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Why Prayer?

March 2016

Dear friends Last month we began a series of articles about the priorities of church life by looking at Why Preaching? This month, we look at Why Prayer? and next month, Why Praise? We are all clear on the priority of prayer in the Christian life. It’s a priority for us as individuals but it’s also a priority in the life of the church. So our church services on Sundays are full of prayer. Together, we approach God in adoration. We acknowledge and confess our sins, seeking his forgiveness. We ask God to speak through the reading and preaching of the Word. We bring our prayers of intercession for the needs of the world, the church and ourselves. When we celebrate the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper we give our thanks in prayer before and after. We might refer to this as corporate prayer because it’s what we do when we gather together as the people of God for worship. However, besides our praying together during worship, there is another kind of corporate prayer in the life of the church which we call congregational prayer, which generally, though not exclusively, refers to a church prayer meeting. When we read our Bibles we see that from the very beginning of the church in the New Testament Christians have gathered together to pray. In Acts we read that the early believers “devoted themselves to the apostles‘ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). This devotion to prayer was integral to the life of the early church. It was through believers praying together that God gave them boldness to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ: “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (Acts 4:31). Prayer and preaching were the highest priorities for the leaders in the early church, since they appointed new leaders in order that they could give their attention to “prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). When Peter was arrested and put in prison by King Herod, again we read of the early church at prayer: “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (Acts 12:5). Their prayers for Peter were answered because Peter was soon knocking at the door and interrupting their prayer meeting! When Paul said farewell to the Ephesian Elders he “knelt down with them all and prayed” (Acts 20:36). Then at Tyre, before heading towards Jerusalem we read of a most moving time of prayer with Paul: “All the disciples and their wives and children accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray” (Acts 21:5). These passages in Acts, though descriptive of the early church, clearly teach us the vital importance of believers gathering together to pray. Yet we don’t just see that they got together to pray but what they prayed for. In each instance of gathered prayer the context reveals that the prayer was essentially centred on the advance of the gospel. When the early believers prayed together their corporate prayer was concerned with, and resulted in, the spread of the word of God throughout the world. Interestingly, this is also the primary work of the Holy Spirit throughout Acts. If we were to trace the references to the Holy Spirit we would see that they’re not scattered evenly throughout Acts but rather appear in clusters. In each cluster (Acts 1, 2, 6, 8, 10, 16, 20) the emphasis is always on pushing the church outwards and onwards by witnessing to Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit gives believers boldness to proclaim the gospel so that it spreads far and wide in the world (Acts 1:8). So the advance of the gospel was the primary work of the Holy Spirit and also the focus of prayer for the early believers. Similarly, when Paul writes to the churches to pray for him, it’s the advance of the gospel that he wants them to specifically pray for. To the Ephesian church he says, “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should” (Ephesians 6:19-20). And to the church in Colosse he says, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should” (Colossians 4:2-4). This biblical focus on Christians and Churches praying together for the spread of the gospel can easily be lost, whether as an individual Christian or as a church fellowship gathering together for prayer. Our praying can often become narrow and self-focused on our particular needs. We’ve probably all heard about prayer meetings turning into ’organ recitals‘ because the prayer is for someone’s heart or kidney or liver or some other ailment. Of course we should pray for people and for health issues but that’s not the primary focus of corporate prayer anywhere in the New Testament and so it should not be the pre-occupation of our gathered times of prayer either. C. John Millar picks up on this in his book ’Outgrowing the Ingrown Church‘. In it he describes two kinds of prayer meetings, ’maintenance‘ and ’frontline.' Maintenance prayer meetings are about maintaining the existing life and ministry of the congregation. This involves a focus on the personal needs of the people inside the church. Whereas frontline prayer meetings are more focused on God’s kingdom, aware that humanity’s greatest need is to know God through Jesus Christ. Therefore, the emphasis in prayer is kingdom-centred with the concentration being on the spiritual rather than the physical or personal. It’s prayer for the expansion of God’s Kingdom in the world, constantly asking that unbelievers would hear Christ’s call to repentance and faith and that God would seek and save those who are lost. So when we meet to pray, we need to be praying for people to be converted because if we’re not praying this repeatedly it’s probably a sign that we have stopped believing God can do it. This is the kind of prayer we should be passionate about when we meet together, praying just as earnestly and just as urgently as we would if we were praying for a loved one who was ill. It is an enormous privilege to join together to pray as God’s people and take a vital part in God’s work. If the gospel of Jesus Christ has taken root in our hearts, then our concern as we gather together will be to pray kingdom-centred prayers. With this as the priority, all other issues become less important; when we meet; how we meet; where we meet; who we meet with, etc. We simply need to be faithful and pray continually. This is hard work but it is the real work of the kingdom. Your minister and friend Jonathan

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