One of the worst kept secrets in church planting is prayer.
Pretty much every church planter has a instinctive awareness that prayer plays a big part in what they are trying to do, and they devote their time and effort to praying (or if they don’t, they probably have a sense deep down that they should).
Put simply, we can make a few key statements about prayer that outline the experiences of many planters in this area.
Prayer works. This is a lifeline for church planters. You are trying to get something going when nothing was there previously. You want to bring light into darkness, and see more achieved that you could possibly do in your own strength. So you pray, and God answers. I am sure we can each bring to mind specific moments where our prayers have been answered, and God has brought about the breakthroughs that we desire. These moments are testimonies to hold tight to as we continue to persist in prayer
Prayer is crucial. John Bunyan once said, “you can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.” Prayer is a crucial first step, and we mustn’t get so caught up in the activities of church planting that we neglect praying to the one who makes it all happen. After all, the Bible says that humans can plant and water, but it is only God that gives the growth. This is true both in farming and in church planting.
Prayer is hard. If we are honest, many of us find prayer challenging. It can often be difficult to maintain a regularity of prayer amidst the various pressures of life, and even more difficult for that prayer to be deep, persistent and heart-felt connection with the Father. But prayer is a battle worth fighting, because it holds the keys to many of the other battles before us.
In this article, I want to look at a incident from the life of Moses that is found in Exodus 17:8-13, and from it draw out three things that can fuel us as we battle for prayer.
8Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. 9So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out and fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” 10So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. 12But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. 13And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword.
In this passage, we read of a battle going on down in the valley, with the army being led by Joshua, and Moses standing on the top of the hill watching over the battle, lifting his hand (with his staff in it) to God. If you arrived at the scene without knowing what was happening, it would be easy to assume that the most significant role was being played by Joshua and his men, that victory would be determined by whether their fighting skill, strength and battle tactics could outdo the enemy. In fact, it would be easy to ignore the old man on the hillside entirely, and yet the passage is clear that it was not Joshua in the valley who was having the decisive impact but Moses up on the hill praying. As he continued with the staff raised to heaven, the people prevailed. As he grew weary and it flagged, they started to lose. In the end, the battle was won and it was won through Moses’ prayer.
Devotion Fuels Our Prayer
The first thing that we can notice about Moses’ prayer is that his posture was one of devotion. By lifting his hand to the heavens, it is like Moses is reaching out to God, and this is a large part of what devotion is- I want God and so I am reaching out to him. The way Moses prayed with his hands reflected this. The point isn’t to legalistically suggest that all good prayers need to prayed with raised hands (though it isn’t a bad thing to do from time to time) , but simply that there ought to be something in our hearts as we pray that reflects the same kind of devotion that Moses showed. The point of prayer is more than just making our church plant ‘work’ (whatever that means) but to reach out to God with a desire to be close to Him.
Reaching out to God doesn’t mean that God is distant. He isn’t. Through the sacrifice of Jesus we have been brought near, and the book of Hebrews states that, “we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us.” Instead, this is the kind of reaching out that belongs in a relationship that you already enjoy, somewhat akin to initiating spending time with your spouse or suggesting doing something with a close friend. Because you enjoy spending time with them, you make it happen. This is what prayer is like – enjoying God’s presence so making a point of spending time there. And, of course, God always responds as reach out to him. James writes, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”
Part of devotion in prayer means taking time to enjoy God for who He is. Spend time dwelling on His characteristics, such as His love, His mercy, His power, His creativity, His justice, His holiness and so forth, and praise God that this is what He is like. Think on the names of God that have been revealed in the Bible – Yahweh Yireh (God our provider), Yahweh Rapha (God our healer), Yahweh Nissi (God our Banner), El Shaddai (God Almighty), etc.
Another part of reaching out to God with devotion means simply wanting to be in His presence. I am often in prayer meetings with others who suggest that we stop and spend some time dwelling in God’s presence. I find this incredibly helpful, because at times I can be so eager to pray for the specific things that are going on at the time that I can rush past something that should be first order of business in prayer – enjoying the presence of God. When Mary was first told by the angel that she would have a child by the Holy Spirit, her response was, “My soul rejoices in the Lord.” There is something about getting our souls rejoicing in the Lord that is the starting point of prayer.
Devotion in prayer means that we get more focussed on our Lord than we are on our circumstances. It is about trying to connect in to God’s heart and his purposes and allowing our prayers to align with Him. One of the favourite prayers that I have ever heard was prayed by my son. He was three at the time and I was teaching him to pray and explained that he could say to Jesus whatever he wanted to, so his prayer was, “Dear Jesus, I pray that you have a good day tomorrow. Amen.” There is something beautifully God-centred and devoted in that prayer, that we could all do well to take into our own prayer lives.
Community Fuels Our Prayer
I don’t know if you noticed in the passage that we are discussing that Moses was not standing on that hill on his own. He had his brother Aaron and their friend Hur up there with him. There were moments as Moses was praying that his arm grew weary and started to drop, and these guys helped him to keep his arms raised. They grabbed him a stone that he could sit on and they physically held his hands up for him.
The people prevailed in battle because of Moses’ prayer. Moses prevailed in prayer because of his friends who were standing with him.
For me, there’s something about having others with me as I pray that just helps me a lot. When I’m praying on my own, my mind wanders and before I know it I am thinking about what I have to do later in the day, devising a cool new preaching series or replaying in my head conversations from earlier in the day. These aren’t bad things to bring before God, but somehow I seem to lose focus and drift away from the point of prayer.
However, when I pray with others, I can pray the thing that’s on my heart, and then say amen and tag out and someone else steps in and continues the prayer. They may run with the same thing I have prayed about and we can all join in a hearty amen, or they might pray about some other things that hadn’t even occurred to me, which in turn often sparks more prayers in me, and together we can spur each other on and encourage each other in prayer. In those times those people who are with me are being like Aaron and Hur for me and keeping me going in prayer. Community fuels out prayer.
I have a friend called Dave Williams, and one of the things I really appreciate about Dave is that when we meet up and are chatting through some church issues, before we leave he will frequently say ‘let’s pray about it’ It can be so easy to meet up, make some decisions and then assume that the business is done and go home. But with those four words ‘let’s pray about it’, Dave reminds us where the key to the battle really is and supports all of us in our prayer. Community fuels our prayer.
Mission Fuels Our Prayer
For all that we have talked about just spending time with God, we should still remember that Moses climbed the hill for a reason. There was a battle raging in the valley below, and the outcome of that battle hung on Moses getting with God. The mission at hand fuelled Moses’ prayer.
And actually what he is doing is affecting the battle. When we pray, it has a direct effect on how the mission that God has given us goes. And that is something that we don’t always remember. Prayer can slip into a rut and become just one of those things. The prayers that we pray have a direct effect on the mission going forward and the kingdom of God advancing in the world.
John Piper once said, “Our weakness in prayer is owing largely to our neglect of this truth. Prayer is primarily a wartime walkie-talkie for the mission of the church as it advances against the powers of darkness and unbelief.”
The opposite danger to neglecting spending time in our prayer meetings basking in God’s presence is never getting round to asking for anything at all – there needs to be a place for both. Enjoy God for who he is. Petition him for what is needed for the mission.
If I’ve noticed one thing about the prayers of the Bible it’s that they all always seem to ask God for things, and actually the things they ask for are big things, significant things, but also things close to God’s heart and aligned to God’s mission. Many of us are rightly cautious about turning our prayer time into simply presenting a ‘shopping list’ of requests to God, but sometimes we can overplay this caution and become too timid about making any requests of God at all. But absolutely we should ask Him for what we need – there is a battle going on, there is a church that need planting and there is a mission to the ends of the earth before us. Unless we ask God, how will we ever see the breakthroughs we want?
In the same chapter that he urges us to draw near to God, James lays down the gauntlet for us in our prayer lives, stating, “You do not have because you do not ask.” What is it that we do not have, simply because we have never got around to asking God for it?
John Newton often talked about the idea of “Large Asking’ and he told a story of when Alexander the Great wanted to marry a man’s daughter, and the he was entitled to ask Alexander for a sum of money as a bride price. The man asked for a ridiculous sum of money, and Alexander’s treasurer wasn’t impressed at all and argued that a much smaller sum would do the trick, but Alexander said, “No, let him have it all. I like that fellow. He does me honour. He treats me like a king and proves by what he asks that he believes me to be both rich and generous.”
By making the big ask, this man honoured Alexander as king, and as we make the big ask in prayer we hour God as God. The needs of our cities and nations are great. The hopes, dreams and plans we all have for our church plants are things that without God we will just not be able to come close to, so the mission before us must drive us to pray to the God who can do more than we ever ask or imagine.
“Pray the largest prayers. You cannot think a prayer so large that God, in answering it, will not wish you had made it larger. Pray not for crutches but for wings.” – Phillips Brooks
The mission before us is big – let’s let that mission fuel our prayer, and let’s not be ashamed to pray some big prayers.