One cannot read the book of Acts without being impressed by the prominent place given to prayer in the early church. On almost every page, we find some record of the apostles or the church affirming their dependence on the Lord through prayer. Not surprisingly, there are also numerous indicators of blessing as souls were saved, and the power of the Lord was displayed in the lives of ordinary people. No wonder the church grew!
Given the great needs of our present world, we might have expected to find the same urgency in prayer in the church today. But such is not the case. In most places, there is a noticeable decline in both the quality and quantity in the prayer life of the church. We hear leaders lamenting that few are being saved, and there is little power to resolve the problems that assail us. When we take a look at the average church prayer meeting, it is frequently brief and mechanical; often a sort of “PS” on other meetings; a watered down token time that can hardly pass for “The church at prayer.” Of course there are bright exceptions to this, but they are certainly not the rule.
Over the years, many have written convincingly on the important place prayer should have in the life of the individual believer. The special emphasis of this article will be to consider how church elders can encourage the assemblies in which they labor to become praying communities.
A Starting Point
“Square One,” we might say, is the conviction that prayer is Biblical. The Lord Jesus prayed often, commanded His followers to pray and told them that apart from Him they could accomplish nothing (John 15:5) He built such a strong resolve to pray into His disciples that prayer became one of the four activities in which the early Christians “continued steadfastly” (Acts 2:42) Subsequent Scriptures tell us to come with boldness to the throne of grace, (Heb. 4:16), and warn that if we lack something, it is probably because we do not ask, (James 4:2), as our God rewards those who diligently seek Him (Heb. 11:6). Every elder should ask himself if he thoroughly believes these things and is committed to modeling them in his own life, and teaching them to the saints.
If any real progress is to be made in reviving the assembly prayer meeting, serious thought must be given to the place of prayer in the private lives of families and individuals. The elders as mature believers must set a good example. They must be known as praying men who place strong emphasis on prayer in homes and in private devotions.
Some simple questions are appropriate. Are the Christians beginning each day with the Lord? Are times in the Word and prayer a regular part of family devotions in the home? Does family attendance at the prayer meeting carry the same degree of commitment as attending the Lord’s Supper or other meetings?
Such questions lead naturally to similar questions about the prayer life of the church. When needs and problems arise in the home and in the church is there an immediate desire to “Take it to the Lord in prayer?” Does the church consult the Lord about its decisions and problems? Are younger believers learning to pray? Is there a balance of requests for spiritual as well as temporal needs?
It is futile to expect the church prayer meeting to move the heavens if the believers themselves have no heart for prayer. If the leaders of the church take the subject lightly, then only the most mature saints will have disciplined prayer lives,.
Assuming the above concerns are being addressed, what can elders do to make prayer a solid part of the life of the church? This is no place for gimmicks and superficial appeals to the carnal nature. Prayer is work and, rightly done, it is hard work. But let the work of prayer derive from the spiritual warfare that attends it; not from neglect of good planning and consideration for the needs and constraints of the flock. In this, elders can play a major role by providing good leadership. Here are some basic suggestions:
Choose a time and a place that is workable for the believers. There is no special virtue attached to being uncomfortable. In keeping with other meetings of the assembly (see Acts 2:42), the goal should be frequent, if possible weekly prayer. If the desire is to involve younger believers and even children, it can pay large dividends to meet at times in a home. In some places, a brief meditation from the Scripture is given. But this should be brief. The goal of the meeting is prayer, not another Bible study with a few prayers at the end.
Requests can be submitted orally or written down. It is a great help if all will make notes of the requests, and continue to pray for them throughout the week. If the meeting is to move along without getting bogged down, it will help to have an elder or some brother with administrative abilities guide things along. Allow plenty of time for covering the needed ground, but stick to the schedule you have chosen. It also helps if people learn that the meeting will not be closed until all the requests have been brought before the Lord.
One sometimes overlooked item is the importance of publicly acknowledging answered prayer. Few things encourage prayer like answered prayer, so time should be made for praise and giving of thanks. Some have found it helpful to begin prayer meetings with a time of thanks- giving and praise for blessings received. For “milestone blessings,” a special evening of praise and fellowship can be appropriate. Remember, one goal is to edify the church, and that means prodding those still skeptical about the value of prayer to be willing to learn.
Once it is becoming established in the minds of the people that serious prayer is a regular and dynamic part of their own local assembly, there are a number of things the elders can do to keep the fire burning. The church is not only a place of prayer; it is a place to learn to pray as a part of discipleship. Young believers should be encouraged and given opportunity to pray. Some churches have found small groups meeting in homes a useful tool for this, since people will open up among a few close friends when they may not make an attempt in a large group.
Another good work is to gently lead toward prayer that has some spiritual depth. Too often, prayers are devoted to temporal needs such as healing or possessions. Reading the great prayers in the New Testament will show the kinds of things we ought to be praying for one another. Paul’s prayers in Ephesians 1 and 3 are examples worth emulating.
Attention should also be given to a well- rounded prayer life. In 1 Timothy 2:1, Paul mentions some of the different types of prayers and the context shows that this includes the church at prayer. Every believer should understand and practice the giving of thanks and making intercession for one another in addition to making personal requests.
Finally, an evening devoted to prayer can be a wonderful time for friendship and relationship building. In our assembly, we share a meal planned by several families after the prayer meeting, so that prayer is never perceived by the young people as an unpleasant task but as a time to enjoy communication with the Lord and good friends.
Special Benefits for Shepherds
Nothing can outweigh the assurance that we have pleased the Lord. But elders can derive personal joy from the knowledge that they are working together in a healthy, growing assembly to which prayer is a major contributor. There are other benefits, too. The prayer meeting can be a time when elders tune in to the felt needs of the people. It is a time when they prove they are not heads of the church but truly under shepherds dependent upon the Chief Shepherd for everything.
As a fellowship of believers lifts its gaze from the mundane cares and problems of this world, and begins to really pray for one another with the concerns of “the heavenlies,” there will be a growing sense that the church is pursuing that to which it has been called. And of course, this will likely be marked by increased spiritual warfare. But that’s a subject for another day!