Last month, I was taken aback when on different occasions three separate people, each of them stable, mature Christians whom I admire, said the same thing about the church to which they have each belonged for years.
They are fully involved with their churches and, as far as I know, walking with the Lord. But they, in different settings, shared that they are going to church out of a sense of duty, with no sense of delight or expectation that the Lord will meet with them or speak to them. They sense that their church appears to be on a downward spiral and it hurts them.
Like so many others, I love church. And I fail to understand the mentality of Christians who are happy with just one Sunday service. I love to sing hymns, pray with other believers, hear the Word preached and praise the name of Jesus.
I agree with the psalmist who envies the sparrow and swallow for being able to nest near the courts of the Lord (Psalm 84:1-4). But I also must say that I often come away from a church service wondering why the sermon seemed trivial and irrelevant, why the prayers didn’t touch on the tragedies of our lost world, and why so few young people were present.
Time and again I feel something is not right. There may be many things that could explain the problem, but I wonder if top of the list is our walking away from the prayer meeting.
Reading Christian biographies and accounts of missionary endeavour, personal prayer and prayer meetings used to be a key part in taking the gospel around the world. Days of prayer and times of fasting were an indispensable foundation to all evangelism. So why has this changed?
Why is the prayer meeting the reserve of the elderly and retired, or of students at university only? Young people like to be involved, so what are we creatively doing to involve them in praying?
Have we made our prayer meetings so dull and formulaic that there is no sense of a time of corporate meeting with almighty God? Are we treating Christians as an audience to turn up, rather than the core pray-ers?
Christian service is for all, not the sole domain of those in full-time ministry. So, are we arranging times and places so that those with secular work can meet with others to pray? Have we forgotten that we became Christians to enjoy a relationship with God, and praying is one of the most basic ways we do that?
To be part of a vibrant prayer meeting, where nations, happenings and people are brought before the Lord, and when each prayer has to be squeezed, because there are so many pray-ers covering so many topics, is a sheer delight not to be missed!
Monthly prayer meeting
Most churches I know today have settled for a monthly prayer meeting, and a few minutes of short prayers at the end of a weekly home group. Christian conventions which, encouragingly, have hundreds or thousands attending their main events to hear the Word, see a pitiful handful gathering to pray. Missionary prayer meetings are almost a thing of the past.
I cannot help being bemused that we are very conscious that we are not seeing many conversions, that many church congregations are dwindling and ageing so that they are often in maintenance mode, but Christians have all but given up on prayer.
In reality, we are testifying that we believe God’s work can be done without dependence upon him. It is an act of pride to think our strategies alone will be sufficient to advance the cause of God.
I am suspicious too that, if we are not meeting to pray with other Christians, we are probably not really praying individually. When we are converted we value our relationship with God, but, as years pass, I fear we are failing to cultivate intimacy with the Lord.
God is at work all over the world, but, as American author David Fitch says, this ‘becomes concrete as the Spirit extends Christ’s presence visibly through the church into the world’.
Our world needs Jesus. It needs churches/Christians where Christ is clearly present and at work in and through them. I am all for polished, relevant church services where the Word is preached and Christ honoured, but there is a need for a work to be going on which can only be explained because the Lord is doing it.
My heart is overjoyed when we have a really blessed evangelistic event; I feel transported to the heavens. But, similarly, there is heart-warming joy in a prayer meeting which is taken up with actual, earnest, sustained, intercessory prayer.
Introductions don’t need to be long, but a short reading of the Word, maybe even a hymn, and then prayer where people are doing business with the Lord is thrilling. He not only eavesdrops on the prayers, but by his Spirit is with us, and that to honour Jesus while blessing us.
Every church needs meetings like this. Perhaps a younger person would become involved in prayer meetings if the pattern was not quite as I personally like it, so I suggest we need to consult them, with a view to drawing them into the prayer ministry of the church.
1859 New York revival
I recently re-read Power through prayer, the account of the 1859 New York revival that came about, not through preaching but through praying. Daily lunch time prayer meetings across the city, where people could pop in for short and extended times, saw people converted as they prayed.
In Acts 16 we read of Lydia being converted at a prayer meeting. Our day is different, but God has made it clear, even if we can’t explain it, that he still works in answer to prayer.
In my Bible, the heading for Deuteronomy 9 is ‘Israel’s rebellions reviewed’. However, it is not a full summary of the chapter. I reckon that seven different rebellions are mentioned in the chapter, culminating with Moses’ words, ‘You have been rebellious against the Lord from the day that I knew you’.
He is speaking to God’s redeemed people — a truly wayward lot! But the chapter also demonstrates God’s grace in continuing to work with this people. Linking these two themes is Moses’ prayer.
He repeatedly fell down before the Lord. He fasted for 40 days, as he prayed for the nation and Aaron in particular: ‘For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure with which the Lord was angry with you to destroy you … But the Lord listened to me’.
‘The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit’ (James 5:17-18).
We have challenging examples of individuals praying, but Scripture seems to teach that it is when people are united in prayer that God works in a mighty way. Jesus himself said this in Matthew 18:19-20. It is exemplified in Nehemiah 4, when, referring to prayer and service, the words ‘we’ and ‘our’ each appear repeatedly.
Are we concerned about the state of the church? Do we grieve that Christians are often swept aside with worldliness and false teachings? Are we burdened that we are not seeing people saved? Then let us pray, regularly, earnestly and with others.
Are we heavy-hearted that our children or parents are not walking with the Lord? Do we feel impotent in winning others to Christ? Then let us pray, regularly, earnestly and with others.
Do we fear for the future of our church? Are we concerned that leadership is weak or lacking? Then let us pray, regularly, earnestly and with others. Do we have friends serving on the mission field? Are we concerned about the nations where there is no open door for the gospel? Then let us pray, regularly, earnestly and with others.
Out of love for Muslims, do we long to see the walls of Islam crumble across the world? Do we have compassion towards our brothers and sisters in Christ who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake? Then let us pray, regularly, earnestly and with others.
Our God delights to answer prayer, so I beg us to ensure that we are regularly attending a ‘doing-business-with-God’ prayer meeting. And if there isn’t one, perhaps you could start one in your home or at work, or in your church.
Roger Carswell is an itinerant evangelist and a member of the Association of Evangelists