JOE 2:12 “Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” 13 Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.14 Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing – grain offerings and drink offerings for the LORD your God. 15 Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. 16 Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. 17 Let the priests, who minister before the LORD, weep between the temple porch and the altar. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'”
(On the day I am writing this, President Obama was quoted as saying the following to an assembled group of homosexual activists he had invited to the Whitehouse on June 29, 2009: “I will not only be your friend; I will continue to be an ally and a champion and a president who fights with you and for you,’’ In this “fight”, he went on to promise defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act and repeal of the military’s prohibition against openly homosexual service members continuing their service. I mention this to highlight the times we are living in. Now more than ever we must commit ourselves to lifting a desperate cry to heaven… a cry of repentance and petition for mercy. We must cry out like never before for a heavenly intervention. Job relates an eternal principle regarding God’s connection with man’s affairs… “Yet he (God) is over man and nation alike, to keep a godless man from ruling, from laying snares for the people.” (Job 34:29b-30). This verse was written in the larger context of the truth that God is aware and that He hears the cries of those who fear him . In light of the wicked actions and intentions of many of our leaders, we are left with no other option but to seek the Lord like never before.)
The following is a pastoral letter written to you from my heart. Below you will find what I pray will be for you and your family a prophetic word. Such a word should capture the will of God, which is revealed in his Word, and the timing of heaven…the present burden in the throne room. This is a relatively long letter, so be sure to read it when you have time rather than rushing through it. Some of the information contained herein is as much as five years old, but as relevant as ever. Following are some the specific reasons I have felt compelled to write this letter:
- I have been reviewing the circumstances which led to CCC’s repentance regarding corporate prayer in an attempt to see if we are remaining in the faith (See 2Co. 13:5-6).
- I have been alarmed by what I would describe as a discernible retreat from our commitment to corporate prayer as a local church. I fear we are following an unmistakable trend within the Western Church which has been and continues to be the abandonment of corporate prayer in favor of almost everything else.
- In light of “end-times” events, I am sensing the stage is being set from a number of perspectives for a great temptation for the “Western” church to enter a time of apostasy. Apostasy is defined as a renunciation of religious belief. We are witnessing a not-so- subtle and pervasive falling away from the fundamental elements of Biblical Christianity on a national scale. Chief among these, I believe, has and continues to be a lack of interest and involvement in corporate prayer.
- Notwithstanding the fact that I believe the Bible clearly teaches that seeking the Lord in prayer and worship must be the Church’s most prominent activity (Isa. 56:7; Mar. 11:17; Luk. 21:36; Act 1:14; 2:42; Eph. 6:18; Col. 1:9; 4:2; 1Th. 5:17), now, more than ever, such activity represents the only safe harbor available to us (2Ch. 7: 13-15). For our nation, I think it accurate to say that the heavens have been shut.
2CH 7:13 “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 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 will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. 15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.
- I am convinced that if we fail to inspire our teens and children with the priority of corporate prayer, we will effectively rob them of any hope for the safe harbor that only God can provide as they engage the potentially overwhelming challenges sure to come their way.
WHAT THE SOLIDER, ATHLETE, AND FARMER KNOW… AND THE CHURCH HAS FORGOTTEN
2TI 2:3 Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs – he wants to please his commanding officer. 5 Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules.6 The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops. 7 Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this.
The following is a story about essential elements. The writer to the Hebrews asserts that things of first importance (essential elements) must be in place before we can go on to maturity (Heb. 6:1-2). Below one will find some of my thoughts regarding the essential element of corporate prayer and its inescapable connection to the visitation and revival we all long for. In many ways, we are like soldiers in a war who long for the news to return to our homes in peace and victory. As with the soldiers in the trenches, we tend to be focused on this desire exclusive of any connection with considerations and decisions being made at higher levels of command and responsibility necessary for the war to be won. We just want the struggle to end. Our gracious God has given us insight into the essential nature of corporate prayer as it relates to our well-being for some time now. This insight is not unique or new, but involves timeless principles associated with experiencing a move of God in our lives, families, communities and nation. In the scriptures above, the Apostle Paul likens the challenges that lay before Timothy to three professions…the soldier, farmer and athlete. These three activities illustrate what labor in the Kingdom is like. Paul wanted Timothy to understand that to successfully negotiate the challenges before him, he must have a mindset that would position him for success. As we all know, each of these three pursuits rely heavily on disciplined behavior characterized by repetition, devotion, persistence, and patience. While contemplating these things, I found myself focusing on the similarity between the need for the physical conditioning of the soldier (and athlete) and the need for corporate prayer in the church.
The most fundamental attribute of a soldier is that he be physically fit. The first thing I learned in the Army was that physical training was going to be an inescapable fact of life. During the summer of my junior year in college, I spent two additional weeks following ROTC summer camp assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. It was in the middle of the summer and the heat was gut-busting. I vividly remember going on a five-mile formation run on one Friday morning during this time. Most likely, it was during these two weeks that I decided I wanted to be a paratrooper. The sense of camaraderie with these men was infectious. At some time during my senior year I requested to be assigned to Ft. Bragg and, upon graduation, got my wish. After graduation from college and with four months of additional training, I reported to Bragg. I was immediately assigned as a platoon leader…responsible for the training and general welfare of about forty-four soldiers. Somewhere in the course of my training as an army officer, I embraced the notion that soldiers should be in good physical condition. I was somewhat shocked that my devotion to this was not shared by all of my new charges. Even some of the NCO’s were not as enamored with the idea as I assumed they would be. The lesson I learned as a young, know-nothing platoon leader was that not everyone would necessarily appreciate the value of what I assumed was a fundamental necessity to the task at hand. I was somewhat surprised at the amount of “encouragement” and “inspiration” I had to extend to my troops in order to get their agreement in this matter. Twenty-four years later, as a know-nothing preacher, I found myself in a similar situation. After ministering as a pastor for about twelve years, and as a result of a number of divine encounters, I realized that the church I was shepherding was missing a fundamental dynamic essential to any hope of success. Corporate prayer! We were probably praying corporately as much as most churches, which meant hardly at all. We had our prayer chains. We were sensitive to pray for needs as they arose…hospital lists, etc. We would pray before things and after things. However, prayer was rarely “the thing.” The fact is that a soldier can do lots of things successfully without being in good physical shape. But there may well come an occasion when being physically fit could be the determining factor in his survival. An out- of- shape soldier can easily perform maintenance on a vehicle in the motor pool. But when the time comes for him to work on his vehicle all night; travel all day and fight the following night, well, God help him. The same applies to the church. We can do lots of things without corporate prayer. But there will come a time when doing everything but the “main” thing will take its toll. By the year 2000, and by the grace of God Almighty, I was fast coming to the conclusion that CCC was suffering due to our lack of emphasis on corporate prayer. I began to sense a burning fire inside of me to repent. For years, I had pursued many good things without appreciating the best thing. Thus began my journey of repentance as a pastor…leading my congregation in becoming first and foremost a “house of prayer.” Corporate prayer can’t be the only thing, but it must be the first thing. Just as every good soldier in every army around the world begins the day with physical training, the church must begin with prayer. Just as physical training for the soldier must be relentlessly pursued, the church must relentlessly pursue corporate prayer as a life-style. Last year’s conditioning won’t win tomorrow’s battle.
Calling one’s church to repentance concerning corporate prayer is a lonely task. Though such a notion among Para-church ministries enjoys acceptance, it is extremely rare to find a local church that will designate its primary mid-week service as a full-blown corporate prayer meeting where everyone is expected to participate. Yes everyone…kids, teens, adults, elders, deacons…you get the picture. With corporate prayer slipping to such a low priority in American church life, calls to repentance go largely unheeded. As I am now fully engaged with middle age (54), I am finding that becoming a curmudgeon is pretty easy. When other pastors share with me their plans for building the church and the Kingdom through various new and exciting approaches, I politely listen but, inside I grieve. I am, truly, a wet blanket. What I really believe is the church is fiddling (with our programs) while Rome (America) burns. As with Nero, we are tempted to blame someone else. The gut-wrenching fact, however, may be that the enemy of revival is us. If finding agreement with the proposition that churches must return to vibrant, persistent, corporate prayer were too important to me, I would be depressed. On the contrary, I am joyful like never before. The Bible teaches me that a house of prayer will be a joyous place (Isa. 56:7) and I believe it! No pity party for me as I am too busy trying to keep myself and my troops in shape.
WHERE DID CORPORATE PRAYER GO?
Although recent history may define “revival” in terms of a focused evangelistic effort to reach the lost, its historical meaning more accurately speaks of the restoration of relationship between God and his people. The greatest revival in history occurred at Pentecost when the church was birthed. God is a God of order and historical revivals invariably have followed a similar pattern. An indispensable component of this pattern involves seeking the Lord through corporate prayer. Jesus insisted that this pattern be followed by the charter members of his Church and this is seen in his instructions that they “wait” on God before doing anything (Acts 1:4-14). This pattern of seeking God constantly in prayer is affirmed throughout the remainder of Acts as well as the entire New Testament. God indeed is a God of order and pattern. There can be no shortcuts in seeing the power of God released in revival. Revival simply will not happen without devotion to prayer (Acts 2:42-4:31).
Over the past few years, our church has been walking out a path of repentance regarding the restoration of the priority of prayer. We have learned much and come a long way. We have much more to learn and a long way still to go in establishing Coweta Community Church as a house of prayer; stronghold of God; and Church of His Presence. Not everyone along the way has agreed with the emphasis that has been placed upon prayer. Some have been concerned that prayer has been emphasized at the expense of other equally important pursuits such as evangelism, discipleship, works of mercy and practical matters like the need for better facilities. This is understandable. I too have struggled with what at times seemed to me to be an undue and burdensome focus on seeking God. There is no denying the prominence and sacrifice this direction has involved. At a time when tremendous emphasis has been placed upon a person finding his or her individual “purpose” in serving the Lord, I am afraid many have missed God’s universal purposes for all Christians. Corporate prayer is not a “gift” or “divine talent.” Rather it is an obligation in the same vein as everyone’s responsibility to love and be hospitable. As attractive as it may seem, none of us have a gift of intercession. To the contrary, corporate prayer is a response to a revelation of God. It is, indeed, worship. It cannot be replaced by other legitimate pursuits and should not have to compete with activities such as choir practice and Bible study.
Recently, the Lord has been imparting to me some things regarding these matters that have been very encouraging. Not only has he been revealing insight, he has also allowed us as a church to begin experiencing the realities of these insights. First, the Lord has been encouraging me to “stay the course” and do not be deterred. Many of the other pursuits that I and others have been concerned about are being and will be successfully engaged as a result of our corporate emphasis upon prayer. God is honoring and will honor his pattern. He revealed to me a few years ago the same thing he revealed to Daniel (Dan 9:13)…so much of the calamity we face has come upon us and we have not sought God. Since we have been seeking the Lord with a new level of devotion, he has been affirming to my spirit that all the good things we desire to transpire are conceived through corporate prayer. For many of these things, conception has already occurred. The gestation, labor and birth of many things are under way. Let me give you one example.
As we pray for the harvest (as we have so many time on Wednesdays and other times), God begins to bring things to pass and arrange things in order for us to minister to the harvest he will bring. All of a sudden individuals and leaders begin to feel burdens and see issues that need to be addressed. This is fruit of the original act of praying for the harvest. There arises a real concern about preparing the saints to make disciples. People begin to see their weaknesses and address them with a Holy Spirit inspired zeal. Recently I have witnessed a tangible eagerness to be better equipped to minister by many at CCC. There are a number of other clear examples of other ministries being birthed. The point to remember is that all were “conceived” because of prayer. This is the great thing about spirit-led prayer. We pray for one thing and so many other great things come to pass that are associated with that one thing! Wow!
I heard the Lord very clearly speak to me regarding these things that “EVERYTHING” positive that has happened at CCC has been the fruit of prayer. He emphasized to me, “EVERYTHING!” As if I had better not forget it. In light of this, I want to encourage everyone to stay the course concerning corporate prayer. It can’t be a fad or movement, but rather a monument…a constant reminder to all of us from whence all of our good fortune comes.
I believe it is from this understanding that the Lord inspired my wife, Sharon, to illustrate a prayer and worship furnace as being the hub connecting and the furnace firing every other ministry at CCC. (The illustration below is an early rendering of this vision as other gates have since been opened).
So, the challenge before us remains the same…how to keep the most important thing the most important thing. I have listed some important information regarding patterns of revival and their connection to corporate prayer. The patterns mentioned refer to previous revival generations and highlight thing we need to be ever watchful for that would threaten our walk of repentance.
Powerful Prayer Patterns from Past Generations*
*The following was taken from Biblical Patterns for Powerful Church Prayer Meetings, Gregory R. Frizzell, PhD., pp. 12-14.
(1) In generations of great revivals, prayer meetings were focused mostly on prayers for lost people, personal repentance, revival, and mission initiatives. Past prayer meetings focused primary attention on key kingdom issues of evangelism, missions, and sweeping revival. 6 (This pattern was especially true of generations that experienced great spiritual awakenings). By contrast, modern meetings focus mostly on a brief prayer for a hospital list. Evangelism, missions, and personal repentance have long since ceased to be the predominant focus of most prayer meetings.
(2) Until the twentieth century, prayer meetings were often led by lay people. 7 Lay people were the primary prayer leaders and congregational participation was extensive. In past generations congregations were participants and not merely spectators. By contrast, modern meetings are led mostly by the pastor and congregational participation is often minimal at best. (The point is not so much who leads the meeting, but how much the congregation participates.)
(3) In past prayer meetings, people spent the majority of time actually praying. 8 Little time was given for devotional sermons or talking “about” requests. The people came to talk to God. By contrast, modern prayer meetings typically consist of devotions and singing with only a tiny percentage of time given to direct communication with God. Actual prayer is often the last thing done at today’s prayer meetings. By the time churches finish with announcements, singing, devotions, and “talking about” prayer requests, almost no time is left for prayer.
(4) Prayer meetings were not confined to brief time slots or crowded into the midst of many other activities. 9 Revival generations promoted corporate prayer as the major church-wide experience. Because they believed prayer was important, the whole church typically spent an hour or more in fervent intercession for a variety of kingdom issues.
By contrast, most modern churches schedule many activities at the same time a prayer and split congregations into many different groups. Quite frequently, the prayer meeting is the least promoted (and least attended) of all church activities. In most churches, there is no such thing as a “church-wide” prayer meeting. In fact, in many churches, there is no prayer meeting at all.
(5) Historically, church prayer meetings often involved whole families (including older children and youth). As did the adults, children and youth learned the power of prayer by personal participation. In fact, revival generations valued the participation of young people. They understood that youth best learn to pray by actually praying and hearing others pray. They also understood that God hears the prayers of children and youth.
By contrast, today’s youth are routinely excluded from prayer meetings. It has been all too common for children and youth to grow up in a Baptist church and never experience a corporate prayer meeting. (No wonder so many in today’s generation see little value in a church-wide corporate prayer meeting.)
(6) Historic church prayer meetings often contained strong emphasis on personal repentance and confession. Pastors frequently shared scriptures that dealt with personal sin and called for specific prayers of repentance. 10 In the prayer meetings, people often confessed sin and asked other to pray for them in matters of spiritual struggle (James 5:16) They believed spiritual cleansing was essential to whether God would ultimately hear their prayers (Psalms 66:18) By contrast, personal confession and repentance are rarely a part of modern prayer meetings.
(7) Fasting was a frequent emphasis in past prayer meetings. For the first three hundred years of Baptist history, fasting was a rather common emphasis among serious believers. 11 Yet, until very recently, fasting was seldom even mentioned much less practiced. Even now, serious biblical fasting is exceedingly rare. To many modern believers, simple biblical teaching on fasting still sounds extreme and unusual. We know beyond question that fasting was a common practice for the first four hundred years after Christ’s resurrection.
(8) Past prayer meetings where often characterized by great fervency and inspiring testimonies. Believers really expected mighty answers to their prayers. As a result, their meetings were anything but dead and formal! Glorious public testimonies ignited faith and spurred whole congregations to ever greater depths of prayer. By contrast, today’s prayer meetings are often routine and uninspiring.
Following are five reasons given by Dr. Frizzell as to why churches have abandoned corporate prayer. May this not be the story our children and grand children tell!
(1) As church programs and organizational activities became more numerous, Wednesday nights took on many purposes besides prayer.
(2) Because of a variety of midweek activities, modern prayer meetings were pushed into ever shorter time slots.
(3) Because many pastors were not experienced or confident in leading prayer meetings, it was natural to substitute other activities in its place.
(4) As churches placed more and more focus on organizational programs, prayer was treated as a “side item” of lesser importance.
(5) By the mid 1950’s churches were three generations removed from a time when strong prayer meetings were the predominate practice.
What should our response be? Dr. Henry Blackaby, gives us this answer regarding corporate prayer, “Now is our turn! The witness is before us! The decision awaits us! Heaven is anticipating our obedience and waiting to burst into celebration over every believer, and every unbeliever who repents (Luk. 15:7, 10, 22-24). May we join together, week after week, corporate, power-filled prayer meetings!” (From forward to work cited above)