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Church prayer meetings

September 2019 | by Stephen Rees

From time to time — usually when I’m on holiday — I have the opportunity to join another church at its prayer meeting.

That’s always a very interesting experience. You can learn a lot by attending the prayer meeting in another church — often more than by attending its Lord’s Day services.

You learn something about the church’s priorities and concerns. You learn something about the piety and spiritual life of the church. You can catch a glimpse of how the church’s leaders relate to their fellow members. How strongly do they direct the prayer meeting? How far do they leave it to the members to decide how to pray and what to pray for?

Most of the churches I know best follow a similar pattern in their prayer meetings. Someone — usually the pastor or one of his fellow elders — leads the meeting and after preliminary devotions (a hymn maybe, a Bible reading, a short encouragement to pray) lists some matters he thinks people should pray for. He asks if anyone else has anything they’d like to mention, and then follows a time of ‘open prayer’.

The leader may pray first, or he may ask a particular member to pray first, but from that point on, everyone is invited or encouraged to pray ‘as they feel led’.

No one knows who will pray next, how long he or she may pray for, whether he’ll pray about one of the concerns the pastor has listed, or whether he’ll mention something completely different. For that matter he may not mention any particular matter — his prayer may be largely praise for God’s attributes, a meditation on God’s kindness, thanksgiving for some particular blessing, or a confession of his own spiritual weakness. And then at an appropriate time, the leader will call again on someone to bring the time of prayer to an end, or he’ll do so himself with a final prayer.

That’s the usual format. But within that general format, the prayer meetings in different churches may be very different. In some, prayers may be ten, fifteen or twenty minutes long; in others, a prayer as long as three minutes would be unusual. In some churches, prayers tend to be long meditations, quoting passages of Scripture and hymns, exploring God’s purposes and promises; in others, prayers tend to be brisk, direct, asking for very definite, specific mercies. In some churches, prayers will be emotional, even passionate; in others, they will seem more measured and business-like. In some, there will be long, pregnant (or awkward) pauses between prayers; in others, prayers will follow one another in a steady flow.

A modern innovation?

When did this sort of prayer meeting become a regular feature of church life? I don’t know. I’ve tried to research the question a little, but come up with few answers. But it seems that this sort of open prayer meeting, where all the attenders are encouraged to pray, was unknown among reformed churches until relatively recently (maybe the mid nineteenth century).

I’ve never found a reference to such prayer meetings, for example, in the Puritan era. It was assumed that when the church met, it was the responsibility of the minister to be the voice of the church, in prayer as well as in preaching. The Westminster Directory for Public Worship never hints at meetings where others would be permitted to pray. Even when the churches held fast days, set apart for fasting and prayer, it would be the minister who would pray on behalf of the church.

We read about John Howe (one of the ministers ejected from the Church of England in 1662) that ‘it was on these occasions his common way to begin about nine in the morning, with a prayer for about quarter of an hour, in which he begged a blessing on the work of the day; and afterwards read and expounded a chapter or psalm, in which he spent about three quarters of an hour, then prayed for an hour, preached for another hour, and prayed for half an hour. After this he retired, and took some little refreshment for about a quarter of an hour or more (the people singing all the while) and then came again into the pulpit, prayed for another hour, and gave them another sermon of about an hour’s length, and so concluded the service of the day at about four o’clock in the evening, with about half an hour or more in prayer…’ The believers who gathered, prayed by listening to the minister’s prayers, silently making them their own. They worshipped God by singing psalms and by listening to preaching. But there was no point where they were expected to pray aloud.

Some churches of that era — particularly baptist and independent churches — seem to have been a little more open. But even among these, the modern prayer meeting was unknown. Kenneth Dix, after studying the calvinistic baptist churches of the 17th century wrote: ‘There is little evidence to suggest that weekly prayer meetings were held. In some churches, a special prayer meeting was held in the week prior to the, normally, monthly ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, which was held to be the most important service in the life of the church. Many churches also set apart days for prayer and fasting, some more or less on a monthly basis’.

He goes on to quote from the records of one such church, to show how these prayer days were conducted: ‘We had a Day of Prayer, kept in ye open Wood from 9 to 4, where Six pray’d and 2 preacht.’. Dix comments: ‘You can work out the mental arithmetic for yourself: seven hours, six prayed and two preached’. Clearly, these were not meetings where all the members of the church were expected to pray. Particular trusted men (always men) were called on to pray, just as particular trusted men were called on to preach.

The more, the better?

I find it helpful to look back to those times. Whatever we think of the way the Puritans regulated public prayer, it stops us from taking it for granted that our way is the best way. And it challenges the idea that the greater the number of people praying in a prayer meeting, the better the meeting.

Nobody saw it that way in the Puritan era. For them, the test of a prayer meeting was not how many people prayed but how far was the praying in line with God’s Word and empowered by God’s Spirit? Surely they were right in that. Far better a meeting where one or two people pray, led and empowered by the Holy Spirit, than a meeting where dozens of people pray without that help.

A church like Bunyan’s congregation in Bedford never held prayer meetings in our modern sense. But it saw wonderful answers to prayer. The praying of that church was powerful and effective. The church, through its chosen men, prayed for the presence of God in their meetings — and he answered their prayers. They prayed for God to use Bunyan’s preaching, and he became one of the most powerful evangelists in history. They prayed that he would be sustained through his long imprisonments, and God answered them by helping him to write Pilgrim’s Progress in his prison cell. They prayed for the persecutions to end, and in due time God brought them out of their trials.

I once attended a conference where a group of church leaders discussed the question ‘how can we make our prayer meetings more effective?’ But all the discussion was about one issue: ‘how can we get more people to pray aloud?’. They seemed to think that that was the measure of how ‘effective’ our prayer meetings are. But if the purpose of the prayer meeting is to ask God for the things we need, the first measure of whether a prayer meeting is effective must surely be ‘were our requests granted?’ Better to have two or three praying aloud but God granting their requests, than to have dozens of people praying prayers that go unanswered! Nobody at that conference even raised the question of whether our prayer meetings are effective in that way.

The prayers God honours

As we read the New Testament, we discover that the Lord wants to see believers praying together ‘with one accord’ (Acts 1:14, Acts 4:24). He wants the hands men lift up in prayer to be ‘holy hands’ (1 Timothy 2:8). He wants our prayer meetings to be free from ‘anger and quarrelling’ (1 Timothy 2:8). He wants us to pray ‘in the Spirit’ and ‘with all perseverance’ (Ephesians 6:18). He wants us to pray for all sorts of things and all sorts of people (1 Timothy 2:1).

It’s vital that our prayer meetings should match up to these commands. But Scripture says nothing about the ideal percentage of attenders who pray aloud. So why has it become a dogma in many evangelical circles that every believer — or at least every man — who attends the prayer meeting should pray aloud?

I have no doubt that some believers have a special gift for ‘leading in prayer’ — i.e. praying aloud on behalf of the whole church. Paul includes in his list of spiritual gifts distributed to different believers, the gift of faith (1 Corinthians 12:9). He is clearly not speaking there about the gift of saving faith given to all believers, but rather of a special confidence in God’s promises granted to some for the benefit of the whole church.

Where is that special gift most obviously seen? In the prayer meeting! I would rather hear a single believer praying with that bold faith than listen to twenty who rattle off their well-worn phrases with little expectation that anything they ask for will be granted. As that one faith-filled believer prays, I find my own faith stirred up. I find I can say a genuine Amen to the requests of the man who has voiced them on my behalf. And often I find that I don’t need to say anything further to God with my own voice — my brother has said it better and with deeper conviction than I could.

Of course faith is not the only ingredient needed for a believer to be the voice of the church in speaking to God.

A heartfelt longing for God’s glory; a thorough knowledge of God’s will as revealed in Scripture; a sensitivity to the needs of God’s people; the capacity to express oneself clearly… and a voice that can be heard across the room — these things are all vital. If God gives to a church even a small number of members who match those requirements, its prayer meetings will not be barren. And the Lord who has raised up such gifted pray-ers will surely answer the prayers they pray on the church’s behalf.

So what’s my point? It’s simple. Every church needs to review its prayer meetings from time to time. Pastors and elders need to ask themselves ‘Are our prayer meetings what they should be? Are there things we could and should change?’ But when the time comes for such review, don’t ask first, ‘How many people are praying aloud?’ That question can distract us from much greater priorities.

Then and now

So, you ask, would I want to go back to the days of the Puritans? In our prayer meetings would I want to restrict the audible praying to two or three chosen men? No, I wouldn’t. Why not? Well because I don’t find that sort of restriction in the New Testament.

It’s difficult to believe that in the prayer meetings described in the book of Acts, only the apostles or the elders prayed. We read how the apostles gathered in the upstairs room in Jerusalem to pray for the gift of the Spirit (Acts 1:13-14): ‘all these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers…’

We read about the three thousand who were converted on the Day of Pentecost: ‘they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship and the breaking of bread and prayers…’ (Acts 2:42). Does that really mean they just listened and said amen to the apostles’ prayers? That’s hardly a natural reading of the text.

When Peter was set free from prison in the middle of the night by an angel, he ‘went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying…’ (Acts 12:12). Does that really mean that one man prayed aloud through the night, while others listened silently? Surely not.

Paul tells Timothy that he wanted ‘the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or quarrelling’ (1 Timothy 2:8). Does he really mean that he wants pastors and maybe a few other appointed men to pray? No — on the face of it, Paul wanted and expected the men in general, within all the churches, to be prepared to pray, and to be in a fit spiritual state to do so.

Nor does Paul limit the praying to men. Clearly he expects the men to take the lead. He wants them to pray in the meetings of the church. There is something wrong in a church if the women dominate the prayer meeting. But in 1 Corinthians 11:5, as I understand it, Paul assumes that women too will pray in church meetings, albeit with proper modesty.

The New Testament lays down no rules for prayer meetings. It doesn’t tell us how long they should be, how many different issues we should pray about in any one meeting, how many people should pray aloud, whether there should always be praise and confession as well as requests, whether specific people should be asked to pray, or whether everyone should pray in turn. A church is free to do whatever seems most appropriate.

In the church I pastor, we try to be flexible. In our Lord’s Day services, it’s usually the man who preaches who puts the church’s prayers into words. But at the end of the meeting, if I’ve preached, often I’ll ask another of the men to respond in prayer to what the church has been hearing from the Lord. When we designate a midweek meeting as a prayer meeting, we usually have a detailed prayer list covering many issues. As we go through it, we may ask specific men (it’s always men at that point) to pray about specific issues. Or we may leave it open for anyone to pray — though we expect the men to take the lead. In addition, we hold other meetings to pray for more particular issues, or for particular groups to pray together. We have a men’s prayer meeting for an hour on a Friday morning; often at that meeting we talk about personal concerns that it wouldn’t be appropriate to mention in a more general meeting. After our Sunday morning service, we hold a short prayer meeting mainly to pray for the Sunday school. We have a monthly meeting just to pray for missionaries. The women have a further meeting once a month to pray for missionaries’ wives. On our church fast-days, we try to concentrate on some particular, pressing concerns.

Abba, Father

The Lord’s Prayer teaches us that whenever we pray together, we come as children to our Father. A prayer meeting is a family gathering — God’s children gathering round his feet. And that means that our prayer meetings will be varied.

When a father sits and talks with his family, it won’t always be the same. He may have called them together to talk about a single pressing issue. Or maybe they’ve gathered round him because they’ve got some shared concern that they want to put to him. Maybe he’s summoned them so that he can hear what each of them would like for Christmas. Or maybe they just want to tell him how they got on at school that day. Sometimes they’ll know in advance what they’re going to talk with him about. Sometimes it will only become clear as they talk together in his presence. Well, our prayer meetings can have just the same variety.

The important thing is to remind yourself before every prayer meeting that that’s what it is — a family gathering. You’re linking up with your brothers and sisters so that you can talk together to Father. When we remember that, praying becomes such a natural thing. There may be occasions when it’s appropriate for one or two to speak to Father on behalf of the whole family. The others will simply listen and nod their heads and say yes — or amen to what the spokesman has said. But on many other occasions, all the children will chip in, adding their two penn’orth.

I believe that the ideal prayer meeting is one where all God’s children feel free to speak — but only if they choose to. If I called a family conference and invited my children to tell me where they’d like us to go on holiday, I wouldn’t want any of them to feel under pressure to speak if he or she didn’t wish to. But I would be disappointed if there was one who felt he couldn’t, who was afraid to open his mouth in front of the others, who thought he had no right to speak. Why should he or she feel so reluctant to talk to me in front of his own brothers and sisters? I’d want to encourage that one in a special way to open his or her mouth and heart.

There are more important things than the number of people who pray aloud in a prayer meeting. It matters more that every believer present should know that the family is in the presence of the Father and that the Father is listening. It matters that each believer should be praying from the heart whether he or she is praying aloud, or silently echoing the prayers of others. It matters that each believer should leave the meeting with a fresh confidence in his heart, waiting expectantly for the answers that God will give. Perhaps the first thing we should be praying for in our prayer meetings is that God will give us many more prayer meetings like that.

Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport This article first appeared in the monthly magazine and on the website of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport.

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