14th July 2003
Our theme this year of ``keeping God central'' comes in part from recognition that the church can only be successful in a way that matters to God if it's founded on him; and one of the most important ways we make sure we're building on and from him is through prayer.
Prayer is important for at least three reasons:
So the time we spend praying about what we're doing in the church is what stops us from flying off in random directions that seem good to us, but instead grounds our ideas in God's thinking. It's also what brings us close enough to him that we can receive his power for ourselves. And it's also what forges the connection between Heaven and Earth so that God's power can come into our worldly situation and transform it.
Paul says ``though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power.'' (2 Corinthians 10:3-4) If we want to break through spiritual barriers, and see people becoming Christians, then we will need to use spiritual weapons. In other words, we pray.
We're going to look at the power of prayer in seven different situations, starting off way back in Old Testament history, and gradually coming in closer and closer to our situation today. We'll see that the same principles apply here and now as in Israel three thousand years ago.
In chapters 17 and 18 of the first book of Kings, we read the story of the prophet Elijah, who God used to bring the nation of Israel back to him when they had started sacrificing to a local idol called Baal. (It's a great story, by the way - you should read it.)
The story begins with him bringing a prophecy from God that there will be no rain for the next few years, and finishes, after the nation turns back to God, with him praying for rain to fall and seeing it begin to do so.
What's so exciting about this is what James tells us about this story:
Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.— James 5:17-18
When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the evil spirit. ``You deaf and mute spirit,'' he said, ``I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.'' The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, ``He's dead.'' But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up. After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, ``Why couldn't we drive it out?'' He replied, ``This kind can come out only by prayer.''— Mark 9:25-19
This is an interesting passage because it shows us that even Jesus needed to pray. When he cast out a demon that his disciples had been unable to handle, we might expect him to have said something like ``Only I can make this kind come out''. But he doesn't: the implication is clearly that the disciples could have done what Jesus did had they prayed.
Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him. The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. ``Quick, get up!'' he said, and the chains fell off Peter's wrists.
He went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. When she recognised Peter's voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, ``Peter is at the door!'' ``You're out of your mind,'' they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, ``It must be his angel.''— Acts 12:5-7, 12-15
The funny thing about this story is that the church didn't seem to expect God to answer its prayers, but he did anyway! That's an encouragement to us when we're short of faith. Sometimes, in the absence of faith, the thing to do is just pray anyway because we know that's the right thing to do.
``Revival'' is the term used to describe a time in which God moves very powerfully in a community and lots of people become Christians. When you read accounts of historical revivals, both in England and abroad, there are various factors that seem to crop up quite frequently. But I don't believe I have ever heard of a revival where prayer wasn't absolutely central. History teaches that every revival begins in prayer.
Just one of many examples I could have picked out is the Hebridean revival of 1949-1953. This started with two old women praying together. Duncan Campbell, who was the main preacher there during this period writes:
In the parish of Barvas a number of men and women took [a call to prayer] to heart, especially two old women. I am ashamed to think of it - two sisters, one eighty-two and one eighty-four, the latter blind. These two women developed a great heart concern for God to do something in the parish and gave themselves to waiting upon God in their little cottage.
Sending for the minister, she told him her story, and he took her message as a word from God to his heart. Turning to her he said, ``What do you think we should do?'' She said, "Give yourself to prayer; give yourself to waiting upon God. Get your elders and deacons together and spend at least two nights a week waiting upon God in prayer. If you will do that at your end of the parish, my sister and I will do it at our end of the parish from ten o'clock at night until two or three o'clock in the morning.''
And the result was:
Of the hundreds who found Jesus Christ during this time fully seventy-five per cent were saved before they came near a meeting or heard a sermon by myself or any other ministers in the parish. The power of God, the Spirit of God, was moving in operation, and the fear of God gripped the souls of men - this is God-sent revival as distinct from special efforts in the field of evangelism.
The world's biggest church is Yoido Full Gospel church in Seoul, South Korea. Led by Paul Yonggi Cho, it started in 1958 with three people (him, his wife and his mother-in-law) and grew as follows:
At that point, growth levelled off because when they plant a new church, which they do a lot, they tend to send 60,000 people or so to get it started. (When I first heard this, I thought it was silly: what's the point of planting such a big church? The answer turns out to be, they tend to grow to 200,000 within a few years.)
There is a persistent anecdote that I've heard several times at conferences and on tapes. I've not been able to verify it on the Internet, but here it is for what it's worth: the story is that Cho was a guest on one of the big secular American talk-shows - Jay Leno or David Letterman or something like that. The interview went like this.
I don't have a story to tell about being involved in a massive revival. But I can tell you this:
When I was at University, I spent more time praying than at any other time in my life (thanks to the relatively undemanding student lifestyle!) For several months, I used to pray for half an hour every morning with a friend. And in those three years, mostly during the time I was praying with the friend in the mornings, five of my friends became Christians from completely non-Christian backgrounds. (One of them is now leading a New Frontiers church plant!)
I've never seen anything remotely like that since.
A couple of years ago, Fiona and I ran a small Alpha course in our flat, for the immediate local area - we leafletted the four or five roads closest to us. On the first week of that course, no-one came - just Fiona and me. Now that made us pray!
The result: a phone-call half way through the next week from someone who wanted to come and hoped she hadn't missed it. We ran the whole course for the woman and her teenage daughter who also came: they both became Christians and are now firmly established in a church on the Haringey ladder.
One of the bible's key verses on prayer is found in the second book of Chronicles. It's phrased as a promise - a contract, if you like. God promises, if you'll do this, I'll do that:
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.— 2 Chronicles 7:14
There is a lot of meat in those forty words: we could preach a five-week series on the things that draw God to answer prayer without stretching it too thin.
One of the things that mystifies us about this church is why we're not growing. When the leaders meet, we often discuss this: we have meetings that people enjoy (or they say they do!) in a venue everyone likes, with good food and drinks. We make a real effort to keep everything accessible. It's an easy church to invite people to - yet we are not growing.
But God says that if his people will humble themselves and pray, then he will hear from Heaven. So that is the challenge for us, especially as we approach the September publicity blitz.
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/prayer.html.