The ministry of public prayer – An endangered species?
Whatever happened to the ministry of public prayer? Whether we are referring to it as a corporate venture or pastorally led, it appears conspicuous by its absence in many church gatherings or when present so ailing in health and vitality that you wonder if it is becoming an endangered species! One current writer speaks of the ‘strange amnesia’ in respect to public prayer found in Christian congregations.
Turning to the pages of the New Testament the idea that this ministry could ever become a rarity in church life is so ludicrous as to be laughable. The ministry of prayer is frequently mentioned in Acts (1:24; 2:42; 12:5, 12; 20:36). The church is to maintain this ministry too (1 Tim. 2:8). In Acts 4:23-31 Luke records an extraordinary church prayer meeting. The words ‘lifted their voice with one accord’ (v.24) are liable to a degree of interpretation: Is it the collective summary of the prayers of the gathered church? Or is it the prayer of the one who is leading the community? Could he be recording a united outburst of prayer? The suggestion that it is a liturgy seems too far fetched. What is clear is that here is a living ministry at the heart of church life, which was not in danger of becoming extinct. Why?
First, this prayer was a spontaneous outburst that arose from their commitment to Jesus’ Lordship in their daily lives. This had led to a confrontation with the religious authorities and on being threatened (4:23) they turned to prayer. Unplanned and yet earthed firmly in their commitment to proclaim Jesus as Lord, it was a ‘natural’ response of a Holy Spirit-filled people. Our churches may not necessarily find themselves confronting the type of hazard described here but do our petitions spontaneously combust out of our ‘sanctifying Christ as Lord in our hearts’ in our daily lives? (1 Pet. 3:15). Our prayers are meant to be a natural extension of the communion we enjoy with God but they can become an insipid formality that is as deadly to true worship as any other type of going through the motions when they are unconnected to our devotion to Christ’s Lordship in our daily living. We must resist the temptation to cage our prayers within the walls of our church buildings alone (Phil. 4:6; 1 Tim. 2:1,2).
Next, the simplicity of the language used gave it a common ownership. Concise and to the point the vocabulary was plain enough for all to understand and therefore participate in. No-one sought to hijack the proceedings to impress peers by their knowledge or articulation; rather it was good old-fashioned plain speaking that was the direct appeal of faith that united the entire congregation in fearlessly bringing the matter to God. God’s honour was at stake; God’s cause was under threat. Now was not the time for clever words but simple, urgent and direct communication in which the entire community could engage God. This simplicity of language meant it fulfilled a vital function of public ministry; everyone who heard it could be edified by it too and was a great illustration of Paul’s ‘I’d rather speak five words’ principle for public ministry (1 Cor. 14:19).
It was kept animated by its brevity too. Assuming Luke is not recording a collective summary, there are no more than 200 words in our English translations – over thirty of which were words of scripture. It was not a thoughtless meander, so no-one could get ‘lost’ in its length! Neither was it tedious to the ear! This was not brevity borne of irreverence or flippancy but rather a succinctness that appreciated the urgency and enormity of the matter. The cause was identified; rejection of God’s Messiah. The concern was raised; power to meet this threat. The promise was claimed; God had made clear that all opposition to His Son’s reign would be fruitless. The challenge was taken up; God had to enable his servants to carry on. All agree that long public prayers are unhelpful. Long ago Spurgeon warned minsters, ‘there is room for improvement and in some quarters there is an imperative demand for it. Let me caution you against spoiling your services by your prayers.’ Like the extinct dodo, could we be guilty of placing our prayers in danger by letting them linger too long?
The spirit, in which the prayer was offered, that of sacrificial servanthood, gave it vitality and realism. God was their Lord; Jesus was God’s ‘holy servant’ and they were God’s servants too (Acts 4:29). The power and efficacy of their petition came from a faith that made them ready to offer themselves as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1) in the service of proclaiming the cross. They did not pray ‘Lord remove us from this situation’ but rather, ‘grant your servants boldness to proclaim your word.’ Such readiness to lay one’s life on the line never makes prayer an extraneous exercise.
However the efficacy of the prayer is surely found in its twofold foundation. First, it was full of scripture. Please note this did not mean they just threw scripture into the mix! This was no ‘throw a text in’ job but rather a careful contextual exposition of a passage (Ps. 2:1,2) and an understanding of how it applied to their situation. The principle understood, all opposition to the Son’s reign was doomed to failure. They sought for grace to see that principle worked out in their own ministry as a church. Scripture taught them to call upon the God who had revealed Himself and His self-revelation was the springboard for their boldness in approaching Him. It shaped what they said to God and gave them confidence because they knew the thoughts of the one upon whom they called. It was the template by which they wrestled with God with His own promises. A working knowledge of scripture and a skilful pleading of its promises always make prayer applicable.
Centrality of the cross
Second, it had a cross-centred focus. It was the deep held conviction of these early Christians that God was the author of the cross, the one who orchestrated the acts of wicked men to bring about the purpose He determined by putting His servant Jesus on the cross (vv.27,28). Just as Pilate and Herod had been united in fulfilling God’s intention on the cross, so the opposition they now faced as God’s servants in proclaiming Jesus was just another expression of sinful man’s stubborn but futile rebellion against the rule of God’s Son. If the cross is at the heart of the church’s prayer life the message of the cross that the church is to proclaim will never be irrelevant or lacking in power; rather prayer will flourish and the work of the gospel will blossom.
Such praying by the church brought about a spectacular response (v.31). They were filled with a fresh out-pouring of the Holy Spirit. Let’s not lose what happened here between its unique historic Pentecostal setting and our contemporary appreciation of what is and what is not a genuine experience of the Holy Spirit. To be filled with the Spirit is a command given to every Christian for daily living (Eph. 5:18) and if the ministry of prayer is to stay off the endangered species list, the church has to pray believing in and expecting a fresh empowering of the Holy Spirit for the mission it has been given. Oh for a ministry of public prayer that knew such blessed effects!
John Woolley is the pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Gabalfa, Cardiff.