Yesterday, I heard an encouraging sermon on the importance of personal prayer that imitates and obeys Jesus. It was a message most of us need to hear. But it also got me thinking about the importance of public prayer. Not just praying in public, but praying with other believers. Praying with the Church.
A few years back, Trevin Wax wrote an article about working among the Christian churches of Romania. Specifically, about how much he learned from their prayer life. A typical Sunday morning service starts at 9:00am with a full hour of prayer. Bigger churches have an open time of prayer, and smaller churches go row-by-row, as the believers lift up their prayers to God. The author goes on to say that for the Romanians believers “Prayer matters. Prayer is not a waste of time.”
Compare that to a church here in the U.S. where there was a time for prayer with the pastors built into the service. I was impressed until I realized that it was crammed in between a few songs and the sermon, which gave it only about three minutes before they were moving on to next thing. My guess is that they didn’t want to run long because of their second service. And prayer drew the short straw.
Consider many other churches where any kind of churchwide prayer service is gone altogether. The only prayer time that takes place when the entire church is gathered together happens before the offering and maybe before the sermon.
Just how important is prayer to us? Just how important is it for us to come before our God and Savior with praise, confession, thanksgiving, and concerns? Can we get along in life and ministry without his help? Can we, should we, live just on private prayers alone?
We may not think about too much about praying together with God’s people, but we need not look much further than Paul’s letters to see specific commands to pray together as a church. Often we read the New Testament letters and see personal, individual applications. That’s not wrong as long as we remember that they are written to churches, not Christians. So, when he says things like—
- Rom 12:12, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”
- Eph 6:18, “[be] praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”
- Col 4:2, “Continue steadfastly in prayer.”
- 1 Thess 5:17, “pray without ceasing.”
Each time, he is writing in the plural. He intends for the whole church to pray together. God intends for his people to pray with one another, not just for one another.
We see this played out in the life of the Church in the book of Acts. Prayer of some kind shows up in fourteen out of the first fifteen chapters of Acts alone. We especially see an emphasis on the church praying together in Acts. For example, as soon as Jesus ascended to heaven, we read that the apostles returned to Jerusalem and that “all these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (1:12-14). Later, they prayed together for wisdom as they choose Matthias to replace Judas (1:14). Then, all 120 disciples were praying together as the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost (2:1). Later in chapter 9, Paul and Barnabas were called and sent out on the church-planting mission to the Gentiles in the midst of the church praying together.
The early church was marked by corporate prayer. In fact, it was something that they were devoted to. That’s what God tells us in chapter 2. After the Spirit falls and three thousand people get saved, this new church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42). If we were to unpack that, we could say that they were devoted to Gospel-centered, biblical teaching, a shared life and ministry, worship at the Lord’s Table, and praying together.
Seems pretty simple, but what happened as a result of their devotion to these core values? Luke says that,
“Awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (2:43-47).
This group of believers were becoming the people that God desired them to be. They became a loving, faithful, serving, growing Church. Being together in prayer was central to their identity as the people of God. It is part of your local church’s identity? Is it central for us? What would it look like for it to be central for us?
A blog post isn’t sufficient space for something that could be explored with an entire book. So, here are three simple suggestions to help you begin re-prioritizing praying with God’s people.
1. Learn how to pray with others
Praying with other people can be intimidating. We’re often more worried about what they will think than we need to be. Other times, we just don’t know what to do! The best way to learn how to pray with others is find someone who does it often and imitate them. Maybe you don’t know where to find that kind of person. Then, start by reading over this guide to public prayer. It was originally written to aid church members praying in Sunday morning services, but there is some overlap that’s helpful for more informal settings of believers praying together.
2. Plan to pray with others
Does your church have a prayer service? Go! Go and plan to pray when you get there. In my experience, less than half the people who come to a prayer service actually pray. Maybe it’s because we’re nervous or don’t have much experience praying with others. The only way to learn the ropes is by actually praying.
Beyond a gathering of the entire church, think about prayer in your small group. How can you better emphasize praying together? If you’re not part of a small group, make your own. Keep it simple. Find two or three other believers, read a chapter of the Bible, then take 15-20 minutes taking turns praying about the passage. Pray for those in the group, your family, friends, and church. Commit to doing this every week or every other week for three months and see what happens.
3. Ask your church’s leadership to give more opportunities to pray with others
Some churches plan for members to pray during the morning worship service. Others encourage prayer in small groups. How can there be more time given for members to pray together? Again, I don’t mean one person praying when people are gathered together. I mean multiple people praying for one another, the church, shared requests, etc. If your church doesn’t have a prayer meeting, ask why and if there are any plans to consider adding one.
When you approach your church’s pastor(s), remember to be humble. They are not getting everything right (they’re human). But they are your spiritual leaders that will one day give account for your soul (Heb 13:17). Also, be patient. Most pastors are planning things weeks, months, sometimes years in advance. Usually, this gives them time to pray and wisely think about the details and implications of what they’re doing. Encourage them by being willing to help organize changes.
In the next post, I hope to layout some more practical details on praying together with God’s people in different context. But I want to leave you with this encouraging testimony that echoes my own experience over the years.
William Cowper is the author of several hymns, including, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” He attended John Newton’s church, and in his memoirs tells us that the members of the church would meet for prayer at 6am on Sunday mornings. Cowper attended those meetings regularly and later recalled them in his journal and once wrote:
“On Sabbath mornings in winter I rose before day and . . . trudged . . . often through snow and rain to a prayer meeting in the Great House. . . . There I always found forty or fifty poor folks who preferred a glimpse of the light of God’s countenance and favor to the comforts of a warm bed, or to any comforts that the world could afford them, and there I have often myself partaken that blessing with them.”