A monthly prayer partner emphasis launched four years ago "has been a miracle and a blessing in this church," said Donald Russell, pastor of West Union (Ill.) Baptist Church.
"It's got people praying for one another and caring for one another."
At the first Sunday night service of the month, each person gets the name of a person to pray for every day throughout the month, Russell said.
The service begins with singing, followed by testimonies of answered prayers during the previous month. The deacons then pass out slips of paper to everyone in attendance, including visitors. The pieces of paper, with names written on them, are then collected, and the congregation has "prayer over the selection of who we're going to get," Russell said. The names are then passed out, and people go and find the person they will be praying for throughout the month.
"Some have to ask who this person is," said Russell, who has led the church about twelve years.
The service ends with people in a "huge circle" around the auditorium, and they sing the hymn, All Day Long.
Prayer partner night has "become our biggest Sunday night service," he said, with about sixty people attending. And some people who are sick and unable to attend have their names added to those in attendance, and they get a person to pray for as well.
Russell came up with the prayer partner idea after counseling with a young couple about marriage. He told them about the importance of communication in a relationship and realized good communication, with God and each other, could help relationships within the church.
The congregation needed better communication due to some disagreements in the past, and also because a number of young people had begun to attend. The pastor said he wondered "what can we do so this row of old people can be comfortable with this row of young people," he said, pointing to different sections of the auditorium.
Prayer partners have helped both situations.
"We have had people who haven't spoken to each other in years" get the other person's name, and now they are "speaking to each other," Russell said. It hasn't solved all the problems, "but it has brought a sweeter spirit" into the church, he said.
Across generations, older members have supported teens in prayer, and the young people have reached out to their elders as well. "It's helped to reach the teenagers," the pastor said. "Our adults have prayed super hard for kids," that they be saved, involved, and interested in church. About one-third of the people attending on prayer partner night are teenagers.
Last year, the West Union congregation baptized sixteen people, and eleven of those were young people, mostly teenagers. On the other end of the age spectrum, the church baptized three people in their 70s.
Russell said he doesn't usually preach on the first Sunday night of each month. "There's more to being a pastor than preaching a message," he said, noting that it's also good to allow the other people to communicate with one another and with God.