I love tasks with visible results. Show me a smudged bathroom mirror, a desk piled with papers, or a weed-choked flower bed, and I’ll get right to work. With 10 minutes’ effort, I can turn grime into gleam and chaos into calm. It’s a great feeling.
The chores I don’t love are the recurring and nearly-invisible ones. Cooking a dinner that my three sons will gobble down without comment so they can get back to shooting hoops? Not so much. Calling the doctor’s office for the fourth time this week to untangle our Gordian health insurance? No thanks.
WE LIKE THE VISIBLE
Clicking on the “Ministries” tab of many church websites reveals that we often have a similar bias when it comes to our corporate life. We highlight our discipleship groups, crisis counseling, community outreach, student ministries, Bible studies, and congregational care. Our photos show people singing and playing instruments, people holding coffee cups and open Bibles, people maneuvering wheelbarrows and chainsaws. As a church, we like what’s visible.
Perhaps for that reason, praying together rarely headlines our calendar of events. Corporate prayer—whether in a worship service or a week-day gathering—isn’t much to look at. We show up. We bow our heads. We ask God for daily needs and for gospel success. Then, we do it again. Week after week, year after year, the same people bring the same concerns in the same way to the same God. It doesn’t always produce obvious results.
But it’s one of the most important things the church does.
PRAYING FOR THRIVING
To stoke my enthusiasm for those mundane items on my to-do list, I have to remind myself that they are, in fact, valuable. If my children do not eat, they will not thrive. If I do not make repeated phone calls, I will have to pay an inflated bill. Similarly, the church needs to remind herself that the difficult, invisible, and counter-cultural task of corporate prayer is the work that upholds everything else we do. If we do not pray, we will not thrive.
What’s more, gathering for prayer affirms three essential things we’re otherwise apt to forget about the church: we’re entirely dependent on our God, we need every member of the body, and we have a spiritual mission.
First, the praying church is a church who admits her dependence on God.
In our other activities, we can be tempted to think success depends on us. If we host enough youth retreats, sing our hymns heartily enough, or cut enough of our neighbor’s grass, then our church will surely grow. If we invite enough people, train enough people, mobilize enough people, then we’ll surely see results in our community. These things may be good. But coming together to pray reminds us the flourishing of Christ’s church does not depend ultimately on us. In prayer, we humbly extend what Thomas Manton called “the empty hand of the soul. . .[which] looketh for all from God.”
We take as our example the members of the early church who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 4:42). They prayed together when they ate (Acts 2:46), and when they were fasting (Acts 13:2–3). They prayed together when they were threatened with persecution (Acts 4:23–31), and when they were appointing new elders (Acts 14:23). They prayed together in formal temple worship services (Acts 3:1), and at riverside prayer meetings (Acts 16:13, 16).
Those first Christians faced an enormous workload: gospel-proclaiming, disciple-making, church-planting, and widow-feeding. By prioritizing prayer together, they admitted their ultimate weakness and found their unfailing help in God.
Second, the praying church affirms the value of every member of the body.
Sadly, we sometimes act as if the church’s MVPs are the people whose contributions are the most noticeable. Program organizers and project directors sometimes seem more important than elderly widows or children with disabilities. But in corporate prayer, there are no celebrities. In corporate prayer, we welcome the praises of children that shut the mouth of Satan (Psalm 8:2), and we honor the hard work of one member who prays for the others (Col. 4:12–13). We gather for prayer in thundering consummation of Isaiah’s long-ago prophecy: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is. 56:7). We gather to add our prayers to those of all the saints in the great bowls before the heavenly throne (Rev. 5:8).
Go to any church prayer meeting on any Wednesday night and you’ll find a motley group of people. There—male and female, rich and poor, old and young—all affirm their common identity (Gal. 3:28) and commune with their God. The former idolater, the former homosexual, the former thief, the former reviler (1 Cor. 6:9–11)—all who have been washed in the blood—together approach God’s throne with boldness (Heb. 4:6, 10:19). The weaker and the stronger, the less honorable and the more honorable, the unpresentable and the more presentable (1 Cor. 12:22–26) help one another through prayer. None are excluded, none are overlooked, and none are deemed unnecessary.
Finally, the praying church refocuses on her central, spiritual mission.
There’s a reason praying together doesn’t look like much, for why we do it over and over even though we can’t quite quantify the results. There’s a reason we practice it with closed eyes and bowed heads.
The reason is simple: prayer is spiritual. It’s the church’s spiritual weapon in a spiritual war (Eph. 6:10–20). It’s a spiritual tool that aids our spiritual task (2 Cor. 1:11), and it’s our spiritual appeal for the Spirit himself (Luke 11:13).
A church’s life and ministry doesn’t exist merely at the visible level of flesh and blood, buildings and classes, events and committee meetings. The church’s greatest business takes place in unseen places—and so we pray.
We pray together that the name of God would be successfully proclaimed in the world (John 17:23–26), that gospel laborers would be sent out (Matt. 9:38), that people would be saved and added to the church (Acts 2:47), that his saints would be unified (Ps. 133). We pray together that God would build his church and defeat Satan’s kingdom (Matt. 16:18), set members in local churches according to his purposes (1 Cor. 12:18), give his people wisdom (Matt. 21:15, James 1:5), ensure the security of his saints (John 6:37), and ultimately bring us to live together with him (John 14:3).
Though our praying together may at times seem fruitless and insignificant, the Bible assures us the results will one day be made visible. In Revelation 8, John pulls back the curtain of heaven and we see our collected prayers mingled with the fire of God; they are thrown down on the earth with the most spectacular results: “and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (Rev. 8:5).
Brothers and sisters, let us pray together.