How is the prayer meeting going at your church? A well-known preacher of the 19th Century, John Angell James, spoke for many Christians, both past and present, when he wrote:
…it must be admitted, that [prayer meetings] are sometimes dull, and a dull prayer-meeting is a very dull exercise.
Ouch! Yet it is true. Every gospel-loving person will recognise that dull prayer meetings dampen fervency and can even discourage attendance.
Interestingly, many Christian leaders of the past have raised their protest against unhelpful habits in prayer meetings. Long prayers invite special disapproval. Charles Spurgeon claimed that such prayers are ‘the ruin of all fervency’ and ‘ought to be extirpated by all means, even at the expense of the personal feelings of the offender.’ He also discouraged preaching in one’s prayers and warned of those who ‘indulged themselves in public prayer with a review of their own experience, a recapitulation of their creed, an occasional running commentary upon a chapter or Psalm, or even a criticism upon the pastor and his sermons’!
The aforementioned John Angell James warned against a lack of variety in prayers, ‘wearisome’ prayers, using poetry and other ‘hard words’ in prayer, and the unfortunate practice of unnecessarily prolonging one’s prayer when ‘something else has come into the person’s mind which he thinks should have been remembered.’ No doubt, you could add your own examples of unhelpful prayer meeting habits, and most of us have probably been guilty of some of them ourselves.
How do we fix this? It was said of the late pastor, Henry Popham of Eastbourne, that he would threaten to pull the coat tails of any man who prayed too long and he was known to drop a hymnbook deliberately when people became long winded! However, aside from setting ground rules for your prayer meeting and enforcing them (which might be necessary), we should consider more fundamental matters. We get tantalising hints in the New Testament about what our prayer meetings could be like.
First, we see that there was great unity of purpose when the early Christians prayed together. They were not just physically together, but they were of the same mind, which is what we see in Acts 1:14 and again in Acts 4:24, where they ‘joined together’ and ‘raised their voices together’. The disciples did not meet merely to utter prayers, they were united in seeking God’s help and they received it in power from the Holy Spirit. If our prayer meetings are becoming dull it may be that we have lost a sense of united purpose in why we have gathered in the first place.
As they prayed with great unity of purpose the early Christians also prayed with great urgency. For the New Testament church, prayer was a weapon of spiritual warfare (Eph. 6:18) rather than a devotional pastime. This is apparent when you consider Paul’s request to the Roman Christians, which was actually an urgent entreaty to ‘strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf’ (Rom. 15:30). If their prayers were wearisome, it was not because they put anyone to sleep! They were exerting themselves, striving in prayer for Paul, joining in his frontline efforts for gospel advance. Do we approach the prayer meeting with a sense of urgency? Certainly, the spiritual needs of our own day furnish us with every reason to ‘strive together’ in prayer!
Ultimately, the unity and urgency we sometimes lack in our prayer meetings must come from the Lord, and we should pray for those things too! These things cannot be worked up or produced in our own strength, but perhaps it’s time to shed some habits that undermine our urgency and unity of purpose when we meet for prayer.
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