Series Theme: Looking at Prayer Afresh
Phase One : Preparatory Foundation Stones
Title: 1. Introduction
This page simply brings some challenges to our wider thinking about prayer, and more specifically prayer within church.
I have been part of prayer meetings and I have led prayer meetings for quite a number of years, and I have thought about prayer quite a lot. I consider it one of the greatest mysteries of the Christian experience. I believe prayer is a vital part of Christian experience and I believe the Lord encourages us to pray and I believe He answers (some) prayers.
And there I introduce an element of doubt, but it is a doubt over the thinking and practice of prayer that I so often find in the Christian Church. (If you already follow the approach of the following pages, then this page is probably not for you!) It is not doubt about God or His love for us, but it is doubt about us. I have written and led prayer seminars so, yes, I do know the Bible's teaching on prayer and so, for the moment at least, I don't wish to simply repeat those seminar notes here. Here I would like to challenge the reality of what may be called ‘the corporate prayer life of the church'.
So please be aware, these notes are not a Biblical teaching on prayer – you will find that in my Prayer Seminar notes elsewhere on this site. This paper seeks to challenge us to think through some of our thinking about prayer and the way we pray corporately (in groups) and my end objective is that we will become more ‘God-aware' and be more open and useful to Him and enjoy our walk with Him more.
2. Background: A Challenging Experience
Many years ago I had the privilege of travelling on preaching trips to the Far East with another more senior Christian leader. We would go out on trips between two and three weeks at a time and before we went we would individually have sustained periods of fasting and prayer. I had already fasted for eight days before this anyway and so praying and fasting for a week became the norm in terms of our preparation for these experiences.
Then I had the opportunity to take a small team out myself. My natural inclination was to, again, set aside a time for a week's time of prayer and fasting but as I approached that time, the Lord spoke to me and said, “You are not to fast.” Now I don't know about you but there times when I question what I hear and I simply thought, “That can't be the Lord, He wouldn't want me not to pray and fast.” So when the day of the fast duly arrived, I had no breakfast and settled down to waiting upon and seeking the Lord in prayer. By about half way through the morning I was literally rolling around the floor in agony holding my stomach. As I cried out to the Lord for relief, back came His word, “I thought I told you not to fast. Get up and have food. No more of this!” I asked for forgiveness, got up ate, and prayed, but did not fast. On that trip (and subsequent ones) the Lord blessed me more than He had ever done before. The word of the Lord came to me again, “I will not bless your ‘spiritual' acts; I will bless your obedience.”
I came to see through that whole experience that God desired my blessing and desired to use me more than I desired it. My making the running was not the issue, Him making the running and me following obediently was what it was all about. Did I need to twist God's arm to bless me? No. God desired to bless and use me, far more than I wanted it. It was down to me to follow and be obedient. Did that rule out prayer? No, but it put it in perspective. The bigger thing was about hearing God and obeying what He said.
3. Consequences: Questions about Prayer
Questions have arisen in me, partly through that experience and partly through what I witness in terms of the prayer life of the church. Here are some starting questions:
Now I believe for any thinking person, those are valid questions. Some of them may seem a bit silly, but they make points. I will not necessarily answer them all in these pages but leave them open for you to think about.
4. Failed Prayers: More Questions about Reality
I have been in prayer meetings for several years where we have prayed earnestly and fully for the salvation of specific individuals – and no changes have come about in them! What was missing – or did God not want them saved? What is God trying to say in it all?
I have prayed for healing for myself in recent years, for months on end – full of faith, I believed – but ended up going to the hospital three times. Did I fall short in some way – and did the many other people praying for my healing also fall short? What is God trying to say in it all?
I have watched, been part of, those who have prayed for our nation consistently over many years, noting those who have prayed for decades for ‘revival' to come but (at least on comparisons with genuine revivals of the past) it has not come. Does God not want to come and bless our nation which continues to fall lower and lower in virtually any form of assessment you might like to make? What is God trying to say in it all?
I have been part of the church and been a leader in it for many years and have been part of and watched and listened to those who have prayed for the church to have real impact in the local community, yet when I work and talk in the community (as I have been doing considerably in the past years) the community as a whole is largely unaware of the church. Does God not want to enliven the local church and make it the talking point and focus of the local community? What is God trying to say in it all?
I have been part of the praying community for a long time and I am concerned with that experience so often. I am also aware that there are many people who are disillusioned by modern church life and by the unreality which so often prevails. What is God trying to say in it all?
To counter the temptation to cynicism that can be such an easy and natural response to these things, I have prayed and thought and have arrived at what you find in these pages.
5. Typical Prayer Meetings: More Questions
It seems that most of the time, in church prayer meetings, we worship and praise and give thanks, but all as the prelude to asking for things. Those things tend to be changes of circumstances or changes in people.
We will briefly consider a ‘typical' prayer meeting and then in the next page, in much more depth consider an alternative approach that I believe the Lord wants His people to enter into, which is quite different from what I have mostly observed in church prayer meetings over the years.
Alan, (an imaginary Christian) comes to the weekly church prayer meeting and shares about the difficulties he is having at work. There are several issues:
Alan asks the group to pray. One person prays for the short-tempered junior staff member that they will get convicted of their attitude and change. Another prays that the bad-tempered client will similarly be convicted by God and ring Alan and apologise. Somebody else asks God to bless the firm and bring them through to a good financial position. They then move on to other prayer topics.
In the weeks that follow, the junior appears unchanged, he hears nothing from the client, and then the firm goes into receivership and it turns out that Alan's boss has been taking money out of the firm illegally – and Alan has no job!
Now I remember the very first book I read on prayer which used an illustration that compared prayer to ironing. If you plugged the iron in and it remained cold and the washing remained unpressed, a sensible person would look at the situation and work out what was wrong.
I have been in prayer meetings where people pray off a whole list of things that range from going to the dentist next week, to Aunt Mabel who lives in Australia, one after another, as if the most important thing was to see how many life concerns could be covered in the time allocated.
I find the case above, of Alan sharing and being prayed for, most unsatisfactory,
6. And so…
I believe these are genuine and valid questions that I have considered earlier and are areas worthy of our consideration. I believe prayer meetings that are just shopping lists deserve challenging, and I believe that if we do not take note of what we ask for and cannot see answers to prayer, we also need to challenge what we are doing.
I provide the questions simply as a background from which to stir some fresh, honest thinking about prayer, and especially corporate prayer. This page acts, therefore, as the first of three 'foundation stones', (Phase One: Preparatory Foundation Series) the others of which are 'A New Perspective' and "God at Work' in which we consider having a godly perspective and being aware of God at work and the way He works.
In the pages that then follow (Phase Two: Thinking into the Issues) – Corporate Praying (1 & 2) and Praying for Healing – may I request that if you are specifically interested in praying for healing, you actually read the first part on Corporate Praying first because some of the key issues that are addressed there also apply in the area of healing, and I do not wish to simply repeat in the second part what I say in the first.
After various discussions with people, I have enlarged the pages on Corporate Prayer to cover
In a later page – Considerations about Revival – I simply seek to make some comments about why, it seems, that full scale revival has not come as we desired, and perhaps what God might be saying in it.
So, to conclude this first page, may I leave you with some questions, particularly about Prayer Meetings:
1. Is what is prayed, 'prayable'? - i.e. is it within God's will?
2. Are there clear answers? - i.e. can we institute some form of accountability where we look for, expect, and check for answers in the days to come?
3. Has guidance been received? i.e. have at least some of us gone away from the Prayer Meeting with an awareness of things we need to go away and do, as part of the answers to our praying?
These are questions, I would suggest, that may bring a greater reality to the experience we have of the Lord in this whole area of prayer. Dare we risk asking them?