I didn’t kill our Wednesday night prayer gatherings, but I didn’t keep them alive either. Our youth and AWANA programs engage lots of students and require numerous volunteers. It never made sense that our churchwide prayer meeting was at a time that so few could attend.
Praying with fellow believers was always encouraging, but I found myself missing opportunities to support these other critical Wednesday night ministries. Some may have felt I was dismissive of prayer, but that wasn’t the reality. After 20 years of ministry in Southern Baptist churches, I’ve learned an important lesson: sometimes you have to let things die in your church so they can be reborn and refreshed.
Why even try
Jesus’ major criticism as he drove the merchants out of the temple in Matthew 21:13 wasn’t that they were stealing money, but that they were robbing people of the opportunity for congregational prayer. It still happens today in the American church, where we fear people will be unresponsive or even anxious if we focus on prayer.
I see this anxiety in times of small group prayer during our worship services, and I recall having the same anxiety myself once. It was only thanks to other Christians who discipled me in prayer by praying for me and with me that I lost my fear of verbal, group prayer.
John Onwuchekwa’s great little 9 Marks book, “Prayer,” gives us an important reminder if we’re restarting a congregational emphasis of prayer: “Prepare to be disappointed.” You’ll likely not get the kind of response you initially hope for, but don’t give up so quickly.
We in ministry all have the same vision problem: we tend to notice only who doesn’t show up, instead of who does. People require opportunities and encouragement for growth. A small gathering is better than no gathering, and provides us with believers who can testify to the value of their involvement in congregational prayer before the rest of the church body.
How to try again
Have you ever gone on a comeback run? As part of my journey to better health, I began running regularly in 2010, and it’s one of my favorite recreational activities. Sometimes sickness or injury forces me to miss a week or two, but once I’m ready and able to run again, I go on a comeback run. My major concerns are neither distance nor pace, but simply that I get moving again. After a comeback run (or two or three), I start ramping it up again to where I was and to where I want to be. If I’m moving, I’m winning!
We need a “comeback run” for congregational prayer. If we’re praying, we’re winning. Let our simple expectation be that we pray together, focusing less on attendance or even how much time we spend doing it.
At our church, we’re trying some quarterly “comeback runs” for prayer with a couple of ideas:
1. Saturday night prayer. We’re inviting our church to come together on a Saturday night to specifically pray for Sunday morning. We’ll pray for worship, salvations, and small groups, hoping it wakes us up corporately and individually to pray more for Sunday.
2. Sunday night prayer. We’re inviting our church to come together and pray for one another as we enter a new week, a week in which we may feel alone, isolated, or challenged. The goal is to move us toward praying more for and with each other.
3. Wednesday night prayer walk. We may prayer walk the neighborhoods around our church or encourage people to prayer walk their own neighborhoods. The beauty of this prayer opportunity is encouraging people to look around them and pray with immediacy. It’s my favorite way to pray.
Jonathan Leeman warns in his book “Word-Centered Church” to “be careful with creativity.” Sometimes we strive so hard for a creative prayer emphasis that we forget how simple it is to gather and pray. These ideas can be helpful, but most important is that we gather and pray.
Perhaps your church is strong in congregational prayer. Encourage other churches. Perhaps it feels like gatherings will suffer from low attendance. Remember that low attendance doesn’t equal no attendance. Make your opening attempts at congregational prayer reasonable in terms of time and commitment.
Marathon training doesn’t start by running 20 miles. It just starts by moving. Prayer training doesn’t start by praying for an hour. It just starts by praying.
Heath Tibbetts is pastor of First Baptist Church, Machesney Park.