“What’s the prayer life like?” is a question we normally ask of a minister who really wants to see his church renewed. “Well, we have a half-hour of prayer before the Sunday services and there is a healing prayer group” is often the sort of reply. And they wonder why they are not further on with the Lord.
Obvious isn’t it: so simple that it’s foolish not to realise it. But we can think back to three years of ‘foolishness’ in our parish in Hawkwell, Essex. We were baptised in the Spirit in 1967, then had a special experience of renewal in our previous parish. In early 1975 we went to Hawkwell.
There was a lot of work facing us in our new position. One of the main tasks was to bring reconciliation between the majority of ‘non-charismatics’ and the small minority of charismatics. We had plenty of ideas, plans and methods. We did pray as a church but it was spasmodic – occasional evenings of prayer and a few Saturday prayer breakfasts. All of which, incidentally, went very well. We were excited – seeing developments in the church, re-organisation, updating, stream-lining. Just my line! The reconciliation seemed quite remarkable. Our ‘balanced’, low-key approach to renewal seemed to have made the church feel secure.
Then in early 1978 someone suggested we should have more prayer for our new evangelism programme. One thing led to another and, before long, we were planning a weekly parish day of prayer on a Thursday. From September 1978 some of us met at 6.30am, others at 9.15am; others at lunchtime and, later, others at 7.00pm. The only way we knew how to pray was to publish a list of prayer topics on Sunday and pray through it on Thursday. But we also published (as much as possible) the answers to prayer for thanksgiving. This encouraged believing prayer.
Things really began to take off. We entered a period of renewal and growth for years. We also entered a period of problems. The superficiality of much of the development in the previous three years became painfully apparent. A lot of the reconciliation was skin-deep. As the Holy Spirit worked in answer to prayer the impurities in our lives surfaced -messy but necessary. In many people the impurities were removed. In some, sadly, they weren’t and in spite of much encouragement the story ended negatively for them. But we thank God for the deep unity God gave us later.
Nothing but prayer
When a new curate came in 1985 he and his wife spent their first week visiting various groups and meetings around the parish. Afterwards, he came up to me with a grin and said, ‘Doesn’t this church ever do anything but pray?’ Well it does, but wherever they went it seemed to be a time of prayer.
One Lydia prayer cell multiplied into the 25 weekly prayer cells (involving men as well as women).
The church ran on prayer, partly because we were aware of our ordinariness and fallibility. We sought to ensure that all we do was conceived and born and bred in prayer.
Learning to listen
After Peter’s confession of Christ, Jesus said to him ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it’ (Mt 16.18, NIV). So Jesus is the architect of a church that can not only withstand satanic attack but can invade Satan’s territory. Fine, that’s exciting and many charismatics are into it. But wait a minute. Whoever heard of a building being built without the appointed architect being consulted. Yet this happens in the church. Little wonder the end result is the church that Jack built – a sort of ecclesiastical folly.
It is fundamental that we learn to listen to the Lord. Tambourines silent, arms down, feet still, counselling postponed, prayer lists aside – listen! But how?
- First it is important to prepare spiritually in worship and in confession of sin. It is very important to submit your own ideas, thoughts and feelings to God as we shall illustrate later. Then we can resist the devil and ask for the Holy Spirit’s anointing so that we can hear God clearly.
- The fundamental and standard method of listening to God is by hearing the written Word. All other methods must be weighed by the teaching of Scripture. But we must let the whole of Scripture speak to us – not just the parts we know or like. We mustn’t read into it what we want to find. It must be allowed to correct us. Scripture has far more to say on many subjects than many Christians bother to discover. May God deliver us from our unhelpful traditions, prejudices, assumptions and partial knowledge.
So we will often ‘hear’ God through our reference to and study of Scripture. It may be sometimes that the words of a Bible passage will suddenly come to mind ‘out of the blue.’ It is important that, in either case, Scripture is correctly interpreted and in context. Remember Satan quotes Scripture to achieve his ends.
- Then God may communicate through a gift of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, word of knowledge or wisdom. This may entail words being vividly impressed on our minds or it may be a mental picture which suddenly occurs. Such a picture is symbolical, like a parable, and needs prayerful interpretation.
It may be, however, that a recurring thought, such as the name of a person in need, or an incident is strongly impressed on our minds. This is an indication of how to pray.
We said it is important to lay down our own ideas, thoughts and feelings. We planted a new congregation at the far end of our parish, some three miles from Emmanuel (the main church). Fifty adults and about a dozen children went out from Emmanuel to form the nucleus of the new church, which met in a junior school hall. For years we had had our eyes on the ideal (perhaps the only) site at that end of the parish for a church complex.
Some time later we heard that a supermarket chain was going to build a store on this site. Tony immediately rang the area manager to ask if there was any possibility of combining a multi-purpose church building with the new store. As soon as Tony introduced himself the manager knew why he had called. ‘Good’ Tony thought, ‘the Lord has prepared the way.’ The man’s response was quite positive. He said that the paperwork was all completed and ready for signing. They were to have a board meeting on the following Tuesday and he would put our request to his colleagues.
We called the church together specially on the Monday evening just to pray about this project. Practising what we preach to other churches, we did our preparation, including laying down our concern and enthusiasm for the project. We have to admit that we felt confident that the Lord would confirm our desire to pray about it.
No wasted time
We asked people to share what they believed God was saying. There was silence. Then, hesitantly, one person said he didn’t think the Lord wanted us to pray about this project. Others agreed and we eventually concluded that we should not pray about it, even though we had called our busy congregation together specially for that purpose. We sensed that we should pray instead that many people would come to faith in Christ at that end of the parish.
The next day we heard that, unexpectedly, the supermarket chain had pulled out of the project at the last minute. Had we spent the evening praying about it we would have been wasting our time. God knew; initially we didn’t. But God has answered the prayers for conversions. The new congregation has doubled in size.
We could tell many other stories of how, when we listened, God cut across our planned prayer topics and concerns.
Worship is, of course, our highest priority. It is a vital aspect of intercessory prayer times: fixing our eyes on the Lord and offering to him the praise due to him. We do, of course, need to avoid the charismatic sing- along: endless songs sung endlessly. We have a radical new suggestion -that some songs might be sung only once and others not at all. If a song seems to have a real anointing by the Spirit on a particular occasion, it can be helpful to repeat it a number of times while avoiding the psychological manipulation of getting high on choruses.
Praise and worship, although primarily and mainly an offering to God, are also part of our spiritual warfare. In 2 Chronicles 20, Jehoshaphat, having listened to the Lord and proclaimed a fast (v3), and having interceded (v v 6-13) appointed men to precede the army into battle with praises (v21). As they began to do this ‘the Lord set ambushes’ and the superior enemy destroyed itself (v v22-23). Some modern Christians forget the bit about hearing the Lord, fasting and interceding. They want to get on with what they see as spiritual warfare in praise alone (after all it seems more enjoyable!).
Proving our repentance
Repentance is another vital aspect of prayer. This will involve acknowledging that God would be justified in condemning us and that the nation is already under his judgment – which always begins with the people of God. Pleading with God to have mercy on us, repentance for the church and the nation ought to be one of the deepest and most intense aspects of our prayers. So long, that is, as it is not just some sort of emotional trip almost as superficial as getting high on choruses.
It can be right to weep at the sins of the church and the nation, even to humble and prostrate ourselves before the Lord. But the New Testament calls us to prove our repentance by our deeds.
Nevertheless we are not going to see the nation turn to God without a depth of repentance and pleading for his mercy. On occasions, when we sensed that the church in Hawkwell has failed seriously, we called the congregation together to repent. This included changing our ways.
There seems to be a division among people praying for revival between the ‘praisers’ and the ‘repenters’. The former regard the latter as too gloomy and negative. The latter regard the former as too superficial and optimistic. As usual both sides need each other to avoid the situation where these criticisms are accurate.
Persisting in prayer
Having stressed the need to hear God and the importance of worship and repentance, there is another aspect we need to emphasise. That is persistence in prayer. Having heard from God what to pray about we need to pray that topic through until we sense it is time to move on. Many prayer meetings are like butterflies, flitting about from subject to subject. They never get to grips with any topic. But intercession is warfare and you don’t bring down an enemy stronghold with a single shot. No, it requires bombardment.
The prayer group should focus on one subject, directing all its prayers on to it. This will involve a degree of repetition. There will be praise, affirming God’s sovereignty and power. There will be repentance over any fault of ours connected with the subject. There will be pleading for God in his mercy to act. There will be petitions connected with the one topic. There will be praise and thanksgiving as he begins to indicate that he has heard and is answering the prayer.
Letting God rule
One of the most interesting subjects at college was historical theology. It showed how the socio-political circumstances had affected the church and its beliefs throughout history and vice versa. Today we live in a democratic age. So we tend to regard democracy as the ideal in the church. But it isn’t.
The ideal is theocracy – rule by God. And it is practical in an ordinary church situation. Let me illustrate from the way we made important decisions in Hawkwell. The initial idea may have come from the leadership or from any church member. We had a fairly efficient ‘nervous system’ between the prayer cells, the house groups and the elders. The leaders could quickly convey prayer topics or ideas to the members and any member could convey what he or she believed God was saying to the elders via the group leader.’
So an idea was first circulated, either to the whole church or to the leaders’ fellowship (some 60 people, including house group leaders, departmental leaders, PCC members). With the idea was the request for people to pray about it and to listen to God. Then we all came together and shared what we believe God was saying. There was further prayer and listening on that occasion. By the end of the evening we normally knew whether or not to go ahead with the idea. If we were going ahead the PCC met later, if necessary, and formalised the decision, working out the details.
Consequently, the church was seeking to be neither a democracy, nor a dictatorship, but a theocracy. But if a church is to function in this way then it needs to be a united body. This is a practical possibility but more about that in a later article.
Matthew Henry, the 17th-century Bible commentator, is reputed to have said, ‘When God intends to do a great thing, he sets his people a-praying’. That is happening increasingly. Let’s all get involved and expect to see the great thing God intends to do.
[First published in Renewal magazine, May 1989]
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction