By Vijay Jayaraman
On Saturday, June 3rd, about 100 of us met on our church campus in one-hour shifts for 12 hours to pray for the fullness of God in the church and the expansion of the church into the world. Our emphasis was on the Holy Spirit, in anticipation of Pentecost Sunday on June 4th. Using Acts 1:1-11 and 2:1-4 as our primary texts, we thanked God for the finished work of Christ, repented of our self-reliance, and prayed for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit on our staff and elders, for those on our church phone list, for our missionaries, our city, nation, and government, for those who suffer, and for rulers and people groups across the globe. For the most part, the time went by quickly, and many of us left both energized and feeling that we had only just begun to pray. According to my count, this is roughly the 20th such day of prayer in our church since we began these gatherings in late 2008.
On the one hand, we ought to be encouraged that we belong to a church that emphasizes corporate prayer and organizes prayer meetings. This, unfortunately, is not common among our overly busy, individualistic, and self-sufficient Western churches. On the other hand, doing the numbers ought to give us pause. The 100 or so willing to pray together on a Saturday at SBCC comprise about 5% of the roughly 2,000 adults in our body. The 30 or so who gather weekly for Tuesday morning prayer represent about 1.5% of our adults. These numbers have held steady for as long as these meetings have existed. No amount of strategic scheduling, or repeated reminding, seems to affect the numbers very much.
I have often wondered why prayer meetings are among the smallest meetings in the life of the church. When we contrast the few willing to commit one hour to corporate prayer, with the hundreds willing to commit a full weekend to the church retreat, or similar numbers committing several hours to Storynights, day-long seminars, serving at Christian camps, and even church work days (all good things), it seems pretty clear that, as John Piper puts it, prayerlessness is not for lack of time.
I suspect then that prayerlessness, at least in part, is for lack of hunger. I suspect also that lack of hunger is the result of filling our lives with good things while crowding out the best thing. Jesus’ sobering words to the church at Ephesus remind us how it is possible for once-vibrant churches to begin putting second things first (Revelation 2:2-5). I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Our first love as Christians is for God Himself, over and above His work, His provision, or even His people. When we pray, we focus on our first Love.
It would be easy to interpret our lack of hunger as a lack of spiritual gifting. Prayer, however, is not a spiritual gift! A spiritual gift is a special ability that is given to some but not all Christians. There are at least five lists of spiritual gifts in the New Testament (Romans 12:6-8, I Corinthians 12:8-10, I Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11, and I Peter 4:11) and while none of them is meant to be exhaustive, prayer is not on any of these lists. I submit that the simple reason for this omission is that prayer, more than any other activity, is the privilege and responsibility of every Christian.
Consider Paul’s greeting in 1 Corinthians 1:2: to the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus…In Paul’s mind, calling on the name of the Lord Jesus, (a uniquely Christian understanding of prayer), is embedded in the very definition of a Christian. Ananias (Acts 9:14) and the early disciples (Acts 9:21) also refer to Christians as those who call on His name. Calling on the name of the Lord Jesus is both the first act of the Christian life (Acts 2:21) and the ongoing pattern of the Christian life (see, for example, John 15:7-8,16, I Thessalonians 5:7, Colossians 4:2.). It is true that some may be called to pray more than others, such as the early apostles who were set apart for prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). Affirming the special calling of some, however, ought never to obscure our vision of a New Testament church where everyone prays.
We are all called to pray, not simply in the privacy of our own homes, but together with other believers. Although solitary prayer is a critical discipline for the Christian, both the Bible and church history tell us that God responds in uniquely powerful ways when believers gather together and pray. Many of us can testify that our self-centered prayers and inwardly- focused hearts expand outward and upward when we pray with others. Frequent, scripture-saturated, corporate prayer is the best antidote for our lack of hunger. We read in the book of Acts that the early church all joined together constantly in prayer (Acts 1:18). The gift of the Holy Spirit was given at one of these prayer meetings while they were all together in one place (Acts 2:3). The early church met together daily, and devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of the bread, to the fellowship and to the prayers (Acts 2:42). God uses a prayer meeting based on Psalm 2 to strengthen the church in the midst of intense persecution (Acts 4:23-31) and another to secure Peter’s release from prison (Acts 12:5).
The battles facing our church body and our world are not the same as those facing the early church, but they are no less fierce. If we are concerned about the spiritual, physical, and emotional health of our children, the cancer-stricken in our congregation, hard marriages and broken-hearted widows…if we care about the persecuted church, the worldwide sex-trafficking trade, Syrian refugees and Christian beheadings…if we have a burden for unreached people groups, Washington and Westmont, our public schools, and the spiritual protection of our church leadership…if our hearts break for the severe emotional and financial challenges faced by adoptive and foster families among us, for the unemployed and the homeless, the urban poor, racism, the destruction of our environment, and the lukewarm American church…if we need wisdom for choosing elders or responding to our culture’s re-definition of marriage or its disregard for the unborn… if we lack power for personal purity or for patience with our little ones…if we hurt because of estranged family relationships, unbelieving loved ones, addiction, abuse, and generational sin…we ought to eagerly come together and pray. As we pray, our first Love will meet the overwhelming challenges of this world and this life. Prayer is the first means by which His kingdom will come and His will be done.
Prayer is not a spiritual gift given to a privileged few. Rather, the invitation to approach God’s throne with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Hebrews 4:16), is an unspeakably precious gift to every believer. Let Santa Barbara Community Church be known as a church that is consumed with her first Love. Let us be a church that understands, treasures, and cultivates her gift of prayer.