The Power Of Praying Together
By Daniel Henderson
The following is edited from messages given at the Midwest Prayer Conference of Harvest Prayer Ministries in October 2011 at Maryland Community Church in Terre Haute, Indiana. Although the material is directed especially toward pastors, it provides encouragement for all believers.
Early in my ministry Acts 6:4 changed the trajectory of my whole life. In this passage, the early church leaders declare, "But we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word." I recognized that after seven years of college and seminary I had learned much about the Word, but no one had personally affected me in the area of prayer. I had heard sermons on prayer and read books on prayer, but the only way you learn to pray is to pray. So I said, "Lord, I do not even know what it means to continually give myself to prayer. Teach me what this means."
And so He did. Over the next 25 years He put me in three different churches with desperate situations, and He made it very clear that the only hope was to get the people on their knees. I am convinced no one really knows the meaning of prayer until he/she has experienced desperation. We discovered in those churches the privilege of giving ourselves to special seasons of Scripture reading, worship and prayer. God is always glad to draw near when you give Him your undivided attention, and those churches turned around and are now flourishing.
Through all of this, I have become thoroughly convinced of the transforming power of prayer in our lives, in our churches and in our society. There are, however, ten strongholds of thought, or myths, that keep us from experiencing the transforming power of prayer in our churches. There are also ten corresponding truths that can ignite passion and vision for prayer.
Learning How to Pray
One of the myths many pastors believe is that the people in their churches already know how to pray. The truth, however, is that pastors must lead the people in learning how to pray through exhortation and example.
Of course, most people know how to spend a few minutes in prayer taking their list of needs to God. But many do not know how to spend time in His presence, and how to be transformed by seeking His face. Our prayers are often more about us than about Him, focusing on our needs or the needs of others instead of on Him and His will. There is a place for coming to God about our needs, but there is so much more to prayer, and what we are doing is not worthy of His name.
When we compare the typical prayer list today with the prayers of Jesus we get a fresh understanding of how we can grow to a higher level of spiritual excellence in prayer. If we want to learn how to pray we need to look at how He prayed. What moved His heart to talk to the Father? He always prayed for the glory of the Father and in complete submission to His will. His prayers always focused on His mission and the fruitful mission of His followers. (See, for example, John 17:1-26.)
We can also look at Paul’s prayers. Every one of Paul’s model prayers sprang from expressions of thanksgiving, truths about God and notes of praise. They were the fruit of his worship and his intimate knowledge of the Person of Christ. His prayers were focused on the spiritual growth of his disciples, with the goal of God’s glory in their lives. (See, for example, Ephesians 1:15-21; Philippians 1:3-11; Colossians 1:9-12.) And when he requested that others pray for him, his focus was on his desire to accomplish his mission by boldly proclaiming the Gospel so that Christ might be magnified in him in life or in death.
Through prayer, believers and churches ought to be experiencing God’s presence and His transformational power. But many are not because they do not know how to pray. Therefore, pastors must be passionate and dedicated to teaching them to pray the way Jesus and Paul prayed.
Effective Ministry Flows from Prayer
A second myth is that we do not need a culture of prayer to have a significant ministry. But the truth is that effective ministry is not just about what we do, but about why, how and for whom.
One of the ideas in churches these days is to have a vision, a big picture, to get everybody on board so that they will give to help grow your church. Unfortunately, this concept has replaced the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Who needs to wait on God and spend time in His presence when we can come up with a vision? But what we really need is time in the presence of the Holy Spirit. We need to be Acts 1 leaders, devoted continually to prayer (v. 14), so that God can make Acts 2 happen.
Jim Cymbala warns that when we stand before Christ, He is not going to ask us what the size of our church was, but what sort of church it was. Did our work have anything to do with the way He wanted us to build the church? "For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss…" (1 Cor. 3:11-15).
Today it is very easy to have a large, impressive church without prayer. We can do many impressive things in the name of Christ, but some times without His power. But what will happen when such work is tested by fire? We need to make sure that what is happening is that Christ is working through us.
Corporate Prayer Is Vital
A third myth is that private prayer is more important than corporate prayer. The truth is that both are essential. The New Testament teaches that corporate prayer is vital to authentic Christianity, but in our culture we have basically abandoned corporate prayer.
If I were the devil I would do everything I could to keep Christians from praying together. If I were the devil I would know from biblical history the outcome of God’s people crying out to Him collectively. I would know from church history that the greatest advancements against my kingdom came when believers prayed together and sparked revival.
Gene Getz, in his book Praying For One Another, points out that more is said about corporate prayer in Acts and the Epistles than about private prayer. When commands were given to the early church to pray, they were primarily understood as commands to pray together not individually. However, in our culture we are used to thinking in terms of "I," "my" and "me" rather than "we," "our" and "us." Consequently, we reinterpret and individualize many references to corporate experience in the New Testament. Our bias toward rugged individualism often undermines our experiencing all that God would have for us.
Until the advent of the printing press, the only way to receive truth was through meeting together. When the early Christians "continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42), they experienced those things together. The way we learn to do these disciplines on our own comes out of vital corporate experience. We learn to love to worship in community, and we learn to love the Word of God in community, hearing it taught and seeing it change others’ lives, and then wanting to learn to do that on our own. When it comes to prayer, unfortunately, so many in our churches have never had that empowering corporate experience, and thus have never been motivated, equipped and trained to really be effective on their own.
Leadership in Prayer Ministry
A fourth myth that many pastors believe is that the prayer ministry of their church will grow without their leadership. The truth, however, is that pastors cannot point the way, they have to lead the way.
A minister shared with me that one year he preached 52 sermons on prayer, but it did not make any difference in the prayer level of the church. In fact, he thought it was almost counterproductive for the church members because it increased the gap between their learning and their doing. But the pastor went on to say that two years later he just started leading in prayer. He began once a month, then once a week, and it ignited from there to a prayer group in his church that was beyond what he had ever hoped for. You cannot point the way, but have to lead the way.
The prayer level of the church seldom rises any higher than the personal commitment and example of the senior leadership. Unfortunately, many pastors struggle with prayer. I believe there are at least five reasons why this is so. First of all, many pastors have never experienced a praying church. They have experienced churches that pray – every church prays. But a praying church is different. Secondly, most pastors have been trained in a prayerless educational process. Many schools and seminaries do not emphasize prayer at all.
A third reason is that we live in a prayerless, success-oriented culture in which most people want a pastor who is a CEO who directs the programs, develops all the activities, etc. For a pastor to say he wants to be a man of prayer is to go against the flow. This takes real resolve and requires settling priorities like the apostles did in Acts 6:1-6. Although they recognized the importance of feeding the widows, they entrusted that responsibility to others who were full of the Spirit and wisdom, and they kept their focus on prayer and the ministry of the Word.
Exodus chapter 18 also provides a great example of the need for leaders to set priorities. Moses was pressed with too much to do as the sole judge of disputes among the people, and so his father-in-law advised him to focus on three things: Represent the people before God (pray); teach them the statutes of the Lord (the ministry of the Word); and appoint capable men to serve as judges for the people (empower others to lead). Those are the same priorities for leaders in Acts 6 – pray, minister the Word, and empower others to lead. But it takes great resolve for a pastor to determine these to be his priorities because of the expectations of our prayerless, success-oriented culture.
Another reason why some pastors struggle with leading prayer in their church is because they have struggles in their own personal prayer lives. And a fifth reason is because each pastor is a special target of the enemy. The devil is not threatened by a talented pastor, or by an educated or intelligent pastor, but he is threatened by a praying pastor because a praying pastor has taken up the weapons of his warfare and has his priorities right. The devil does not have to destroy you, he simply has to distract you.
Grow Along the Way
Another myth is that a pastor must be a prayer giant before he can lead his people in prayer. The devil is an accuser of the brethren and tries to discourage us by pointing out our weaknesses in prayer. However, the truth is that the best way to lead people to pray is to just start doing it and keep growing. When you start praying with your people, you start praying yourself. In the process you are all growing together and that is the best way to shut up the accuser of the brethren.
Motives for Prayer
A sixth myth is that because it is prayer, my motives will always be pure. One of the issues Jesus addressed in the Sermon on the Mount with the Pharisees is that motives in prayer are not always pure. It is very easy to get caught up in the religiosity of what we are doing, and do all the right things for all the wrong reasons. The truth is we must discover and embrace the true, enduring motive for prayer.
Sometimes we pray out of guilt. We pray because we feel guilty if we do not pray. Sometimes we pray to gain approval. We believe that if we pray more we will be seen as a good leader or a good church member. This is why the Pharisees prayed, for approval, to be seen by men.
Sometimes we pray for church growth. A pastor may reason, "If I pray God will bless me. And if He blesses me, He will bless my church. And if He blesses my church, my church will grow. And if my church grows, then I will be noticed and I will feel good about myself." One of my mentors, Peter Lord, once asked, "If God promised you two things: 1) that you would go to heaven when you die, but 2) that He would never use you in the ministry again – would you still pray?" Am I praying that God will use me for me? As much as we want the church to grow, God is not going to reduce something as holy as prayer to my next ego-driven church growth tactic.
Sometimes our motivation for prayer is revival. But even with this motive we need to remember that there is a difference between seeking revival from God and seeking God for revival. We may want all of the benefits and excitement of revival, but are we really seeking God?
There is only one true, enduring motive for prayer: God is worthy to be sought. That is the idea of worship-based prayer and not just request-based prayer. If you have a request-based mindset your motivation will ebb and flow based upon your perception of need or crisis. But a worship-based approach will never change because it is rooted in the reality of God’s Word and who He really is. Worship-based prayer is the only kind of prayer that lasts forever. When we get to heaven we will not be praying for the sick, or for the lost or for missionaries, as important as these are. But we will be saying, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain!" (Rev. 5:12).
God is worthy to be sought, and our focus should be to seek His face and not just His hand. His hand is what He does, His face is who He is. If we seek His hand, we may miss His face. But if we seek His face, He will be glad to extend His hand. "When You said, ‘Seek My face,’ My heart said to You, ‘Your face, Lord, I will seek’" (Psa. 27:8).
A Powerful Method
Another myth is that because it is prayer my methods will always be effective. I have been to prayer meetings where someone opens by saying, "Let’s just pray as we feel led." This presumes that people know what it means to be led by the Holy Spirit.
The truth is that we must learn and refine a balanced, biblical approach to lead prayer. The key principles are to have Scripture-fed, worship-based, Spirit-led prayer. So when we gather together for prayer the first thing that is said is not "Do we have any prayer requests?" but "Let’s open our Bibles. Let us allow the Word of God to shape our praying today."
One powerful approach is the 4/4 Pattern – Upward, Downward, Inward, Outward. This easily applies to The Lord’s Prayer. It starts with the Upward focus: "Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name" (Matt. 6:9). The idea is reverence. In a prayer meeting, the first thing we do is open the Bible, read a passage, and ask, "What does this text tell us about God and His character?" We interact with each other over these truths, and then spend a season in which we do not ask God for anything, but reflecting on the passage, we worship Him, giving Him what He is worthy of.
Then we go Downward in response. How can you not respond! Worship is the response of all that I am to the revelation of all that He is. In Jesus’ words this movement is, "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven" (v. 10). The idea is yieldedness, self-emptying and surrender. We begin to pray the Lord’s agenda and not our own. We desperately need the Holy Spirit to show us this. We need Him to rule and to control our minds and thoughts so that He has His way with us when we pray. I often say we do not know what to pray about until we have worshiped well and surrendered completely. In this season of prayer, we are aligning our hearts with His.
Then there is the Inward movement when we bring our requests to the Lord. There are two categories here. The first is resources – "Give us this day our daily bread" (v. 11). Resources are the things we need, such as a job, a car, support for missionaries, strength for a person who just went through surgery, and so on. The second category is relationships – "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (v. 12). Every prayer request list can be broken down to either resource or relationship issues.
The next movement of prayer is Outward, and has the idea of readiness. "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" (v. 13). This is a time of prayer to prepare for the battle. "Lord, I cannot fight the fight, but You have the resources to give me the victory." The best way to be ready for the battle is with the Word of God, the Sword of the Spirit. You can claim a promise right out of the text you have been praying through.
End where you began with the Upward stroke. "For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory for ever. Amen" (v. 13). The ultimate purpose of prayer is the glory of God. End the prayer time in worship.
Training Others to Lead
An eighth myth is that additional prayer leaders will automatically emerge. The truth is that we must train confident and competent leaders for a growing prayer ministry.
As a senior pastor I trained people three or four times a year even though we had much prayer going on. Even though you may be leading a prayer meeting, train others so that this will spread. Help them become confident in leading prayer to be part of God’s transforming power in the church.
Response May Be Delayed
Another myth is that people will flock to prayer if I just lead the way. The truth is, as A.W. Tozer said, "Don’t expect a big crowd when God is the only attraction." Jim Cymbala stresses the same truth as he points out that people will pay big money to come and listen to a Christian artist, but they will not come to a free prayer meeting with Jesus. The reality is that because it is prayer, you may not see a dramatic response. But do not give up. Hopefully, your prayer ministry is life-giving, and you may need to work on that. But even then it may take time for people to respond. Realize that it may be an uphill journey.
The final myth is that prayer ministry will always be easy and enjoyable. The truth is that while prayer ministry brings joy and intimacy with Christ, it also brings battle with the enemy. As John Piper said, "Until you know that life is war, you cannot know what prayer is for." When you get serious about prayer, the enemy will be against you. This is war. When you pray you fight the devil on a whole new level. Do not give up. We are called to be praying menaces to the devil.
Let me give you a word of warning regarding one of the subtle ways the enemy works. When prayer begins to really grow in a church the devil gets in there and begins to create what I call the "pride divide." Those who are excited about participating in prayer may unwittingly begin to look down on those who are not participating. Then those who are not getting involved may begin to resist and dig in their heels. And now something that started off so pure, so beautiful, so powerful has been ruined by the snare.
Be Resolute in Prayer!
One of the greatest callings and privileges we have is to lead God’s people into His presence. Therefore, we need to reject the things that are not true and embrace the truths that will create environments of prayer that change people’s lives and make His church a house of prayer. We have to transform our minds every day and be resolute as we surrender to the Spirit’s call to pray until the day we see Him face to face.
– Used by permission. Daniel Henderson is the President of Strategic Renewal.