I once heard a retired pastor lament that he felt he had failed to lead his church to be characterised as “a praying church.” In spite of many fruitful ministries, he lamented that, for whatever reason, the church’s prayer meetings just never seemed to take root and grow. He was grieved that he could not describe his church as “the church at prayer.” It grieves me that this is the experience of many churches. And though I am grateful to God that our church has been making progress in this area, nevertheless we still have a long way to go.
I recently quoted in a sermon someone who said, “Prayer is to the spirit what breathing is to the body.” If this is true, then is it possible that our church is displaying some signs of spiritually turning blue due to a deficiency of the oxygen of prayer? Understanding that there is a significant place for private prayer (Matthew 6:5–6), nevertheless, when the church is called to prayer, should we not be concerned that many choose not to gather? Both as a church member and as a shepherd, I am concerned. In fact, I am concerned enough to write this article to help to get more oxygen into the Body.
We have two scheduled prayer meetings on the Lord’s Day. The first one is at 8:15 AM, where we particularly focus on praying for the ministry of our Sunday school and Family Bible Hour, as well as for our morning worship service. Those who are teachers attend this important meeting, for we understand the need for God’s gracious power if the Word taught will become the Word caught. All are welcomed—and encouraged—to join with us as we begin the Lord’s Day together in prayer. We meet in the room above the crèche.
The other prayer meeting is on Sunday from 5:30 PM. We meet in the church hall. We view this prayer meeting as our major time of corporate prayer and, by God’s grace, this time of prayer has grown in attendance over the years.
A couple of years ago the elders made the deliberate decision to move this prayer meeting from behind the balcony into the church hall. We did so because of Jesus’ passion, reflecting the Father’s passion, that His house would be “a house of prayer for all nations” (see Matthew 21:13 with Isaiah 56:7).
Jesus expected the temple, the dwelling place of God, to be characterised as a place of prayer. Transitioning from that old covenant temple to the new covenant temple of God—the church (Ephesians 2:19–22; etc.)—we too should be characterised as a people and “place” of prayer. In the light of this truth, we as an eldership made the biblical decision to move the prayer meeting from being an incidental part of church life to rather being more of an intentional part of church life. We want to be “the church at prayer.” This is why we often emphasise that our evening service effectively begins at 5:30 PM rather than at 6:00 PM.
Again, we have been encouraged that, with this move, we have seen a growth in participation in this corporate time of prayer. We are aware that there are some very good reasons why not every member can join us for this time of corporate prayer. Yet there are others who, though they could and should be prioritising this gracious privilege, are not doing so. And that is concerning. After all, why would someone who covenants to be a connected and communing church member refuse to corporately gather with the church when we are conversing with God? This question is so important that we discussed it in our Grace Groups this past week.
I have no doubt that, in some cases, church members do not gather to pray because they are self-conscious to pray before others. I sympathise with them. I understand how difficult this can be. However, the only way that you will overcome this is by doing the difficult thing: gathering to pray! Perhaps initially you will be a silent partner in the prayer group. That’s okay. In time, you will find yourself venturing into vocalising what is surely being prayed in your heart.
In other cases, the absence of church members is perhaps not so noble. Perhaps in some cases the issue is akin to self-conceit rather than self-consciousness. In other words, perhaps you do not attend because you are too independent; you are self-sufficient. In such cases, you need the reminder that apart from Christ you can do nothing (John 15:5), just as apart from God you have nothing (see Psalm 50). Self-sufficiency has the tendency of silencing our prayer life, thereby suffocating our spiritual life.
Perhaps in such a sad scenario of self-sufficiency, you find yourself unconcerned about the burdens of others. Therefore, you do not sense any compelling reason to gather to prayer with and for the church. I find it disconcerting that people who ask for prayer are sometimes the very ones who will never gather corporately to pray for others. Such behaviour is at best thoughtless and at worst selfish.
But a final obstacle to gathering for corporate prayer is that of unbelief. That is, we may refuse to gather because we are not convinced that God will answer. In fact, the unbelief that keeps you from corporate prayer is the same unbelief hinders your private prayer.
Thankfully, the Bible is filled with accounts of God answering prayer. James provides us with the wonderful faith-building and therefore prayer-encouraging example of Elijah (James 5:16–18). He adds the important observation that Elijah was in fact made of the same “stuff” as you and me. So pray! God does answer the prayers of His people!
Finally, let me make an appeal to church members: Join us for corporate prayer—especially Sunday evenings. We should be “the church at prayer” for at least the following reasons:
- because of the encouragement it provides (Hebrews 10:23–24);
- because of the examples to pattern (Acts 1, 2, 4, 6, 12, etc.!);
- because of the exhortation of your pastors (Hebrews 13:7, 17); and
- because of the edification it produces (James 5:13–18).
See you this Sunday as we gather with the church at prayer.