Jesus “told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Luke 18:1
These were some of the last words I heard from a friend and mentor who was called into the presence of God this past week. I’m still reflecting on his memorial service which I was privileged to attend. One of the many ways he was lovingly described was as a man of prayer. I came across this quote recently in a dissertation about prayer and the work of beginning (planting) a new church,
The planter must choose to devote energy to the daily task list or choose that which is better. To sacrifice prayer in favor of activity, however, is to sacrifice unity (John 17:11), boldness (Acts 4:31), a harvest (Matt. 9:38), growth (Eph. 1:17), open doors (Col. 4:3), wisdom (Jas. 1:5), courage (2 Thess. 2:16), and peace (Phil. 4:6-7). Prayer also develops faith.
I was struck by the length and significance of this list and believe that even more could be added (power, for example, Acts 1:8, 14). It is difficult to wrap our arms around the necessity and significance of prayer, yet I still find myself pulled to the daily task list. So, at some level I am truly thankful for the uncertainty, confusion, weakness, and desperation that I feel, in varying degrees, as we begin a church in Worcester. I remember how insufficient I am and am again driven to God. In this posture of dependency I sometimes find answers or a growing sense clarity but the best moments are when I find God himself, who is better than certainty or strength.
If I, or we as a church, sacrifice prayer for activity there is a terrible cost which is hinted at the gospel of John when Jesus says, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” But there is more at stake than accomplishing nothing. Jesus continues, “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” While “abiding” cannot be solely equated with prayer, prayer is a constituent part. A Christian life, without prayer is not a Christian life. How can a prayerless church be a church (Mark 11:17)? If you are legally married to your spouse, but do not speak, is this a marriage? The frigid and painful silence, in which every other sound is amplified by the dead quiet; the words forever stuck on the tip of your tongue; the lonely mornings and nights without greetings or goodbyes – this is a kind of hell. What is it like not to pray? It is a cold, gray whirlpool which wants to drag me in and drown me under its mute waves. But fear is not enough, there must be love which in the long run will bring us back to engage, to speak.
Cultivating a life of prayer, as an individual and as a church, is in many ways comparable to cultivating any Christian virtue, however I think there should be particular attention to paid to praying as a church, as it is so hard to do. So, as we being a church, how do we build together a church of prayer?
-You need some types of routine or pattern. There is the continued danger or dead ritual and formal obedience without engaging the heart but sustained action of any type requires an ongoing form or shape. While spontaneity must be encouraged and given expression I don’t think you can build on spontaneity over the long haul.
-I came across one church who asked its members to pray for their leadership at one of their meals each day. This practice not only helps the congregation pray but supports the leadership through prayer, builds unity, and promotes a sense of ownership for each person praying.
-Prayer in the church’s gathered worship is a clear avenue for teaching people how to pray, praying for the congregation and the missions of the church, praying together in song, and joining together in both written and spontaneous prayers. I know of churches with multiple services where a group who worshiped earlier or later would gather to pray while the other service was conducted. At another church the leadership or a small group committed to prayer would meet beforehand and pray.
-Prayer meetings: these can happen on a weekly, monthly, quarterly or annual basis. They can be set in the yearly schedule or called on occasions of specific need. Personally, I would like to have three or so major prayer gatherings each year in which we pray for three to five hours. I’m not sure if this is too intense or if smaller meetings regularly interspersed would be better. I read of a puritan minister who would spend his birthday and the anniversary of his ordination in prayer and fasting. I wonder if we will have similar points of remembrance in our church which we can set apart to remember what God has done, ask for continued grace, and humble ourselves under his hand.