It's tempting to see the church simply an organization, similar to a business, a non-profit, an alumni association, or a club. Is the church just another association of like-minded people? Is it simply an organization whose commodity is religious goods and services, and whose clientele are "spiritual people"? The distinction between an organization and a movement is critical. While the church does possess organization, it is first and foremost a movement - God's great movement in Christ among his people.
What are the marks of a movement that make the church more than just another organization? Over three weeks, I'm preaching on three characteristics that distinguish her from the average organization. Prayer. Unity. Gospel-centrism. Here are 5 notes on how prayer is an absolutely critical component of the church's movement.
Prayer has always been a centerpiece of movements and renewal in the Bible. Where there has been renewal, God’s people have gathered for urgent, expectant, and extraordinary prayer.
Jeremiah prophesied to God’s people in exile, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf”(Jer. 29:7). Jesus commanded his followers to call out to God for a kingdom movement, “Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:38). The early church devoted themselves to constant prayer, even as they were a tattered band, and oppressed minority living in the aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection. “All these with on accord were devoting themselves to prayer” (1:14). “And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of break and the prayers” (4:42). Prayer is fundamental to any spiritual movement.
Unfortunately, prayer often gets sidelined. It’s so easy to pray simply out of duty and obligation. Prayer becomes rote and ritualistic. I’ve been convicted by this quote from Richard Lovelace: “Our fallen nature is actually allergic to God and never wants to get too close to him. Thus our fallen nature constantly pulls us away from prayer.” Prayer is an intimacy with God. We have an impulse not to let God too close. So it’s easier to pray superficial prayers, or not even pray at all.
I’m learning to pray again. And as I do, I’m discovering not only how integral prayer is to a daily relationship with God, but how absolutely critical it is to a movement. If we are simply an organization, we don’t need to pray. But if we are more than an organization, if we are participating in a movement, then prayer is fundamental. Consider these characteristics of prayer:
Martin Luther states: “All teachers of the Scriptures conclude that the essence and nature of prayer is nothing else than the lifting up of the heart or mind to God.” The Lutheran theologian Francis Pieper says, “It is altogether Scriptural to define prayer as ‘the conversation of the heart with God’ (Ps. 27:8). Notice both these definitions of prayer reflect a relationship. The heart lifted up to God. Conversation of the heart with God. It’s intimate. Relational. It’s not sterile or mechanical.
An even greater picture of prayer's relational aspect is the first word of the Lord’s Prayer. “Father. Our Father.” Prayer is about speaking with and listening to God. And he invites us into this conversation as a Father. Conversation is the core of any relationship. It’s no different in our relationship with God.
The Psalms are a prime example of wild, raw, honest, audacious, bold prayer. With this God, you have permission to call out and cry out. Jesus tells the story of a widow who pesters a judge (Luke 18). This judge admittedly doesn’t believe in God or respect others. Yet the widow bothers this judge so much that he relents, and gives her justice in her case. He just wants her to leave him alone. Jesus concludes, “If an unrighteous judge does this, won’t God hear your prayer and take up your case?” Be bold. Jesus says in Matthew 7:7, “Ask, seek, and knock.” That’s permission to search, plead, and pound. Be bold.
In the Lord’s Prayer, the call for “daily bread” comes as the fourth petition. It comes after “thy kingdom come” and “thy will be done.” My guess is that most of our prayers are for “daily bread.” In other words things like health, a job, an "A" on a test, success, comfort, peace, etc.
These are not bad things. But prayer found in spiritual movements is even bigger. It seeks not just individual needs, but prays for enemies, nations, rulers, and workers in the harvest. Kingdom-focused prayer has a greater horizon and pleads for really big things. It extends the boundaries of our prayer beyond our immediate self.
So we pray for our local congregation. But we also pray for the church throughout St. Louis. And then we extend the boundary further and pray for the church in Chicago. And what about New York, L.A., Tokyo . . . A movement pleads for Kingdom things, not only daily bread.
There’s a significant question we should all have about the Lord’s Prayer. Don’t all these things happen even if we don’t pray for them? Doesn’t his kingdom come, or isn’t his will done even if we don’t pray for it? If I forget to ask for God's will to be done, will he forget to do it?
Luther answers this in his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer, “The Kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.” Each petition goes like this, “that it may be done among us also.” Prayer calls for God to be God locally. In the here and now. “Yes Lord, you are gracious all the time. Will you be gracious here among us too?” "Yes, Lord, you are the great Healer. Would you now heal at this hospital, in this room, this man?" Prayer is an urgent call for God’s local action in a present circumstance.
Walt Wangerin in his book Whole Prayer notes that there is a movement to the flow of prayer. We speak and God listens; and then God speaks and we listen. In other words, we often think that prayer is one-sided. I speak, God listens. But when you’re done speaking, make sure you listen. There should be a pause of silence after our prayers. If we ask, seek, and knock, we must wait for the One who stands behind the door. Listening makes prayer expectant . . . Listening assumes that you trust him to respond . . .
Prayer can be hard, and listening might be the reason why. Sometimes you’re left listening for a long time. And you wonder, “Is God there? Does he hear me? Does he care?”
The book of Hebrews begins, “In many and various ways, God spoke to his people of old by the prophets, but now in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” God’s greatest speech, his biggest word, his great response is in his Son. If you want to hear God speak, start with Jesus of Nazareth.
If you’re having trouble praying, Jesus gave you words to pray. Like the teacher giving the answers to the test, he simply gave us the right words to pray. And notice that in some way, Jesus is already the answer to every petition of that prayer. "Thy Kingdom come." HE is the kingdom come to earth, God's rule come to us. "Thy will be done." HE is the will of God done, perfectly and fully. HE is daily bread. HE forgives trespasses. HE delivers from evil. Because of Him, prayer is relational, bold, kingdom-focused, local, and always listening.
This kind of prayer distiguishes Christian prayer from other kinds of prayer. And it distinguishes the Christian community from any other organization. Calling to God in the name of Jesus, we participate in a movement. "Come quickly, Lord Jesus." OK, I’ve talked enough about prayer. Now it’s time for prayer.