One of the most central things Christians do when they gather together is pray. They gather to hear the Word, and to cheer on the new members. The Spirit knits them together, and brings them Christ Himself. They hear, see, taste, smell, feel, and sing God's love. And they respond in prayer. Prayer is what most sets a church apart from a social club or labor union or school or service agency.
What's more, public prayers teach each believer a lot about what private prayers are about. In public :
- they pray when they don't want to pray or don't feel like praying;
- they pray when they have trouble concentrating on praying;
- they pray when they aren't prepared for it;
- they pray the Word by drawing on Scriptures in the liturgy and readings;
- they pray for (and with!) those they are in conflict with;
- they pray about people and things they wouldn't think to pray for or would otherwise forget to pray for.
They learn that there is great spiritual power where believers pray together with unity of purpose (also known as 'in agreement'). Their prayers are at the core of their relationship with God, which feeds, nurtures, and energizes them, and ties them in with believers of then, now, and to come. And it is in the congregation that they learn how to pray when, say, their business goes bankrupt, they fail in college, their factory closes, or their spouse leaves. And most especially, where death and life meet. Prayer is the most common or 'ordinary' of the ways that the holy and the human come together. Thus, a church's prayers together are something far bigger than any one person, or even any one congregation.
When church growth specialists started to look at energetic churches to see what made them so vital, one of the themes that came up over and over again was that those congregations did a lot of praying. What they found was that these vital congregations prayed and taught about prayer: what it is, what is done through it and in it, methods of prayer and related devotions, and prayer in all settings.
Their church leaders :
- modeled a life of prayer,
- turned to prayer,
- described prayer's role in their lives and in churchly doings,
- trusted that God would answer the prayers;
- honored those in prayer chains and groups during worship services,
- sought answers to prayer,
- learned how to recognize answers,
- accepted and sometimes even celebrated God's replies, even when those replies weren't what they were hoping for;
- constantly asked people about their prayer life,
- encouraged deeper involvement in prayer.
For these vital parishes, prayer was a part of every activity of the church, yet it was not allowed to become routine. The staff, council and committees prayed together -- real prayer seeking guidance and the power to do as guided, not rote or superficial 'prayer' that's done as a matter of mere duty. They prayed for support. They prayed for individuals' and groups' needs to be met. They prayed for boldness for the Gospel. They prayed for specific healing. And, there were people in the churches whose chosen ministry was prayer. They led prayer chains, prayer teams, prayer circles, prayer watches, prayer walks, prayer retreats, prayer visitation, prayer vigils, and prayer during worship services and events. There were even special prayer sessions of gathered friends for healing or for help with a burden. The congregations were praying without ceasing. They prayed as if prayer really matters, because they knew it does.
Prayer was not allowed to be just a female enterprise, any more than leadership was allowed to be just a male enterprise. Males, including those without official roles, were brought (dragged??) into the prayer ministries. In fact, since prayer is something anyone can do, prayer activities proved to be a great place for people to start stepping forward in faith and start taking part in congregational life.
Such churches are well aware that God gives gifts to those who keep on praying, most notably the power to get God's purposes done. And they are keen on tapping into a realm that is too deep for our bodily senses to pick up on, but that is there in everything and everyone.
Some of these churches have grown rapidly. But don't think of prayer as a road to numerical growth: many churches have grown large and rich without a lot of praying, and a lot of praying churches stay average or small in size. (In statistical-talk: an emphasis on prayer has only a moderate correlation with numerical growth or financial donations.) God gives a different gift to churches that stress prayer: they're more vital:
- They have a seemingly endless supply of energy and volunteers for a wide range of tasks,
- they are effective in doing those tasks, and
- they are united about what they do and why they do it;
- the people there sense a strong connection with God in their lives.
It sounds simple, but it's not. On the one hand, if the church is to become (and stay) a praying church, prayer must be an obvious priority of the church's leadership. It takes more than just praying, it takes teaching and encouraging prayer. On the other hand, too much talk about prayer will eventually become so much blah blah blah, in one ear and out the other. (Watch the teens; they're the first to yawn.) And constant chatter about 'modeling' a prayer life can quickly mutate into a concern for keeping up an image as praying people - something Jesus came down very hard upon. Wisdom calls for modesty, honesty, and balance.
"Once we spent a whole night in prayer and praise : and many a time, at midnight and at one in the morning, after I have been wearied almost to death in preaching, writing and conversation, and going from place to place, God imparted new life to my soul, and enabled me to intercede with Him for an hour and a half and two hours together ..... I cannot think it presumption to suppose that partly, at least, in answer to prayers then put up by His dear children, the Word for some years past, has run and been glorified, not only in England, but in many other parts of the world."
from George Whitefield's Journals (1960 edition, p.91, from 1737)
Starting A Prayer Ministry
Let's say, you're getting the idea of starting or reviving a specialized prayer ministry at your church. So what's the first thing to do?
But what do you pray for?
Pray for discernment and guidance:
- is this what the Spirit really wants for this church? (Maybe the Spirit wants not a separate prayer ministry that operates within everything. Maybe the prayer is supposed to grow from amidst whatever else the Spirit wants the congregation to emphasize.)
- what does God want the church to do in prayer?
- what is the right timing to bring this ministry forward? (It has to be done on God's timetable, not yours (Jeremiah 29:11). When it is done in God's timing, the Spirit will make things work well together to an effect that's better than you thought possible.)
- What's the ministry's vision?
- what is its goal? its purpose? its mission?
- why is it needed?
- are we the ones to do it?
Pray for colleagues and support :
- the pastor. (Without the full support of the head pastor and/or the responsible pastor on a congregation's staff, it will not go far, if at all. If the pastor is not opting in, pray for a change of heart.)
- existing prayer-persons. (Perhaps someone or a small group of someones in your church has been loyally laboring in prayer all this time -- usually in your womens' circles or specialized ministries. You don't want to trump them; you want to add to them.)
- congregational lay leaders. (The more of them support it, the faster the congregation's prayer life will change.)
- a core of one to six others who will commit to pray with you about this.
KEEP PRAYING. (....got it yet??....)
As you do, look for signs of confirmation (taken together, not each one on its own) :
- comments from others;
- inner peace;
- sudden opportunities;
- unexpected support;
- things falling into place;
- ideas/actions coming out of Bible study groups, and from your own study of the Bible;
- it 'bites back' -- the idea becomes harder and harder to avoid the more you or anyone else tries to hold back on it.
Also, hone down the vision, so you can easily share it with others, again and again so that it sinks in or catches fire.
Please, be in no hurry. When it happens, it happens. God's timing is what counts. Get others to lead and take initiative. This is not something to be done alone. And, be ready to accept the idea that someone else may be called to lead the way. Someone else may have the special set of gifts that takes the prayer ministry forward in depth, member involvement, and effectiveness. They'll need your support. Most of all ....
(... hopefully, by now you can say the rest of it ....)
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Be Specific In Prayer
The world is not general. Specific things happen in specific places at specific times to specific people. When God incarnated, it was not as a 'generic human'. It was as a specific human being, Jesus, in a specific culture of a specific time and place who, while He walked among us, addressed specific situations of specific people. Prayer needs to be detailed and specific, too, as specific as each of us. As detailed as is feasible, without violating confidences. It needs to be our usual way of praying.
As an example: In Sunday worship services one week, there is a line in the Prayers of the Church where the congregation prays "for the Sunday School, its teachers and students". But when the parish education committee and others who are involved with Christian education meet later that week, they pray for:
- each teacher ("for Rhonda, that her time burden be lifted so she can better prepare her lessons; for Liv, that in each moment in class she knows what to do next; for Maria, ..."),
- each class ("for Yolanda's second-graders, that this week they may stop shooting spitballs long enough to learn about Jeremiah..."),
- specific pupils ("for Jonny Patel, as he learns to cope with his parents' divorce..."),
- each of the lessons of the upcoming week,
- getting new kids into the classes, including thanks for each specific newcomer;
- forming an adult study and drawing new people to it,
- discovering or developing curricula,
- finding ways to mentor the faith,
- for the parents (some of them by name), that they find the faith and/or live it,
- specific coming events,
- better ways to build the faith in children, teens, and new Christians.
Specific praying changes the way you see what you're praying for. You'll start paying more attention to each part of the picture, and care more about parts you didn't think about before. There might even be less infighting and petty squabbles (no guarantees, of course). But the most important thing is that every aspect of the church and the collective lives of its members is raised up to our Lord, the One to whom it all belongs. Our prayers turn our life together into an act of worship.
Tried to Start
A site user asked :
>> We ask that if anyone has a need for prayer to meet at
>> the back of the church after the service and a member
>> of the team will pray for whatever need is asked for.
>> The problem is, nobody ever asks for prayer.
>> The members of the team always wait for a response, but we
>> never have any takers.
There may be several reasons for that. You'd know which apply to your church much better than I would, and how much :
(1) When service ends, many people are mentally already out the door. The end of the liturgy goes something like this:Pastor : "Go forth and serve the Lord."
(= Okay, enough of this stuff. I want to get to the football game,
and I've held you captive for long enough.)
Congregation: "Thanks be to God."
(= Thank God it's over! I've had enough of all
this flowery talk. We're outta here!)
If that's the attitude, anything done after the service will have a sharply reduced pool of potential users.
(2) Your church is part of the Presby/Reformed or US Baptist traditions where intercession is not usually done this way. So no one's used to it; it's a case of "we haven't done it this way before." It may even feel vaguely Catholic or Charismatic to them -- no matter how well-rooted it is in historical church practice. The sides or ends of the altar, or prayer stations in the sides or back of the sanctuary, during communion time, is where such prayer is usually done. The request to come forward for prayer is made before that person takes the bread and wine, and after the person receives communion they go off to where the lay prayer ministers are. The option of special intercession during or after communion feels especially alien to churches which bring the elements to the pew instead of the people coming to the altar.
(3) There isn't any preparation for it. The format was simply announced and done, seemingly out of nowhere. The congregation may need to adjust to the role of the intercessory team, both inside and outside of worship settings, and see the elders and pastor behind it and involved in it. The intercessors may have to earn acceptance and trust before taking such a forward place in congregational life.
(4) The team needs to pray in earnest about their own role, asking God for direction, effectiveness, and the action of the Spirit in what they do. Maybe in doing so, a new direction may emerge, or something else good may happen. It helps to have others in the congregation regularly pray for it. It also helps if some of the people who are leading the worship service are brought into the prayer ministry -- the pastor, assistants, organist, music director, altar guild, even acolytes.
>> I would not like to suggest that our church doesn't
>> believe in the power of prayer, but we just can't seem to
>> get this program on its feet. Any suggestions?
What Christians most need to learn is that while most people are not called to a lay ministry of intercession, all Christians pray intercessions as an outgrowth of their caring about others. For instance, even for those who refuse to go to church or never much think of God, when their father is sick, they pray for him, because they love him and find themselves turning to a power beyond themselves to bring healing. In most churches, only one or two lonely souls have taken the next step: holding all aspects of the church's ministry and its people in prayer before God. This is where a prayer team comes in. The prayer team's duty is to stand before the Father in Christ's name on behalf of each church member, each loved one, each need, each ministry and challenge. They may even have to pray for the gift of love they need to hold people in prayer. But another part of the team's work is to encourage and invite the church members to do their own interceding, to take what they really care about before God, and to work from that start to expand the circle of love in their hearts to include their brothers and sisters in Christ. Then, the congregation will find it easier to understand the value of the team, and to turn to it when they themselves are in need of prayer, or are being moved to repentance and need someone to pray with about it. It takes time for the whole wide field of prayer to make sense to people who don't do it and who have not seen God work through it.