By John Onwuchekwa
Prayer is a bigger deal than we’ve made it out to be.
It’s vital for the life of our churches. Having read books on prayer before, I know the difficulty isn’t in starting to pray more. The difficulty is in sustaining this attitude.
It’s not hard to start. It’s hard to solidify habits.
Over the years, I’ve learned that I don’t need to send out a survey or do market research on people’s common temptations. I merely need to look inside my own heart and see where I’ve failed to pray.
The first step in fighting temptations is exposing and naming them. Therefore, I will attempt to be as candid as I am concise.
The next step involves getting back on track. So I’ll attempt to point you back to the track. Let’s throw some paint on this invisible enemy of ours so we don’t get blindsided. We’re not ignorant of his schemes, so let’s expose them for what they are.
Here are three temptations common to all of us when it comes to practicing prayer in the life of the church and how to fight against them.
Cancel a prayer meeting. Something will come up. Something always comes up.
God gives us the gift of being able to communicate with him anytime and anywhere. You’d think that kind of accessibility would make us fervent in prayer, but it doesn’t. It makes us flexible in a bad way, always assuming we can make time for it later.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from over twenty years in school as a professional procrastinator, it is that later never comes as soon as you thought it would.
Track to run on: Don’t postpone the priority of prayer. As best you can, treat corporate prayer times as cemented and fixed. The first time you cancel a prayer meeting (or miss one) isn’t that big of a deal. But the second, third, and fourth times begin to say something about prayer’s priority in your church life.
We aren’t given the freedom of communication with God to neatly fit it around our schedules. We’re given this free and frequent access to God because we’re always in need of it. Therefore, we should always pray (see 1 Thessalonians 5:17).
You help cement this truth in the life of your church by your persistence in prayer and your presence when your church prays. I don’t imagine that many of us struggle with praying too much, or that other priorities fall through the cracks because we attend too many prayer meetings.
So I’ll just end this here. Pastor, don’t cancel prayer meetings. Christian, don’t miss them.
Form your theology of prayer around how God has answered your most recent prayer.
How often have we been discouraged when God says, “No”? Quitting usually begins here. Why bother praying when prayer doesn’t work? “I earnestly, consistently, and faithfully prayed for a loved one’s healing, and he still passed away. I’m through praying.”
Track to run on: Keep track of the things you’ve prayed for. Every one of them. Pastor, this is how you can help your church persevere. Christian, this is where you can help your church maintain faithfulness.
Routinely revisiting the list of things you’ve prayed for can help you see just how faithful God has actually been, even in ways you’ve completely forgotten. By doing this you leave a trail of breadcrumbs for your church to recount the faithfulness of God when they feel like they’re in the wilderness.
Sometimes in the life of a church, unanswered prayers are just as helpful as answered ones. They remind us that we aren’t imposing our will on God. He’s in control. We’re making requests, but they’re just that: requests, not demands.
He has a better view of things than we do, so we thank him in hindsight for every prayer answered or left unanswered. Prayer is leaving the direction of our lives in God’s hands.
Nine years of praying for kids made the adoption of our baby daughter all the sweeter, especially as we shared what God had done. Through this experience, we saw hundreds (if not thousands) of people who journeyed with us over the years rejoice in God’s faithfulness.
In 2015, on the Sunday evening that we constituted as a church in the midst of one of our darkest seasons together, we began our time by reading a list of the twenty-five things that we had constantly prayed for over the previous eight months in regard to the success of the church and establishing a gospel witness in Atlanta’s West End.
We then read the twenty-five ways that God exceeded every expectation.
Our goal was not to teach that God gives us everything we ask for if we ask hard enough. It was to highlight God’s faithfulness in seasons of suffering because it’s easy for us to forget.
It’s like the penny that blocks the sun because it’s too close to someone’s eyes. Keep track of God’s faithfulness, and help your church remove the penny from time to time.
Individualize what God has meant to be corporate.
Just because we can pray privately doesn’t mean that we must only pray privately. Though prayer is often an individual task, we should regularly and routinely involve others. If we struggle to pray, the tendency is to hide.
Track to run on: Don’t shy away from using plural pronouns in your prayers, especially in corporate gatherings. Using plural pronouns in corporate gatherings reminds the church that we are participants and not merely spectators when we gather. Using plural pronouns in private prayer helps to remind us we’re not merely individuals but also part of a family.
Names, faces, and smiles, not merely silhouettes, should come to mind when we think of “us.” This is the beauty of joining a local church. Those silhouettes are filled with specific people and their specific needs.
Praying together, even while confessing sin, is God’s recipe for experiencing freedom. It humbles us. That’s why James writes that we should confess our sin to each other and pray for each other that we may be healed (see James 5:16).
My good friend, John Henderson, says the reason God tells us to confess to each other is because what keeps us from confessing our sin is the very thing keeping us trapped in that sin (i.e., pride, fear of man, ego).
Those are the sins that lie underneath the surface. Involving others in our prayers, especially those of confession, is God’s great gift of freedom to us.
Cultivating prayer in the life of the church is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s like the process of an acorn becoming an oak tree.
It takes a long time and lots of ordinary work that isn’t recognized or acknowledged. Many external elements work against its cultivation in the life of the church—none more apparent than prosperity.
Prayer often thrives where persecution exists. The absence of hard times cultivates a sense of self-sufficiency that leads us to believe we have all we need. Don’t give up.
Remind the church of their desperate need for God, and then do all that you can to take them right to his front doorstep through prayer. Prepare to not have a massive following initially. Be okay with that.
The power of our prayers isn’t found in the number of people praying, but the willingness of the One to whom we’re praying.
John Onwuchekwa (@JawnO) is a husband, father, and serves as pastor of Cornerstone Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He earned his MA from Dallas Theological Seminary and likes to take photos of the license plates of bad drivers.
Excerpted from Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church from John Onwuchekwa and used by permission from Crossway