Local Church Prayer And Worship
The following is edited from a message given at the Heart-Cry for Revival Conference in April 2006 at The Cove, Asheville, North Carolina U.S.A.
As a senior pastor for about twenty-five years, perhaps my greatest joy beyond the normal things we pastors do like preaching is that the Lord has allowed me to lead corporate prayer meetings every week in the church I pastor. I do this because I am desperate for Godís help. Prayer may be defined simply as depending on God. Prayerlessness is our declaration of independence from God.
God has implanted in my heart a conviction about the nature of the Church and the role of prayer, and I want to tell you a little bit of how that conviction developed over these years. When I was age thirty, I took on a very large church which had discovered their pastor of twenty-eight years had been involved in an affair dating back eight years. I was there four years as an interim bringing healing and restoration and trusting the Lord for His grace.
From there I went to a church where the previous pastor had been there for forty years. We were radically different. I thought I would spend the rest of my life there except that God moved us to Minnesota. It had to be God who moved us because we loved California and our church and people there. The Minnesota church was a church that had just relocated to a sixty-three-acre campus with huge debt issues. They fell ten million dollars short in their giving campaign. And after three weeks on their new campus they found out their pastor was having an affair.
There was only one way to survive all those assignments, and it was for God to do a work of renewal in the peopleís hearts, a work not focused on just recovering ourselves and moving ahead, and a work not focused on the personality of the pastor, or new programs he can come up with. But it was focused on the glory of Christ and the work of renewal. I often tell pastors that the only way to see a turnaround in the church is to focus first on personal renewal and leadership renewal, and then congregational renewal and that will result in mission renewal and structural renewal. Most of the time we try to do it the other way around. We try to fix the structure and come up with a mission statement and it results in chaos because renewal has not occurred.
Of all the prayer experiences I have enjoyed being part of these years, the greatest has been prayer summits which we have had in our own congregation. The last twelve or thirteen years Iíve had the joy of taking groups of our people away, anywhere from 80 to 225 at a time. For three days we have no agenda whatsoever. There are no speakers and no schedule. We bring only our Bible. We give the Lord our undivided attention and see how He leads. Some call it a "Word fest" because we read a lot of Scripture. Some call it a "worship fest." It has been the closest thing to revival Iíve ever seen. Seeing that happen over and over again through the years has produced a great work of revival not only in my own life but in each one of these churches. It is something that only God could do. Knowing a bit of the nature of these churches, you know how desperate we were for that.
Impacted by Acts, Chapter 6
I have been captured over these years by a passage of Scripture which I will share with you briefly. I went through a wonderful college and seminary but early in my ministry I discovered Acts, chapter 6. I came to realize that in seven years of college and seminary, although I was taught all that a good theologian should know, in all the seven years, not one professor personally influenced me in prayer. They preached and talked about prayer, but no one showed me systematically how to pray by praying with me. And then as I read Acts, chapter 6, I realized that God was calling me to a different model and I want to read from that chapter with you.
Some estimate that at the time of Acts 6, the Church might have been as large as 20,000. In the first sentence of the chapter, the Church has stopped adding and is multiplying. Not knowing for certain how large the Church was, we can believe it was larger than any of us have ever pastored. That early Church wasnít doing a lot of things, but they were doing some very specific things.
We read in Acts 6: "Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food." This seems to be one of the first administrative problems they had run into. The widows with a Hellenistic background werenít getting the food and it was creating somewhat of a schism, maybe allegations of prejudice. We donít know all the dynamics, but it was a major administrative issue.
"And the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, ĎIt is not desirable for us to neglect the Word of God in order to serve tables.í" Why did the twelve say that? Because they had a high view of the sufficiency of the Church. They said, "Select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task." Now here is the passage that has transformed my ministry from my early days as a pastor: "But we will devote ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the Word." It wasnít just one focus, but two: prayer and the ministry of the Word.
I began to realize that as a young pastor, I needed to learn what it meant to give myself to prayer and to the ministry of the Word. When I talk to pastors about priorities I often tell them this: "The power of Ďnoí is in a stronger Ďyes.í" As pastors today we are bombarded with all kinds of requests and demands Ė programs, policies, projects, meetings, visitation, and a vision casting. We are expected to be engaged in all kinds of things. What fascinated me about these men in a church which was much larger than most of my contemporaries handle, they were able to say, "no," because they knew what their "yeses" were. To them it was to give themselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the Word.
We read that "the statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them," obviously giving them their approval and commissioning them. Notice the result: "And the Word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly [and some translations say Ďmultiply greatlyí] in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith."
The Jewish priests were now becoming obedient to the faith, not as the result of a new evangelism program, not as a result of a new church growth strategy, but as a result of the Church doing and being what it ought to do and be. Here are leaders who know what their priorities are and who lead the Church by example in those priorities, and the sufficiency of the Holy Spirit within the Church accomplishes great exploits in ministry.
This passage began to shape my life. That is why over the years I have felt so passionate about continuing to focus on the Acts 6 model of pastoral leaders. Acts 6 has now led me to a vision. After all these years of praying Ė all-night prayer meetings, prayer summits, early-morning prayer meetings and menís prayer meetings Ė and all this in the context of the church Ė I one day said, "Lord, what is the real vision toward which my heart is moving?" I wrote something down. This doesnít have to be your vision, but I believe it is similar to what has drawn you here this weekend.
The American Church Today
But let me first say something about the American Church. We are no doubt the most sophisticated Church in the history of Christendom. We have more programs, more seminaries, more technology, and more media impact than ever before. We have multiple resources, but the reality is that we are doing less with what we have than perhaps any Church has ever done in the history of the Church. And yet in our country today there is great interest in spirituality, in the Da Vinci Code, for example.
The Da Vinci Code is the Trojan horse that has now launched an all-out attack against historic Christianity. Two local book stores in my home vicinity have perhaps twenty Da Vinci titles against one that gives the biblical view of Scriptures and the canon of Scripture and the identity of Christ. We are appealing to the stores to at least give a balanced, intellectual treatment to the subject so that when people come in they will see there is another side to the story other than the Gnostic Gospels. But look at the interest in spirituality, as manifested in the popularity of the Da Vinci Code. Also see the interest in the supernatural that exists. How many of the primary TV shows have something to do with the supernatural? It is the Church that ought to be the focus of all that! Spirituality and supernatural are supposed to be what we do.
But today we are so busy trying to impress the world or trying to be like the world, that we are losing our impact on the world. I believe God is calling us back to a very clear vision that will please Him, a vision focused on nothing else other than the Lord Jesus Christ and His power in the Church.
Let me tell you now about the vision that beats in my heart. Look with me at this vision statement: "Pastor-led, local-church-oriented movements of Christ-exalting, worship-based prayer, leading to a full-scale revival, supernatural evangelism and cultural reformation." And we could add, "All to the glory of God." Let us look at this more closely.
Pastor-led. The prayer level of the local church will never rise above the personal example of the senior pastor. I know pastors, because I am one. Weíre very good at preaching on prayer, but not real good in leading in prayer. Weíre very good at pointing the way, but not showing the way. That is the passion of my heart in ministering to pastors. I have for many years wanted to be launched into a full-time renewal ministry. But God says, "No, Daniel, you need to be a pastor to have the best inroad into the lives of pastors."
A pastor may have a board meeting this week, and heís got budgets heís balancing and taking care of staff and all that goes with it, but cutting through all of that, thereís something compelling that we must give our attention to. So I talk a lot about pastor-led movements of prayer. In my seminar when I talk about the pastorís role, Iíll say much about why it is hard for pastors to maintain that focus, how we can pray more effectively for them, and the myths that so many pastors believe about prayer that keep them from being effective.
Local-church-oriented. We all love the local church. God wants local churches all around the country to be ignited in prayer. Over the years Iíve been very involved in community-led prayer movements. When in my first ministry on the west coast as a pastor in my late 20ís, we launched what we called the "Northwest Renewal Ministry" and a conference on prayer and revival. We brought in J. Edwin Orr, Armin Gesswein, David Bryant and others, and we began to see great movements among pastors praying together. Iím very committed to that. But about four or five years ago the Lord spoke to me about something. A leader said one time, "If it doesnít work at home, donít export it." That is good advice. I began to realize that we were trying to produce something in our community that we werenít even doing in our own churches.
I began to say, "Lord, itís good that we all pray together, but itís best that I lead my people in prayer." As a pastor I need to become more focused on developing that model in reality in my own local church. If that happened in churches all across the country, we wouldnít have to promote revival. God would begin to stir revival up in the context of the local church. Our desire is that God would conduct such a great revival that no one will care how it started. It will all just be about the glory of God. Jim Cymbala says, "If you can explain it, Godís not in it." We want it to be inexplicable.
Christ-exalting. We want these movements to be Christ-exalting prayer. We are not just praying for prayerís sake; weíre praying for the glory of Christ. Godís glory may be defined as the magnification of the person of Christ by His people, and the manifestation of the presence of Christ among His people. In my book, Fresh Encounter, I talk a lot about the whole issue of Jesus in the midst of His people.
Worship-based prayer. Many of us grew up in the tradition of what may be called request-based prayer. The usual Wednesday night prayer meeting used to be that weíd sing a hymn, and then have a devotion, and then the question, "Does anyone have any requests?" The list might go on and on, and it could leave one so depressed with the needs that he didnít even want to pray. But we would pray, asking God to bless in all these needs. Thank God for people who pray. However, I have learned there is a vast difference between seeking Godís hand and seeking Godís face. If we begin by seeking His face, He is glad to open His hand. But if weíre content to just seek His hand, we may miss His face, and thatís an awful tragedy, isnít it?
So in the prayer meetings I lead in our church every week and that I train our people to lead, we always begin with an open Bible. We always begin with a Scripture, and we begin with the face of God. Yes, there is a place for requests. There is a place for many other expressions of prayer, but I remind our people that the only enduring motive for prayer is that He is worthy to be sought. Not anything else, but just He is worthy to be sought. I love that definition: "Itís God" and it is.
Worship-based prayer is the transforming, normal, day-to-day prayer in the local church. We tell our people after weíve read the Scripture that they canít ask God for anything for the next twenty minutes. They are to give Him praise for who He is. It is a wonderful experience of prayer for our people, and it has transformed thousands of lives when they understand the difference.
Leading to a full-scale revival. That is the product. The first part is the process. Revival is a sovereign act of God. Weíre not going to manipulate it. Weíre not going to make it happen. But the reality is, if we are consistently involved in pastor-led, local-church-oriented movements of Christ-exalting, worship-based prayer, we will be at the place where, should God choose to bring revival, it will be a wonderful, glorious thing for which we are ready.
Supernatural evangelism. We all know that the greatest movements of evangelism in church history have not been the result of a new evangelism training program. They have been the results of revival. People cannot help but speak of what they have seen and heard.
And then ultimately leading to cultural reformation. We all know that there is not a thing wrong in America that could not be solved by revival of the Church. The problem is not the pervasiveness of the darkness, but it is the failure of the light. In my own heart I dream of the day when churches will be ignited. My passion has become simply as a pastor to influence other pastors. Every week we have pastors coming from all over to be a part of some of our prayer experiences. If we can help light a fire in their hearts that they can take back home and nurture for the rest of their lives, what could God do?
So my heart and life are wrapped around this vision for pastor-led, local-church-oriented movements of Christ-exalting, worship-based prayer leading to a full-scale revival, supernatural evangelism, and cultural reformation. I believe the pastors in our country are in desperate need of our prayers that God would give them that passion.
I was on my way a couple years ago to speak at a pastorsí conference at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and as I was flying on the plane from California, I was just finishing a book. Fortunately I was the only one in my section of seats. I began to weep profusely. It was one of those God moments which forever changes your life. The illustration that came to mind was probably because I grew up on a lake in southern New Mexico, and I used to do a lot of boating and water skiing.
I began to weep and to say to God, "Iím so sorry because for so many of these years as a pastor Iíve been trying to be a powerboat for God, running on the human fuel of education, leadership books, programming, going to conferences and seminars, and fine-tuning the systems of the church. Iíve been putting my hand on that throttle, and feeling the excitement of cutting through the waves with all the energy and force of a dialed-in church system." I said to the Lord, "Thatís sin, and Iím so sorry." In the simplicity of that moment I said, "Lord, from this day on would you give me the grace to be a simple sailboat for you." A sailboat is dead in the water if the wind doesnít blow. And when it does go somewhere, it is all to the glory of an unseen force that propels it along in the beauty of the moment. I said, "Lord, every day, by prayer and the ministry of the Word, help me simply to set my sail and let You blow in Your invisible and sometimes unpredictable way, and put me on a journey as a pastor that will bring glory to You."
It is odd that God would call me to this church in Minnesota. There is a multimillion dollar budget and all kinds of programs and people. My first Sunday there, my topic was "Donít just do something; sit there." That was a little counterintuitive.
In Acts chapter 13, it was
while they were fasting and ministering to the Lord that the Lord launched the
greatest move in world missions in the first century and showed them what to do.
That is so difficult for the activist, program-oriented, "bigger is better"
American culture. But as hard as it is, we must set our heart on a vision for
something that only God can do!