and cemeteries;
- next to where the powerful movers and shakers make their decisions;
- at places where violence and death rule.
Cell churches also prayerwalk, often involving two or three cells or prayer ministries in a section of town. Student groups at colleges and high schools can make a prayer stop a day to places in the school where trouble is most likely to happen. During their breaks, nurses make stops in front of patients' rooms, out of their sight, praying for health and faith. Wherever the pull against God is strong, that's where the prayerwalking is done most regularly. It is to be done as invisibly as possible, so that those praying become part of the background. That way, if someone comes to you, it is purely a work of God and not your own attention-grabbing. Prayerwalking is not be done to be seen (Jesus warns us against that); it is done to see.
Keep Prayer Events Simple
Some writers describe prayerwalking in terms of complex strategies of spiritual warfare and exorcism and 'territorial spirits' and claiming victory over neighborhoods. But you don't have to think of it that way. The idea is really very simple : when you go to a place to pray for the people there, you're where the action is. You're not projecting. You're seeing it differently, learning your neighborhood in a different light. You'll see the people and buildings and activities, and you may even be seeing things happen as you're standing there. You'll hear the sounds and smell the smells. You're not at some far-away locale safe behind walls. In most churches, most of the people don't really know or care much about neighborhoods outside of their own; prayerwalking can be an eye-opener for them. When you're actually on the scene, the meditations are clearer and more focused, and the prayers are more urgent and are much more likely to have a face or a life in mind. It gives you a chance to think of what place each activity has in the world and each person has in the Kingdom of God. And after you've prayed there a while, you might actually feel the Spirit tugging on your mind, telling you what deeds you might be called on to do there. Someone might come up to you and ask for your prayers, or maybe your help. You get real. It may also help to take notes before you leave a spot -- impressions, things for further prayer, and so on. Even if you do nothing but pray together with the others you're with, you've taken a major step in loving the people there and in setting things spiritually right.
Prayerwalks work best when there's a definite starting time and a definite end time, when all of the prayerwalkers meet together. At the start, they talk together about any specific questions or tips, and have a joint prayer. Then they break up and go to their areas (it's okay if there's overlap). At the end, they do a semi-formal debriefing, sharing what they saw and experienced, and any new prayer concerns. They might then go somewhere to eat and fellowship.
In prayerwalks, we pray in detail, care in detail, and learn in detail. And hopefully, listen to God in detail.
Another helpful practice is that of having a prayer team do a mini-prayerwalk of the grounds of the church before anyone else arrives on Sunday. The team walks around the property of the church building, in the parking lot, along each row of seats in the sanctuary, then in the altar area, the sacristy, prayer stations, information racks, choir/band area, Sunday School classrooms, the fellowship hall, and the doorway, praying for those who would be in each of these places, that the Spirit would work in them and that lives would change for Christ. The tour usually ends with a prayer session with the minister and the worship leaders before the service begins. It can also be done before events at the church. An especially interesting account of the effects of such walks is given by Glenn McDonald, in the book *Imagining A Church In the Spirit* (Eerdmans, 1999), p. 70. He discovered the difference such diligent and thorough prayer had on his congregation and on himself.
Most people have a life that's so complex and hard to plan that they just can't get around to setting aside the time to pray about specific concerns of the parish. Or, they're like me: extremely forgetful. For those people, a prayer calendar can be a useful tool. The prayer calendar can be in the church newsletter, at the prayer information area, and/or handed out. On the prayer calendar, each day is set aside for a specific prayer on one specific matter, then the next day another prayer on another matter, then another on another matter, and so on. On one sample week, prayers would be for :
- discernment for the district/synod/presbytery as it makes decisions;
- the parish's teen outreach;
- the church in Madagascar that they may reach those who do not believe;
- the churches in Camden NJ, coping with grinding poverty;
- a new church being planted in the Tidewater of Virginia;
- a write-in day, when you pray for peace in your son's family.
- for the parish nurse ministry in your church.
The next week would have a different set of prayers tied into each day, covering the same wide span of things universal to personal. (This way, the prayers stay balanced instead of narrowed-down to one's own main interests or needs.)
vigil [ < Latin (= watchful, alert), < hypoth. IE wegeli- (lively, alert); akin to Eng. watch]
To be on a vigil is to be wakeful for a purpose. To the ancient Romans, that could be to stand guard, spy on the activities of a possible enemy, or prepare for a holy occasion. Originally, the desire to take part in the holy occasion is so strong that you can't wait for it to happen, which means you're so full of determination that waiting and getting ready is all you can do, to the neglect of sleep or food. You don't want to miss a second of it, you want to be there even for the preludes or the first sunbeams.
A prayer vigil (or prayer watch) happens when someone(s) get that way about praying It can be done individually, but it's usually done by a group of people who set it up to make sure there is always someone praying. The Moravians at Herrnhut were able to keep it up for over a hundred years. Most churches and ministries would have trouble doing it for a hundred hours. Today's vigils are done to hold a specific matter in prayer before God. Usually, it's to prepare for a specific action, such as reaching out in witness for Christ, starting a ministry with the poor, making a major decision, or supporting a broader Christian ministry or mission. Traditional church vigils for holy days are not really 'prayer' vigils because so much else is involved, but they do contain much prayer.
To start a prayer vigil, someone has to want it passionately enough to get 8 or more people to commit at the start. (These early joiners help shape and lead the vigil.) That group must decide what the vigil's focus will be, and stick to it. It's important to get the full support of a church pastor. Once that is done, it's a good idea to prepare a written guide that tells what a prayer vigil is (assume they don't know), what this vigil is being done for, how long it will run, and how they can take part in it. Also, it should tell them who to talk to about it. Have one focal place for the vigil, where people know they can go to be part of it. This place can be a sanctuary or a prayer chapel, or even an outdoor site. The place must be fairly quiet, worshipful, and easy to get to. Many can be there at any one time (in fact, plan that there would be times when many will be there), but there should always be someone there for the entire vigil. Privately encourage those who can't make it there to pray at home, according to the guide's schedule. Try to involve prayer-people from other churches, especially those from churches your church doesn't normally relate to.
One last note. An event of less than two hours is not much of a vigil, but is more of a concert of prayer event or a long prayer meeting. To state the obvious: a vigil takes vigilance -- and should put your vigilance to the test at least a bit.
Prayer chains are among the most common of prayer activities among congregations. The idea is simple: when there are prayer needs in the congregation, rather than wait until Sunday, get praying on them now by spreading the concerns by way of the telephone or text message. It's simple, and almost everyone has the time to do it. But how does it work?
(1) Ask around.
- See if there isn't a prayer chain already. If there is, join it, and talk to its coordinator/leader about its expansion.
- Most active churchgoers already know what a prayer chain is, though most of them have never been part of one. Tell the people in the worship services, Bible studies and small groups that you're starting one.
- while there needs to be at least a few people who have a mature faith, it's also a good idea to seek a few newcomers as well. Invite the folks who drop their children off for Sunday School and then leave (that's right -- stand out there among the cars -- but be careful or you might need prayers for healing ! ). Or, invite someone who is receiving services from the church.
(2) Create prayer chain 'trees' -- a paper outline of who will pass the prayer requests to whom, with names and phone numbers. Each 'branch' should have at least three and no more than 10 people on it; when there's more, create a new branch. This tree, with numbers, is to be given to each member of the chain.
(3) The chain coordinator/leader calls the first person on each branch with the message. The first one on the branch passes it to the next; if that person is unavailable, try the next one on that branch until you talk to an actual person and pass the requests along, who should pass it on to the next person on the branch. When passing along the requests, specifically say "I'm calling for the prayer chain, and these are our current requests :". Then give the message. Then end the call with a goodbye or God bless.
(4) NO CHATTING, and NO ADDING DETAILS beyond those passed along. PERIOD. Chatting and added details are the stuff of rumors, and a prayer chain must never become a rumor mill. It's true of male and female, young and old alike: the more talk, the more gossip. If you know (or think you know) further details, keep them to yourself no matter how strong the urge is to share them. It's the chain coordinator/leader's responsibility to speak to the person requesting prayer (or the person being prayed for) about what to tell the prayer chain, when there is question. If it's not in the message, assume there's a reason it's not. Stick strictly to the message. Also, no word should be spread on or off the chain about who asked for the prayer; that, too, is private information. Such tight limits may sound un-friendly, but experience shows that it's very important.
Prayer Chains, Special Requests, and Social Media
If you've got a group of people who are 'highly-wired' (have email or Facebook messaging and use it more than once a day), then email or messaging can be a good way to chain them together, by way of a formal group or by just a cc list. This has the advantage of more easily involving former members and interested people in distant places and time zones. Facebook groups or pages are usually too publicly accessible for use by a prayer chain. However, Facebook groups (not pages) have been used well for a particular ongoing request where the request or the news is open to the public. The Facebook group then acts a chain for news and prayer updates on that specific request, and new people can be added to that group over time as needed or requested. For those who use PDAs and wireless phones, 'stat' (emergency) prayers can be done through phone calls, texting, Facebook messaging, and Twitter. Twitter has shown itself especially useful for quick, arrow-type prayers, pass-alongs (when the arrow prayer is passed on to others, who pass it on to still others) and immediate situations (such as auto accidents and critical illnesses).
Praying for an Opening
Prayer to support evangelism
Lots of churches talk about evangelism, outreach, etc., blah blah blah, but few actually do much of it. There are lots of reasons for that. But one of the key reasons may be that we're not praying for the Spirit to bear witness to those that do not believe.
One way to put such prayers into practice is to make a simple ritual for it. At your church's altar, prayer station, or other dedicated place for prayer, have a small area with pad and pen, a basket and candles. Then tell people how to use this area: write down the name of someone you care about who is 'missing' from the faith, put that name into the basket, pray for them to have faith in Christ, and then light a candle for them. The prayer circles/chains/ministries of the church will also pray for each of the 'missing' persons in the basket. The candle gives each participant a way to 'act out' their prayer, with the newly-lit candle as a symbol of the light of Christ lighting up the lives of the non-believer. The hope and expectation is that the participants keep praying for the 'missing' person, and maybe even find the courage to use natural opportunities for bearing a more specific witness for Christ.
Another way is to hold specialized prayer meetings. For instance, hold prayer nights for educators, health workers, legal professionals, high school students, or sales staffers. Hold them at appropriate locations other than church grounds, to better build bridges to them. Get the word out about the special night and invite broadly everyone in that field. The purpose is to pray about the needs of that specialized concern; this is no time to lay an evangelistic gospel rap on them or to hand out tracts. But it is a place where people in that specialty can see others eagerly and openly bringing their full Christian faith to bear on their field. And that can be a good living witness. Even if they don't believe, they may want to pray, and they may want the prayers of others. That's a start; the Spirit will use it.
(There will be more on such things on the coming evangelism spirituality page. The term 'missing' is from Jim Henderson, and many ideas can be found in his Off the Map idealab.)
Closing the Back Door
A slightly different approach is needed for closing the congregation's back door: the people who just stop coming but are not going to another Christian fellowship. Some of these have burned out from doing too much. Some of them are ill or just tired from age. Most congregations have at least a few that leave because they have been burned by the church itself and by other members. Most of the people who leave simply don't think it's worth the effort to belong anymore. Each reason demands a different response. But there is one thing that any congregation can do in all of these cases: pray for each of them.
Some congregations even send letters to them after a year, maybe even saying, "we're still praying for you". But if you asked the people responsible for such prayer a month later, if they were honest with you, they'd probably say, "yes, once, when we sent the letter". And then they forgot about praying for that person. That is not prayer support! Those responsible for such prayers, and anyone else who has a burden to continue to pray for that person, need to keep praying. How long? Until they come back to the congregation, or any other Christian fellowship. Until someone finds out that the back-door leaver is somewhere taking action on their belief in Christ. Or, until the ball has been picked up by others who are with them in Christ. This kind of caring persistence is key to closing the back door exit from church life. Of course, many of them wouldn't have left if the congregation was either caring or persistent in the rest of what it does. And that is the part where the Spirit works on you and your congregation in your prayers.
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