“When Christ ascended into heaven, all He left behind was a prayer meeting.” Armin Gesswein, an early associate with Billy Graham and a pioneer in the prayer movement, believed the church was born in prayer. Since that’s true, a culture of prayer should be the family portrait of the New Testament Church. Why, then, does it often seem as if prayer is a peripheral issue?
In 2022, a Fort Worth couple had been looking for their abducted toddler for more than 50 years and found her through a DNA match. Fortunately, the elderly parents were finally able to reconnect with their now middle-aged daughter. Tragically, the missing daughter had been raised only 10 minutes from where she had been abducted, and the grieving family lived a lifetime without their precious child, even though she was so close to them all along. Obviously, nothing compares to the nightmarish heartbreak of that Fort Worth family losing their baby. Unfortunately, however, there are spiritual parallels between a case of a missing and recovered child and the church’s neglected birthright in prayer.
As believers, we all pray, and yet, prayer is often marginalized in our church services. Prayer has too often been the missing child in the family of God!
Isn’t it past time, therefore, that we restore prayer to the center of our congregational experience rather than patronize it on the fringes of church programming? Paul clearly believed in the priority of prayer in church because he wrote,
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people” (1 Timothy 2:1).
The question before us is both doctrinal and practical. If we believe in the priority of prayer, how do we build a culture of prayer in the local church? Here are three suggestions to begin the conversation.
Leonard Ravenhill put it bluntly, “No man is greater than his prayer life.” If a church develops a culture of prayer, the pastor must be a man of prayer. Our role model is Jesus Himself, who prayed in the morning, and through the night, in solitude and in public. He prayed before performing miracles, before calling His apostles, before the cross, from the cross, and after He rose from the dead! Jesus lived a life of prayer.
When we say, the pastor must be a man of prayer, his skills and habits in prayer are important, but they are a secondary concern. The most significant aspect of developing and maintaining a life of prayer for the pastor has more to do with the motive rather than the mechanics of prayer. In other words, it’s the “why” of prayer more than the “how” of prayer that matters most.
When I had been walking with God for just over a year, I spent the summer as a missionary in Colorado Springs. At the orientation retreat center, high in the mountains one morning as the sun was rising, our leader from the Navigators ministry was teaching us about a “quiet time.” He said, “Close your eyes and picture God.” Then he said, “Open your eyes. Whatever you thought about isn’t big enough.”
That was a powerful moment. It was an important reminder that prayer is more than religious duty or devotional formulas. Prayer is the almost incomprehensible yet awe-inspiring invitation to the creature from the Creator to commune spirit to Spirit with Almighty God. The pastor has no choice but to respond to that life-defining invitation. How he responds will say more about the scope of his ministry than any other metric used to evaluate success in church and will determine whether or not he can lead a church to develop a culture of prayer.
THE POWER OF THE WORD
The 20th-century expositor Stephen Olford said, “Only one thing will ever take the place of great preaching- and that’s greater preaching!” Developing a culture of prayer is impossible without preaching on prayer. There are hundreds of references to prayer in Scripture, so there’s no shortage of material. Additionally, in the Bible, people “cry out,” “inquire of the Lord,” “praise the Lord,” “seek the Lord,” “ask God,” “thank God,” and other similar synonyms for prayer. The preacher will never exhaust the source material needed for expository preaching and teaching on prayer.
Not only do we have hundreds of Scriptural references to prayer, but some of the greatest stories in the Bible also involve the prayer lives of godly people. For instance, we can preach on intercession from Abraham’s prayer in Genesis 18 or Moses pleading for Israel in Exodus 33. We can preach about Hannah begging God for a child in 1 Samuel 1. Ezra led an entire nation in prayer and fasting for safety in Ezra 8. Nehemiah sought God to help him make a decision in Nehemiah 1.
In the New Testament, Zechariah, Mary, and Anna all prayed around the Nativity story in Luke 1 -2. You can preach a series on the prayer life of Christ. There are about 20 separate references in the gospels that mention Jesus in prayer. The book of Acts is a treasure trove of preaching on prayer. Paul constantly teaches on prayer in the epistles. James 5 mentions prayer in some of the richest teachings in the Bible. Some of God’s greatest promises concerning prayer are found in Revelation chapters 5 and 8. The Bible is a prayer book!
Biblical preaching about prayer instructs the church about the supernatural power of prayer. It raises the congregation’s expectations about what is possible when we pray. If we want to build a culture of prayer in the church, we must immerse our congregations in biblical teaching about prayer.
LEARN BY PRAYING
Your church learns to pray by praying. It’s true that prayer is learned by reading about it and hearing about it, but more importantly, by watching it done and doing it. Some may even say prayer is more caught than taught. Why is this important?
If you want to build a culture of prayer, you’ve got to show the church what’s possible. We learn by what we observe. For this reason, the church needs to schedule prayer events. Occasionally, Sunday mornings can be devoted partially or exclusively to prayer. You can schedule an evening designed for nothing but worship and prayer. You can give more time to prayer by designating more people to pray aloud during worship services. Prayer retreats are powerful, and people will come. The pastor can plan days devoted exclusively to staff prayer. People can pray as a group in a prayer room during the service. You can begin each year with a church-wide 21 days of prayer and fasting focus, including special prayer meetings. Our church has done all of those things, and we found them to be infusions of oxygen into our congregational bloodstream.
Much more could be said about developing a culture of prayer in a church. For now, I close with two thoughts. One, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In other words, building a culture of prayer is not a temporary strategy- it’s the thermostat of the church that climatizes everything we do.
Finally, building a culture takes time. Patience is required. But eventually, the congregation will start to fulfill the prophecy of Jesus, “My house shall be called a house of prayer” (Matthew 21:13).