It’s the question I get asked most often by young, aspiring church planters — “If you had to do it over again, what would you do — or not do — differently?” It is in answer to that question that I’ve been using my “rearview mirror” perspective. Here’s installment #2. (For installment #1, click here.)
2. Place a premium on prayer.
Sadly, this is where we had good intentions but seemed to fall short time after time. Looking back, I’m not sure why; at no specific time did we ever think to ourselves, “Let’s de-emphasize prayer.” Yet, that’s what occurred, albeit unintentionally, off and on. Through that cycle, there is at least one fundamental thing I have come to understand about prayer: it is hard work!
Perhaps this is why the disciples asked the Lord blatantly, “Teach us to pray.” Because they knew they weren’t. And wouldn’t. Don’t believe me? Just check the garden during the most important hour of Christ’s life — they were sleeping, not praying.
That sounds so much like me. Like our church at times. Sleeping instead of praying. That’s not intended to be a harsh rebuke or scolding judgment; it’s an honest observation about the state of most American churches. We pray, at best, intermittently, usually in a crisis or when there is a large need. It’s something we utilize to open or close meetings, begin meals, or transition between elements in our services, rather than something we undertake to communicate with Almighty God.
Interestingly, it was the “ministry of the Word and prayer” that the early church apostles were not willing to abandon in order to wait on tables (Acts 6). Instead, deacons were formed, the result being that the apostles could stay focused on the two most important things that church leaders do — preach and pray.
My best guess as to why we didn’t do well in the early years at corporate prayer probably centers around the counter-intuitive, almost ironic, nature of prayer: It is hard work, yet it feels like we’re not working at all. Make sense? In other words, it is truly the best kind of action we can take, yet we usually feel like we’re not taking any action at all. In those times, either due to our desire for quick results or “successful” feelings, we usually abandon what is most necessary — dependent prayer — and opt for what is most visible — decisive action. Sadly, we stop praying and start doing. We fell prey to this temptation too often, assuming prayer was just a way to “get the ball rolling.”
Not that action is bad or unnecessary. But it shouldn’t be exclusive. Instead, prayer and action go together, and are not just synonymous, but also simultaneous, complementary, and victorious (Acts 12). It is our first and best action, and should initiate and accompany all our action in an ongoing, unceasing manner.
Fortunately, our intentions were deeply rooted in Scripture and sustained by the Holy Spirit, so even amidst a “stop-and-go”, “trial-and-error” culture in the early years, we have humbly been making steady progress towards prayer being embedded in our DNA. In fact, I recall the meeting when we, as elders, were laying out some things we sensed God wanted to further refine in us and the church — the second one being cultivating a culture of prayer, so much so that it would become encoded into who we were, not just added as something we do.
Consequently, God has led us to embark on several key initiatives that have steered us in that direction. Multiple times a year we conduct 40-day prayer campaigns, global mission needs are highlighted in weekly emails at key times of the year, and corporate prayer is becoming a regular, expected aspect of our weekend services. Yes, people praying out loud together either individually or collectively. Yep, at the same time. Yep, in the same room. ‘Bout time we got serious about the house of prayer (1 Tim. 2:1-3,8).
Perhaps that’s the good news — we are making substantial progress in this discipline, even after a rocky, inconsistent start. In that way we’re probably not too unlike those early disciples. For the same ones sleeping in the garden were also the ones praying in the upper room before Pentecost, in a secret place during persecution, and all night at John Mark’s while Peter was imprisoned. If God could change them in such dramatic fashion, he can us as well. And he is. Sounds like an answer to prayer to me.