Re-igniting the Spirit of prayer

If our churches seem lacklustre, is it because we’ve given up asking God to work in them? Dudley Foord examines our strange neglect of prayer.

1. Sleeping, drowsy, lethargic churches

It was a painful experience. We worked for two years on a Synod Committee with the brief to examine church life. We discovered a “depressing crisis in church-going in our Diocese … from the trends studied, this scene is going to get worse in years to come”. We concluded “that our denomination is facing a serious situation, a critical phase of its life. It is time to take stock of our situation. If we continue unchanged for another decade we can expect a major decline in our already marginal impact on society.”

Little wonder that our first recommendation to Synod was “to convey to parishes the urgent need for prayer for spiritual awakening and the spread of the Gospel”. We placed emphasis on calling our churches together regularly for prayer that God might awaken and restore spiritual life in our congregations.

I strongly suspect that it is not only our Diocese that is in urgent need of spiritual awakening. Throughout Australia, we face a deeply pervasive problem: drowsy, sleeping and lethargic churches that need to be spiritually awakened by the sovereign initiative of God. Spiritual health and vitality have been withering away in many of our churches. We have been heavily influenced by trends in our culture and are conformed to this world’s thinking. Furthermore, we have been hijacked by activism and pragmatism. No longer do we take seriously the Apostolic priority of calling on God in prayer.

Our culture hoodwinks us into protecting ourselves from the rough and tough of life. We try to numb our pain by escaping from reality. We distract ourselves from facing the deep questions of life. Some Christian people are more likely to be emotionally involved with their sporting team, soapies or their pleasures, than with the deep issues of life and death.

We live in a thriving metropolis of people who are unwilling to make commitments. This breeds a superficiality and an over-casualness in our congregational life. Genuine prayer seems to be in recess.

2. The necessity of prayer

Words fail to explain how necessary prayer is. For the supreme example of a life of prayer, we turn to Christ. It was a dominant feature of his life and a recurrent element in his teaching. “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). Our appeal to him is “Lord, teach us to pray”. And in reply, he points to his own prayer life saying, “Follow me”.

To peruse Paul’s letters is to discover the supremely important place that prayer should have in our lives and in the lives of our churches. It is significant that nowhere does Paul argue the case for prayer. He does not even make an attempt to explain it, but assumes it to be the natural and essential expression of the spiritual life.

It is very important for us to call upon him, that our hearts may be fired with a zealous and burning desire ever to seek, love and serve him, while we become accustomed in every need to flee to him as to a sacred anchor. (John Calvin)

Prayer is supremely important. We always make time for the matters we perceive to be most important. Maturing and growing in the art of prayer, like any other art, requires time, and the amount of time we set aside for prayer will be a genuine expression of our perception of its importance.

3. A mistaken/inadequate view of prayer

Very often it is said, “Let’s have a word of prayer”, as if adding a dash of prayer is all that is required. Does our Christian service grow out of praying or out of our planning? Too frequently, most church meetings are commenced or concluded with a brief perfunctory prayer. Such ‘prayer’ is perhaps not genuine prayer, but sentiment verging on the superstitious. It is all too easy, too glib, with no effort, no cost, no genuine waiting on God.

It is recorded of Christ’s prayers that “he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries” (Heb 5:7). Paul’s and Epaphras’ striving and wrestling in prayer for the Colossian church indicate the marks of genuine prayer (Col 2:1; 4:12). All vital praying is a drain on a person’s vitality. It is a strenuous, spiritual exercise that demands the utmost mental discipline and concentration.

Today, Christians in the West are found to be, on the whole, passionless, passive, and one fears, prayerless. (JI Packer)

The volume and vitality of prayer in places where the church has had to struggle for existence is a damning indictment of the relative prayerlessness in large swathes of the Western Church. (DA Carson)

One of the things that God’s Spirit must teach us about prayer is this: to learn to take time to pray. Prayer is very exacting, and requires stupendous effort. “Sacrifice after sacrifice of time, energy, interest and money must be made in order to accomplish the task [of prayer]” (O Hallesby).

4. The strange paradox of neglect of prayer

One of the best ways to discover our chief concerns, anxieties and ambitions is to study the content of our prayers and the intensity with which we pray them. We all pray about what concerns us, and seem not to be concerned about matters we do not include in our prayers. Murray M’Cheyne succinctly expressed this: “What a man is alone on his knees before God, that he is, and no more”. Our prayers are the measure of each of us spiritually in a way that nothing else is, so that what we pray for and how we pray is as important a question as we can ever face.

But there is a strange paradox in all this. We pay lip service to the importance and potency of prayer. We affirm that it is an indispensable adjunct to the mature spiritual life. We recognize that it is frequently prescribed in the Bible. However, in spite of all this, we often fail to pray or give prayer the priority that it should have in our personal and church life. Why?

Too many of us are crippled in our prayer life by frustration. Hectic schedules and demanding responsibilities simply push prayer out of our lives. Or if we pray, we sense how shallow it all is. Our spiritual lives languish and our churches continue in complacency, lethargy and spiritual weakness.

However, when we do set aside time to pray, it is amazing how suddenly a whole host of little things clamour for our immediate attention—phone calls, letters and routine chores. This distracting activity of Satan is to be resisted and opposed. There will always be the “battle of the threshold to prayer”. James encourages us to “resist the devil and he will flee from you” (Jas 4:7).

5. Praying in the will of God

We are all prone to ‘rush’ into the presence of God, babbling and chatting about what is on our hearts at the moment. The instinct to turn to God in prayer is to be encouraged. However, in our regular times of prayer, we are to pause, reflect and meditate on the greatness of our God and our own weakness, smallness and sinfulness. The purpose of prayer is not to manipulate God into doing what we want; prayer is the means by which our fellowship with God is actualized. It is to develop a vital relationship of friendship with the Living God. The true focus of prayer is neither our needs, nor our will, but God and God’s will.

Reading and meditating on the Bible is indispensable to growing in our prayer life. There is to be genuine two-way communication, and this is brought to a reality by the cycle of Bible reading, meditation and reflection on the passage, and then turning the Bible phrases into prayer—reading, meditation and prayer.

All that is important about prayer can be found in the prayers of the Bible. By this method, the word of God will reform our prayers. Otherwise our prayers seem to go off at a tangent and easily become aridly self-centred.

I strongly urge that taking hold of the prayers in the Bible, meditating on them and using them as a basis for prayer will be the best aid—both to stimulate vital prayer and to keep those prayers according to the will of God.

6. Prayer: The essential prerequisite for ministry

Prayer is a work, a labour for which there is no substitute in the Kingdom of God.

We are prone to thinking that when we are very busy in the work of ministering to people and serving in the church we can, without danger, spend less time in prayer. This way of thinking is endemic to the human heart, and Satan deceives us at this point by reinforcing such false notions.

The New Testament does not regard prayer as supplemental but fundamental. It is necessary for this truth from God’s word to be burnt into our minds and hearts. The most important work we have to do is that which must be done on our knees, alone with God—and also with other Christians, away from the rush and distraction of the world and the opinions of people.

Prayer is the most important activity of all because it is a prerequisite to all other Christian service.

Our world is an activistic one. The Christian can easily, by osmosis, lapse into the ways of the world. Activity comes first, then prayer that God will be pleased to bless our plans. If the work of prayer does not precede, as well as accompany, all Christian activity, it will be nothing but a work of man, bearing little impact for the Kingdom of God. And we wonder why we see so little fruit as a result of our meetings and our work! “You do not have, because you do not ask God … because you ask with wrong motives” (Jas 4:2-3).

7. A renewed spirit of prayer

The whole of the Bible and church history make a powerful point that when the fires of prayer burn low, spiritual life ebbs. This in turn is prone to blind us to the need to call on God to give us a fresh spirit of prayer.

If you are finding difficulty in praying, then pray that God will give you the spirit of prayer. If you are disheartened and scarcely able to pray, then pray for the spirit of prayer. If you notice that you are inclined to misuse prayer for selfish and self-indulgent ends, then pray again for the spirit of prayer. Ask God to reignite in each of us and in our churches a new and fresh spirit of prayer. Only through the energizing Holy Spirit, who gives the desire from which prayer springs, does prayer ever become all that it is meant to be. This is why the Bible calls us to pray “in the Holy Spirit” (Eph 6:18). In the light of our own great need in relation to prayer, we can be assured of the gracious work of God’s Spirit assisting us as we cry out to God, ”Lord, teach us to pray” (Rom 8:26-27).

Prayer is frequently represented in the Bible as part of the spiritual warfare. “Our struggle is … against the rulers, against the authorities … against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12). Thus prayer is active battling against the weakness of our flesh (Gal 5:16-24), against the subtle pressure of a godless world (1 John 2:15-17) and against a deceptive enemy, Satan (1 Pet 5:8). That is why the Bible frequently urges us to persevere and not faint in our praying (Luke 18:1).

Awareness and acceptance of this fight as a constant struggle is an evidence both of spiritual vitality and reality.

But we must go further. Christians have a positive duty to pray for a renewed spirit of prayer in our churches—for a spiritual awakening. Jonathan Edwards maintained that it is God’s will that the prayers of his people should be the great and principal means of carrying on the designs of Christ’s Kingdom:

If we look through the whole Bible and observe the examples of prayer that we find there recorded, we shall not find so many prayers for any other mercy, as for the deliverance, restoration and prosperity of the church and the advancement of God’s glory and Kingdom.

8. Some practical suggestions

The time has come to take the call to prayer seriously, by recognizing the importance of prayer and our neglect of it. We need a willingness to give a fresh place to prayer by rearranging priorities in our lives and churches in five areas:

1. Our personal lives

With firm resolve and discipline, be regular in daily, personal prayer. Pray also for a spiritual awakening and the spread of the gospel.

2. Praying with one or two others (prayer triplets)

There is special benefit in praying with a like-minded Christian who is committed to Christ and to you—or a small group where there is trust and confidence.

3. All groups in your church

In home fellowship (Bible study) groups and all committees, establish a new discipline to commence meetings with Bible reading and a time of prayer—not just a perfunctory prayer by the Rector. Ensure that discussion is limited to permit an increased time for prayer for spiritual revitalization of your church and the spread of the Gospel.

4. Your local church’s prayer life

Establish a regular prayer gathering, other than the Sunday services, in your local church. Invite other praying Christians to meet regularly to pray for your leaders, preachers, ministry team etc. Pray for a fresh movement of God’s Spirit in prayer, repentance, outgoing love and evangelism in obedience to our Lord’s command. Make it a well-planned occasion, a new creative approach, with use of music and updates on people and ministry.

5. Regional prayer gatherings

Pray that God will be pleased to stir Christians to gather in an ever expanding number of Regional Prayer Happenings. Already these larger united prayer occasions have grown to eight regions.

Dudley Foord is a well-known speaker, and serves as a consultant to the Sydney Department of Evangelism.

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