ACR JournalChristian LivingEvangelism

The agony and ecstasy of the church prayer meeting


Please forgive two brief and tiny anecdotes which are to remind you that God is completely on top of His gospel mission. I was once telling God in my prayers that the days of ‘leading people to Christ’ seemed to be fast disappearing and in a rare outburst I said to Him, “things are not going to work unless YOU DO SOMETHING!” (I heard John Chapman pray this once in a small prayer meeting). Anyway, that evening I went down the road for a pizza and sat on a bench to eat, and a lady came and sat on the bench too. She asked me what I did for a job and when I told her, she said, “I know nothing about Christianity—tell me what it’s about”.

I laughed out loud as I walked home because the gospel door opened so widely that it had to be God’s doing—and I simply make the point to you (and to me) that the desperate prayer may a good way to pray. Careless prayers are a worry.

And then I was telling God recently that my witness to my neighbours had been too fruitless—a tract with biscuits at Christmas, a book lent here and there, taking one or two to hear a speaker, but no real breakthroughs. Once again, I told God with some emotion that I was helpless and hopeless. Within the hour I was taking the bins out and a man three doors up the road—who had always scoffed at my faith—walked across my driveway. It was impossible not to meet. But this time he was frail with a Zimmer frame. We got talking about health and mortality and I said, “This is why eternal life is so important”. He nodded and I said a little more—then took him Chappo’s book Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life. The link between my more desperate prayer and the very precise answer struck me again.


Of course it is not our emotion or language or godliness—or even our desperation—that forces God’s interest in our prayers. The scripture wonderfully tells us that “His ear is ever open to our cry” and that we should “cast our cares because He cares” for us. It’s because of who He is and because of who we are that prayers arrive in His ear. He has committed Himself to our prayers.

There have been times when I’ve been talking with a young mum at church—and the things I’ve been saying to her have been of course fascinating and riveting stuff—but she turns away from my blabber because she has heard the cry of her child. It’s always a reminder to me that the cry of the believer is deeply, deeply interesting to God—more than

we or anyone else may think.

This confidence in God’s interest in our prayers needs to be recaptured. Too many believers have little or no confidence that their prayer is really doing anything and simply gothrough the motions because it’s the thing to do. The idea that words spoken to God would be heard, heeded, taken seriously and would ‘move the machinery of heaven’ has almost

disappeared from view. But the work of Jesus has secured our adoption and our adoption means access to the throne of a Heavenly Father and at the throne of our Heavenly Father, He takes our words seriously. We may not take them seriously, but He does. George Herbert defined prayer as “reversed thunder”, based on the words in Revelation 8 that our prayers go up to God (with incense) and produce thunder and lightning on the earth. Remember that a call to 000 may be done very poorly but it will probably be answered very seriously. A prayer to God may be weak, but He is not.

So, I hold these two ideas of desperation and confidence together—that we should know and feel and express our desperation and that He is worthy of our confidence as the Father who actually listens and responds perfectly.

Church prayer meetings and Christian evangelism

For thirty years in the one parish, we set aside ninety minutes every two months for prayer together. Six prayer meetings per year. Was this too few? The hope was to bring everyone together to a well-planned night without having them so often as to add too many more nights out for busy people. Over the years there were prayer meetings marked by good attendance and great joy—and others marked by smaller attendance and great struggle. I wish I could say that church prayer meetings always left me with pure joy but the reality was agony and ecstasy. I once walked home from a UK prayer meeting with my senior minister and commented that it was quite a small gathering, to which he replied, “But those

of us who came had a wonderful time”. I wish I had that equilibrium. It is wonderfully true that the church prayer

meeting is marked by God “drawing near” to us as we “draw near” to Him. I used to say to the congregations beforehand, “You may drag yourselves to the prayer meeting but you will skip yourselves home”—so great is the blessing of God on such an exercise. But I’m also conscious that many don’t come to the prayer meeting and though many may have totally good reasons for missing it, it remains a subset of the church.

Given that prayer will take place in small groups of families and leaders and Bible studies, is a prayer meeting for the whole ‘parish’ a good idea? A necessary thing? It seems to me that it communicates to God that all of us under the local church umbrella are His grateful, sinful, needful people but it also communicates to the whole body of believers that we are united in spiritual work and battle together. And while most Christians find it hard to pray for an hour, the prayer meeting makes it possible.

Going back to the ideas of ‘desperation’ and ‘confidence’, is it not a very wise thing to communicate through the prayer meetings that everything we do as Christians—especially seeing lives transformed—is completely beyond us (desperation) but not beyond Him (confidence)?

I would like to testify to the mercy and power of God that those prayer meetings—done in such weakness—were honoured by God in leading us into fruitful paths of evangelism that we could never have planned if our lives depended on it.

So here are some things that have helped our meetings—and I offer these knowing that the organising and ‘ingredients’ of a prayer meeting are no substitute for the humble heart and the wind of the Spirit.

a. The invitation: Invite people with all the grace of God. Don’t make attendance the mark of salvation or the key to your affection for people.

b. Well planned: The handout was given at the door, the chairs arranged, the music practised and the helpers chosen.

c. Removing awkwardness: Think carefully about how the meeting will be a pleasure not a torture. Better to collect ten things to be thankful for and have someone pray, than say there will be ten minutes of open thanks—leaving people stuck for ideas. Make it as normal and easy as you can.

d. Confession: This should be a private time with a group prayer to follow. Public confession can be awkward.

e. Volunteers: Asking individuals beforehand if they would pray for areas like children, youth, houseparty, sick people, etc. can produce more thoughtful prayers.

f. Song/Praise: Break up the hour with songs since praise is fitting in a prayer meeting. And cut out some verses if needed.

g. Global mission: Hear news (via a link?) of your own missionaries or open a window into a part of the world that people would do well to know about. This can take ten minutes in the meeting so think about good brief prayer to follow.

h. Small groups: 5-6 people pray well together and give kind, careful guidance on the ‘ABC’ of group prayer—to be Audible, Brief and Concrete. In other words, help people to hear you, don’t go on and on (Matt 6:7) and pray with a specific request. Don’t give groups too little time or too much time—otherwise they struggle to cope or persevere.

i. Group wisdom: Have an ‘open time’ from the floor to hear about things for prayer that the leader may be unaware of—sick people, missions coming, happy and sad events etc., but then have one or two turn it all into prayer.

j. Personal: Include a time to pray for one another in small groups so people can mention a specific thing for prayer and someone (next to them?) prays about it.

k. Finally, as you wind up, remind people that the prayers that have ascended to heaven have been heard by a great and good God. Who knows how greatly the Lord will answer? Then go home (pastors especially) thankful for the privilege that outweighs the numbers who came.


Is the prayer meeting—small or great—a key part of evangelism?

More than we can ask or imagine.