Here is Charles Spurgeon speaking to other pastors at the end of the 19th century: “Brethren, we shall never see much change for the better in our churches…till the prayer meeting occupies a higher place in the esteem of Christians.” While the prayer meetings in his own church at the Metropolitan Tabernacle flourished he was aware that this wasn’t the case universally- “I hear perpetually of prayer meetings abandoned…put down as a second rate affair: ‘only a prayer meeting’. Is this a right view of the throne of grace?”
Let’s be honest- Spurgeon would probably be horrified by all that has happened since. By and large, church prayer meetings have been abandoned in favour of homegroups and, where they remain, they are often relatively small meetings for the most committed members of the church. Mike Reeves puts it like this- “This is not a new revelation but sadly most of us are not good at prayer. That’s the state of Christianity in the West right now and it is concerning.” I have a slight suspicion that this trend is worse amongst conservative evangelicals as opposed to those who are more charismatic- perhaps because we have started to believe (wrongly) that as long as you understand the biblical text accurately all else will automatically follow.
We are re-launching our church prayer meeting next week. I don’t often foam at the mouth as a pastor but I’ve got close over the last few weeks. I want a change in church culture. I want the prayer meeting to be regarded as a priority event in the life of the church. We are going to provide food before the meeting to try to make it easier for people to get there. But alongside that I am convinced that there are two things that will be required for us to pray meaningfully:
An awareness of need
I’ve been struck recently by the prayers uttered in the Bible from a place of weakness. Tonight my homegroup considered Hezekiah’s prayer in Isaiah 37 as the Assyrians camped outside Jerusalem. There is an urgency there, a desperate dependence on the Lord to work. Or you consider Nehemiah with the walls of Jerusalem broken down or the early church in Acts 4 fearful that their fledgling movement would be swallowed by persecution. There is earnestness there: they are not messing around.
It is in that awareness of real need that the most honest prayers are offered. And it is often the plan and purpose of God to take us to that position. Here is Spurgeon again: “The Lord intends to educate us by non-success as well as by success, and therefore He causes us to sigh and cry until His Spirit puts forth His power.”
We have been reflecting on that as a church recently. After a number of fruitful years, the last twelve months have felt like harder work. That shouldn’t lead us to defeatism though. The lesson Paul would draw is clear from 2 Corinthians 1- “This happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God who raises the dead…as you help us by your prayers.”
Actually, though, it is not just local church challenges that should fuel prayer. All the figures for the state of the church in this country seem negative. The major denominations are in free fall, especially amongst teenagers. Belief in God is at an all time low. Our young people are facing a deeply challenging environment in schools as culture changes. And whilst churches like ours are seeing slight growth, it is only slight. It is blatantly obvious that the answer to these challenges is not within our own hands. I’m not quite sure what else needs to happen for us to pray. The quote from Spurgeon, with which I started the piece, seems appropriate.
But it is not just that we need to pray for the Spirit’s help so that the Gospel might bear fruit. We need the Spirit’s help to pray in the first place.
The work of the Spirit
I’ve been to some lousy prayer meetings. I’ve led some lousy prayer meetings. The atmosphere is a bit awkward, the prayer never gets beyond uttering familiar cliches or dutifully repeating back to the Lord what we have been told to pray about. And when it is a sacrifice after a tiring day at work to get there, you can begin to understand why the meeting dwindles.
It is worth reflecting that prayer isn’t us simply speaking to God. More than that- by His Spirit God is helping and enabling us to speak to God. Just as we want that sense of the Lord at work amongst us as we gather on Sundays so we long for the same as we gather to pray. In other words we want the prayer meetings to be marked by a deep spiritual reality.
As on so many other issues, Jack Miller in his book Outgrowing the Ingrown Church is my friend here. He was a pastor who had a breakdown in 1970. After a few months away he returned to ministry with a longing that it would be different- marked by a keen sense of dependence on and confidence in the Lord. “I began, haltingly but really, to give up confidence in any human adequacy and my own abilities. I tried to rely exclusively on prayer and the supply of the Spirit to serve Christ effectively. Increasingly, I saw myself as a desperately needy person, like the man who goes to his friends at midnight and says, “I have nothing.” In particular, he wanted the church prayer meeting to be different. “By the summer of 1971 I was absolutely convinced of the supreme importance of corporate prayer if the fellowship was to recover New Testament normalcy.” Prior to his breakdown the prayer meeting had been moribund and lifeless. He wanted it to be different- “I especially began to pray with shameless boldness for His working in our prayer meeting.” The meeting began to change and it became a “frontline battle station” with members of the church regarding it as an event they didn’t want to miss. Miller attributed the change to the work of the Spirit- “The earlier gathering lacked the touch of the power of God. In the second one the King was present, moving, working and leading…Seen from the human side, people came to the prayer meeting because they expected God to work in their lives.”
That does need to impact how we pray. At one level it is fine to hear news from a particular ministry or mission partner and turn it into prayer. We’ll keep doing that. But we also need to give space for thanking the Lord for what He has done amongst us, for asking the question as to what He has put on our hearts for the church and turning that into pleading, for taking the Spirit inspired longings of Scripture and turning them into prayers for out situation. And we’ll aim to do lots of that.
I want the prayer meeting to be held in high esteem at Woody Road. That’s not because I have foamed at the mouth about it. Rather I want us to have a clear conviction that we really do need the Lord and so we really do need to pray. And I want it to be regarded as precious because we have a deep sense that the Lord is there working amongst us by the Spirit. Spurgeon talked fondly of the prayer meetings that “moved our very souls.” Now that would be something…