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How churches can lead a city of prayer


God moves powerfully when churches unite in prayer for their cities. On a prayer walk with his wife Mary Anne, under a streetlight at midnight in an Austin neighborhood, Pastor Trey Kent sensed the Lord leading him to recruit 30 other churches to cover the city in unceasing prayer. It was an almost impossible idea, but today, 15 years later, about 100 churches have adopted the vision of making Austin, Texas, the most prayed over city in America. Someone in Austin is continuously praying for the city. Their rallying cry is “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

Numerous examples of answered prayer exist in Austin. These answers include unprecedented, unpredicted rainfall for months that reversed a historic drought. There is a genuine unity among churches of all denominations. There is deliberate collaboration and fellowship among different racial groups and massive prayer support for city-wide evangelistic efforts. A disproportionate number of people, in relation to the number of Christians in the city, have committed themselves to a lifestyle of prayer. These are just a few highlights of the unified prayer that exists in the capital city of Texas. 

Reproducible or anomaly?

Is the Unceasing Prayer Movement in Austin merely a “one-and-done” anomaly, or is it a reproducible ministry for other cities? To understand the answer, we need to journey back to the spiritual headwaters of the First Great Awakening. 

In 1743, during the zenith of the awakening, Jonathan Edwards wrote a book appealing to pastors to form small groups for prayer to ignite or perpetuate revival. The next year, inspired by Edwards’ recommendations, a group of Scottish pastors formed groups they referred to as “concerts of prayer.” The Scottish concerts of prayer naturally encouraged Edwards. So, in 1745, as a result of his own experiences in unified prayer and in response to the Scottish prayer meetings, Jonathan Edwards wrote the seminal classic American book on revival, “A Humble Attempt.” In it, Edwards makes his case for “extraordinary prayer.” Although the book is considered to be an American classic today, it wasn’t well received when it was written. A generation after its publication, however, it directly influenced movements of prayer in England and America, which in turn sparked both the modern mission movement and the Second Great Awakening. City-wide concerts of prayer helped shape America. What the nation might have become if churches had not collaborated in prayer is unknown.

When we leave the colonial frontier and fast-forward to the late 20th century, we meet leaders like David Bryant, who sensed the urgent need of a fresh work of God in America’s cities. Along with others, he formed the “Concert of Prayer” movement in New York City.

In 1988, 75 churches gathered to pray. Eventually the number grew to 2,000 churches. In the years during and following the prayer gatherings, in a city not perceived as a Gospel hub, evangelical powerhouses like Times Square Church, the Brooklyn Tabernacle and Redeemer Presbyterian emerged to reach thousands of people for Christ in New York City. 

What role did the concerts of prayer play in creating the spiritual atmosphere that made unprecedented church growth a reality? Let’s consider what we can document: David Wilkerson started Times Square Church in 1987. Tim Keller started Redeemer Presbyterian in 1989. The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir won its first Grammy and Dove awards in 1993 and 1994. In 1997 Pastor Jim Cymbala published “Fresh Wind Fresh Fire,” documenting the church’s dependence upon prayer and miraculous growth. With its popular choir and inspirational best-selling book, Brooklyn Tabernacle became one of the most influential churches in America. Clearly, the early years of the Concerts of Prayer saw a dramatic expansion of Christian witness in New York City. Amazing things occur when churches pray together for their city. 

Can it happen again? 

Is there a hunger for city-wide prayer today in other places? The leaders of the Austin prayer movement recognize a growing passion. They have been invited to Lexington, Ky; Fayetteville and Little Rock, Ark.; Camden, Ohio; Abilene, Texas; Cleveland, Tenn.; Phoenix, Ariz; Pensacola, Fla.; Albuquerque and Aztec, N.M., to teach the principles of leading a city of prayer. Obviously, other pastors and churches long to develop city-wide prayer movements too.

Basic principles

City prayer is not an anomaly. In fact, we even find it in the New Testament in Acts 13:1-4 when Christian leaders gathered to pray for Antioch. For something this important, there are some reproducible principles to facilitate city-wide prayer. 

  • Pastor Led. It might begin with only one pastor with a passion, but without pastoral leadership no movement can take root. Don’t hesitate to start small. With God you’re a majority. 
  • Patience. Like anything of value prayer movements face challenges. The Austin movement began at night, but it wasn’t successful overnight! God determines the pace of growth. 
  • Work with other denominations. At times we can be reluctant to participate with other churches outside of our own “tribe.” It is important to remember, however, that the Baptist Faith and Message encourages interdenominational ministry when it is best for the Kingdom. Article XIV of the BF&M 2000 states: “Cooperation is desirable between the various Christian denominations when the end to be attained is itself justified and when such cooperation involves no violation of conscience or compromise of loyalty to Christ and His Word as revealed in the New Testament.” Christians uniting to pray for their city surely falls into this category of cooperation. 
  • Clear objectives. What is the goal? In Austin, for instance, the goals are to promote unceasing prayer and to help churches develop a culture of prayer. Those objectives are nurtured by a small team of volunteer leaders who host regular, city-wide prayer gatherings attended by hundreds of people. Additionally, at least one annual pastors’ prayer gathering is held with no agenda except hours of prayer. An annual lunch meeting to explain the ministry and recruit new churches also occurs each year. 
  • Trust the churches. Once a church has chosen a day to pray for the city, the pastor of that individual church is responsible for how his church will pray. Leaders offer suggestions and are available to assist only when invited.
  • Conclusion. City movements of prayer have their origins in the Bible, helped shape the American experience, and are growing in importance today. God may be calling you to pray for your city and gather other pastors and leaders to join you. If so, don’t delay. The needs of your area are great, so the time is now.

    About the Author

  • Kie Bowman

    Kie Bowman is senior pastor emeritus of Hyde Park Baptist Church and The Quarries Church in Austin, Texas and the SBC National Director of Prayer.

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