Why do we need to place prayer at the heart of the Church again? Because a Church which prays is the greatest power in the world!
1. Many people believe in prayer but…!
Almost everyone believes in prayer: Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists… it’s a universal phenomenon. Prayer is as old as the world. Since the beginning of the world, men of all civilisations, cultures, continents and centuries have practiced prayer. Even in the heart of the jungle, man prays. Why? from fear, superstition, amazement at creation? Perhaps…?! But, without knowing it, man prays because God has placed the thought of eternity in his heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11)!
2. Praying is in fashion but it has become a “free-for-all”
We urgently need clear and precise teaching to be able to distinguish between prayers of syncretism (a combination of everything, a “melting pot”) and biblical prayer. In fact, praying is in fashion. Many people perceive prayer as a form of relaxation to combat stress; an expression of positive thoughts; a way of emptying the mind; an internal voyage; a way to encourage openness of spirit and tolerance. Some believe, incorrectly, that prayer can be a tool to gain success and power.
In my library I have several books on prayer which I bought recently from the popular French bookshop Fnac. They have “evangelical” titles but there is nothing evangelical about their content and they have nothing to do with prayer as it is taught in the Bible! So we need to be careful. We urgently need to accompany prayer with good biblical teaching so that we do not fall into superstition or dive into the melting pot of syncretism. Listen to what the theologian and psychiatrist Pablo Martinez says in his excellent book Praying with the Grain: “When a believer sees prayer only or primarily as the instrument by which to obtain things from God, they have not understood the very essence of prayer”. Prayer is not about getting what we want but about becoming who God wants us to be.
3. Many evangelical Protestants believe in prayer but are sceptical about its impact and the power of group prayer
During a recent meeting, I asked George Verwer, founder of Opération Mobilisation: “George, why do you think so many people attend the Sunday morning worship service and yet so few attend the weekly prayer meeting?” His response was incontrovertible: “Many Christians are of the flesh. They say with their lips that they believe in prayer but in reality they never attend the prayer meetings, they are never present on the field in which the spiritual battle takes place. The devil has made them blind. They live as if evil, the devil and temptation didn’t exist. They do not resist, they don’t fight. Without any resistance, they let themselves be carried off, tossed around like dead fish in a river during a flood!” Are you one of those Christians?
Why does Jesus pray? Because the devil, evil and temptation are a reality. The devil never gives up! “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Jesus prays for protection during moments of temptation (Matthew 6:13), protection from the evil one (John 17:15) and protection for his disciples. The request for protection needs to be a priority in our prayers because it is one of the main themes in the Bible. Fifty Psalms are dedicated to this theme. Let’s pray for the protection of our soul (Psalms 25:20), of our feet (Proverbs 1:16), of our eyes (Psalms 119:37), of our teaching, of our words (Psalms 39:1) from attacks coming from without or within.
4. A prayer rooted in God
The most important part of prayer, and the reason for prayer, is that we cling to God and not to a response.
Biblical prayer is never egocentric, but theocentric: God is at the centre. A study of the structure and content of the six hundred and fifty prayers in the Bible reveals the origin and the outcome of prayer. The foundation of prayer is God and the goal of prayer is his glory (John 14:13). Prayer starts and finishes with God. When God himself becomes more important than our requests we start to understand the raison d’être of prayer. Let’s cling to God and not to our requests! Let’s find our joy in God; this is the true meaning of prayer. This is what Saint Augustine has to say: “You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.”
In the book of Acts, we see the early Church grow and progress at a time of violent persecution. In spite of the formal ban against speaking about and teaching in the name of Jesus (Acts 14:18), the prayers of the first Christians are centred and focused on, instead of their own personal needs, desires, conversions, or protection (even though they were in danger) but God, their prayers are rooted in God as their foundation and bedrock (Acts 4:24-31). The sovereign Lord (v. 24), God the Creator (v. 24), God who reveals himself (v. 25), God of History (v. 27), the living God who sees (v. 29). Listen to this beautiful quotation from Spurgeon: “plunge yourself in the Godhead’s deepest sea; be lost in his immensity; and you shall come forth as from a couch of rest, refreshed and invigorated.”
5. Prayer is rooted in the Holy Scriptures
Be careful not to fall into the trap of mysticism! The danger is that we give more importance to our ideas and thoughts than to the Word and will of God. Too often, our prayers are oriented to our projects, our objectives, instead of being inspired, guided, nourished and supported by the Word of God. “Too long have prayer and Bible study been divorced, and with sad results. What God has joined together, we should never have put asunder. His Word to us, and our word to Him are vitally related in His purpose, and must be vitally related in our practice” (quotation from Graham Scroggie, a Scottish theologian). Why is this so important? The Spirit who inspired the Word and the Spirit who inspires prayer are one and the same. There is never a contradiction between the two, quite the opposite; there is harmony, unity and agreement. It is therefore fundamental that we base our prayers on the Bible, not deviating even slightly from the Word, and so we remain at the centre of God’s thoughts and will. The Word of God will not only transform our lives but also inspire, influence and mould our prayer life.
6. A priority in prayer: our brothers and sisters
In the New Testament, the priority of prayer is not a “shopping list”. No, the priority is for Christians and the quality of their inner life and being: Love, purity, wisdom, holiness, spiritual intelligence, knowledge of God, strength, joy, the ability to bear fruit, assurance, protection from the devil, doing what God intended, etc. Why is it so important to make praying for our brothers and sisters a priority?
When we pray for one another, we weave a “web” of affection and love between us, we create links which knit us together, which unite us in times of difficulty, adversity and when facing the enemy. Unity and solidarity are a real source of power!
When we pray for one another we combat slander, jealousy and suspicion. At the same time, God sows love in our hearts which allows us to see our brothers and sisters through the eyes of God. The French Reformer John Calvin expresses it so well when he says that those who pray a lot love a lot and those who pray little love little. This is why Jesus says in prayer: “I pray for them… so that they may be one as we are one.” Who is this “we”? It is the perfect unity between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (John 17:9-11). There is no competition between them only collaboration, complementarity and communion.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to pray for someone and to criticise them at the same time. This is the miracle of prayer! God gives me another perspective about that person and allows me to see them through his eyes. With the power of the Spirit who lives in our hearts this allows us to not only accept the other person, but to love them. In my book I believe in prayer, I counted forty-six subjects of prayer for Christians and classed them in three categories: protection and deliverance; quality of life; and proclamation of the Good News. Note that the Christians in the early Church had a very important subject at the top of their list: being able to proclaim the Word with boldness (Acts 4:29). The result: when they proclaimed the Word those listening “could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke” (Acts 6:10).
Never forget that Christians are the “vehicle” chosen by God for the evangelisation of the world. It is essential that this vehicle be in “excellent condition”.
7. Prayer is not the work of man but the work of God through man
Prayer transforms us. Prayer is the main channel which God uses to change us. Praying means making ourselves available to God; to listen to him and be “moulded” by him; available like a block of marble in the hands of the sculptor, to be cut and moulded by the master. Available like a canvas in front of the painter. Blaise Pascal once said that God instituted prayer to give man the dignity of being actors in his theatre. What a beautiful thought!
Too often, my activities arise from my own initiatives. They are filled with my ideas and energy. When everything is in place or when they don’t work, I pray! Praying is a way of expressing our dependence on God. Praying involves recognising our own weaknesses. It is a way of creating a space and waiting for God to intervene before acting. Ask for his wisdom and direction before getting your projects going! The Christian psychologist Darling describes prayer as a way of receiving the breath of life which renews our being. The prophet Isaiah said the same thing: “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak…; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength” (Isaiah 40: 29,31).
All of Church life is influenced by prayer: compassion for others, power in preaching, zeal in evangelisation, the quality of fraternal communion, generosity, hospitality, love for the Word of God… prayer is the engine – the locomotive. Everything else makes up the wagons! Be careful because without the locomotive the wagons remain stationary. Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray. Do you believe that prayer is the world is in great need of prayer? Then give it a central role in your meetings. Let’s encourage prayer at all levels and stages: among children, young people, with new Christians, in our committee meetings. Let’s teach and preach about the importance of prayer. Let’s be models for prayer in our personal and communal prayer lives so that others around us say: “Teach us to pray because we know that a Church which prays is the greatest power in the world!” Let’s stop for a moment and pray: “Lord, draw me close to you, give me a desire to pray! Amen.”