May I describe a typical prayer meeting? There is an eagerness to get to the meeting. The working day has been busy and somewhat stressful, but the thoughts of meeting up with our own people have given us a sense of expectancy. When we arrive two of our members share with us their particular needs. They have been battling with the authorities who seem to be putting many obstacles in the way of our evangelistic work as a church. The room is filled with a growing sense of weakness and need. But we begin to see that the Bible describes this very situation. We begin to pray. There is such a unity in prayer that everyone seems to be praying with one voice and one great theme. The Bible is quoted in prayer, and we ask God to give us boldness to keep on telling our neighbours and friends the good news of Jesus. Before we leave, God himself gives us a real sense of his presence.
Not typical, you say? Well, it was in the time of the book of Acts (4:23-31). So also were prayer meetings that went on all night when a brother was in real trouble (12:5,12-17); a meeting for prayer and worship where the Holy Spirit made it clear that two men present were being called to a special mission (13:1-3); an open air prayer meeting by a river where only women were present (16:13); a midnight prayer meeting for two with an audience (16:25); and a prayer meeting in which men, women and children all knelt on a beach to pray (21:5). Such a variety of prayer meetings. How different things are today. Could it be that we are experiencing a famine of prayer?
Over the last five decades, there has been much organisation and reorganisation, new initiatives, conferences and strategies in church life. Yet there has only been a trickle of conversions and prayer meetings are generally poorly attended and lacklustre in spirit. Are we missing something? Is there a spiritual sickness affecting us? I would ask you to examine your church life for signs.
Symptoms – is there a problem?
The first symptom that presents itself is this. Time devoted to collective prayer has reduced in the last few years. In the early 1900s, many churches held two meetings during the week for the whole church. The first was a prayer meeting, often on Monday evening. The second was either for fellowship or Bible study.
This pattern of church life changed in the 1970s when joint Bible Study and Prayer meetings were introduced on the same night. Then in the 1980s and 90s, Home Groups became fashionable where smaller groups met in homes to study the Word and help disciple one another. In some churches, the mid-week meeting in the church building for the whole church has disappeared altogether. Whatever the relative merits of these changes, the result is that far less time is spent in prayer together than used to be the case.
A second symptom is that numbers attending have decreased in many churches. Usually, only a small proportion of those attending on Sunday come to the prayer meeting. Those who do come are often older believers.
And there is also a sense that prayer times are not as vibrant and expectant as they once were. Except where the church or certain members are facing real, immediate needs, prayer is general, and requests are vague. I may be generalising, but I guess you recognise at least some of these symptoms.
Diagnosis – Why this famine of prayer?
Is it that we are just too busy today? Work, family, the demands of everyday life just squeeze out the prayer meeting from our weekly schedule. Yet many of us have time for clubs, sport and the gym. Is it really a question of busyness; is it not rather our priorities that need examining?
It could be, of course, that our churches are not flexible enough. Why should Tuesday or Wednesday night at 7.30 p.m. be the optimum time for everyone? Would a morning or afternoon, a Saturday evening or Sunday before the service be equally good times for prayer? Perhaps churches themselves are one reason for the famine?
But surely these are not the only reasons. Praying people come to prayer meetings. Our famine of prayer may indicate a deeper spiritual and personal problem: lack of prayer in our individual lives. The Christians in Acts were devoted to prayers (Acts 2:42). Are we?
Prognosis – Does it matter?
We may think that this is not really a problem. Does it matter if the prayer meeting dies?
As long as the Sunday services and the evangelistic work of the church continue, surely the church will grow? Not at all. Decline will continue if the problem is not addressed. No matter what else we do, if prayer is not at the heart of the life of the church, eventually we will perish. In the words of James Montgomery’s great hymn, ‘Lord, teach us how to pray aright’,
‘We perish if we cease from prayer; O grant us power to pray.’
Perish? How? Churches are closing. Prayer meetings go first, like the amputated limbs of the gangrene patient, the extremities fail first. The Sunday services may then be reduced to one, then to an afternoon, but all too soon that also will cease. The problem started many years before the doors were finally closed. It started when prayer ceased.
Treatment – What can be done?
It is too simplistic to say, ‘Just attend your prayer meeting, and all will be well.’ When sickness takes hold of us, we sometimes need more radical treatment. We need to get to the heart of the problem, and all too often the problem is the heart. James Montgomery’s hymn is a thoroughly biblical treatment programme. The first pill we need to swallow is humility:
‘Give deep humility, the sense of godly sorrow give.’
Humility must precede prayer. We cannot pray when we are proud and think that we need nothing. God’s word teaches us this in 2 Chronicles 7:14. ‘If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven..’
Then we need confidence:
‘a strong, desiring confidence to hear your voice and live.’
Confidence in God, that he hears and will answer our prayers. But this requires faith:
‘Faith in the only sacrifice that can for sin atone;
to cast our hopes, to fix our eyes, on Christ, on Christ alone.’
How many prayer meetings are transformed by just one prayer leading us all to Jesus and his sacrifice for our sins?
Finally, we need patience mixed with courage because our prayers are not answered at once, and rarely in the way that we expect. There must be perseverance in prayer.
‘Patience to watch and wait and weep though mercy long delay;
courage, our fainting souls to keep, and trust you though you slay.’
Humility, Confidence, Faith, Patience and Courage. These are the treatments we need to apply, and take with us to the prayer meeting however we feel, whatever has happened in the day and whatever we might, or might not, expect:
‘Give these, and then your will be done; thus strengthened with your might,
we by your Spirit and your Son shall pray, and pray aright’
See you at the prayer meeting!