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We need to be a praying church

A Praying Church --Part 3
By Roger Thomas
Summary: The New Testament church was a powerful church because it was a praying church.
Summary: The New Testament church was a powerful church because it was a praying church.
A Praying Church—Part 3
Dr. Roger W. Thomas, Preaching Minister
First Christian Church, Vandalia, MO
Introduction: Tonight we are continuing our examination of the prayer life of the New Testament church. Remember: restoring New Testament Christianity is one of our top values as a congregation. We believe that every congregation, including this one, would be more like what God intends his church to be if we did a better job of patterning ourselves after the church of the first Christians. This doesn’t mean we mimic everything they did—but we believe the Apostles, Jesus original disciples, knew the teachings, practices, and values that Christ intended. Many of the problems and divisions of the last nineteen centuries come from the church abandoning or changing that New Testament pattern.
One of the most important parts of that pattern is a radical emphasis on prayer. Someone has said the difference between the early church and its later counterpart is that when the New Testament church leaders gathered they talked of their powers; when modern leaders meet they talk of their problems. I personally don’t believe that the secret of the early church was so much special miraculous powers (though they did have that to some degree); their power was their faith in a God who was really involved in their world and their lives and was always just a prayer away.
Far too often we are like the old Welsh woman who lived in a remote coal-mining valley of Wales. She went to a great deal of trouble to have electrical power installed in her home. But the officials at the power company noticed that she didn’t use very much electricity at all. In fact, her usage was minimal. They sent a meter reader out to check on the matter. The man came to the door and said, “We’ve looked at the amount on your bill. We’ve checked your meter. It seems to be working. Don’t you use the electricity?”
“Oh, of course, I use the electricity,” she said, “We turn it on every night to see how to light our lamps then we switch it off again!”
So with many a church, we approach prayer as a switch to begin our meetings at which we act and talk as if the opening prayer had little to do with the normal affairs of our business. Prayer must not be a perfunctory ritual that leads to business as usual. A New Testament church must live and work as if everything depends on God’s resources. Because it does!
Little Suzie was praying. She concluded, Dear God: Before I finish, I want you to take care of mommy, taker care of daddy, take care of my sister and my brother. And please, God, take care of yourself, because if you don’t we’re all sunk. Amen!
In the midst of the Protestant Reformation when Luther’s conflict with the Roman church was at its height, a papal envoy asked him, “When all of these supposed followers desert you where will you be then. His answer, “then as now, in the hands of God.”
That must be our conviction. Our greatest resource is not whatever measure of wealth we may have, not our talent, not our knowledge or ability, but one thing and one thing only—the faithfulness and availability of our God—the God who answers prayer and supplies our every need.
Tonight I want you to consider one specific area of New Testament church life and its connection to prayer—the relationship of prayer to leaders and their roles. Consider three passages of scripture: , , and . We will note a number of lessons in the process, but our main attention will be devoted to subject of prayer.
I. ( NIV) In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. {2} So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. {3} Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them {4} and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word." {5} This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. {6} They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. {7} So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
Note the results of the way this matter was handled—the church increased rapidly including the conversion of many Jewish priests. That had to have a huge impact on the city of Jerusalem. I don’t think this was consequence was an accident. It was a direct result of the church doing some things right. If any church wants similar results, it needs to do the same things right.
a. The church confronted conflict and dealt with it. The reputation of the Gospel was at stake. Division and disunity in a church is never a small matter. It is a gospel matter. When any significant portion of the church is complaining or murmuring, then you can be assured that that portion of the church can’t be praying and promoting Jesus. You can’t do both complaining and praying with the same tongue! Here the issue was a perceived ethnic or racial injustice. These leaders knew that kind of problem could not be allowed to take root in the church of Jesus Christ. If Jesus is savior of all, if his blood cleanses all of sin, if the ground at the foot of the cross is level, then the church must never ever allow racial or ethnic bigotry or the perception of it to raise its ugly head in the community of faith—no matter what the world may think. We can’t control how the unbelievers act and treat one another, but we better be sure that the Christ’s people aren’t that way.
b. The apostles had a sense of priority. The main thing must be the ministry of the Word and prayer. See that emphasis on prayer? Nothing is more important to the well being and future of the church than that its key leaders be devoted to the Word and prayer.
c. These New Testament church leaders were committed to the principle of delegation. The current terminology for that is empowerment. They did not lead as if they had to do everything and make every decision. They were capable and confident enough to be able to empower others to do things as well.
d. They involved the people in the process. They didn’t just sit in a private meeting and come up with a solution to church problems. I have known church leaders who so mistrusted the people that they would go to extraordinary lengths to minimize the input and involvement of people in important decisions. These New Testament leaders invited that input. In fact they turned to the very people who were experiencing the problem.
e. The New Testament church emphasized character and quality in its leaders. These seven men who were selected are sometimes considered the first “deacons.” The term is not used here, but there is probably something to the principle. Their task was to “wait on tables.” This was probably not so much “serving food” as handling the financial matters. Some biblical scholars note that this term for “waiting on tables” was often used to refer to accounting or counting and dispensing monies. Certainly character and integrity matter. Their task, as the task of deacons historically has, involved carrying for the needs of the poor, especially the widows. Certainly we want honest men doing such things. We want caring, sensitive, spiritual leaders visiting the homes of the sick and weak as well as handling financial matters.
f. Note that this matter was approached in an atmosphere of prayer. It began because the apostles didn’t want to be distracted from their ministry of the word and prayer. It ended with a prayer meeting for these newly selected leaders. There is no question about it—if anything the church does needs to be conducted in complete dependence on prayer, it is the matter of selecting leaders. We saw this same emphasis on prayer in when Matthias was chosen to fill Judas’s place among the Twelve. Here it is again.
II. ( NIV) In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. {2} While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." {3} So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
Let’s get rid of one distraction in this text right off. We don’t know how the Holy Spirit directed their actions. It might have been some supernatural revelation or vision or it could have been a sense of leading that was so positive that after the fact they would describe it as unquestionably of the Holy Spirit. I know this much, if we want the Holy Spirit to guide us in our decisions, however he does it, it will start when we are serious about praying and seeking God’s will. God reveals his will to those who want it and who commit to obey up front.
The matter in question here was the selection of some of the very first missionaries sent out from the church. It was done with serious prayer. Note here the emphasis on fasting, a practice almost always associated with prayer in the New Testament, but one that sounds almost foreign to many of our ears. It shouldn’t. When we become serious about being a New Testament church prayer-wise, we will begin to learn how prayer and fasting work together. In its simplest form, fasting is abstaining from something important, often food, for the purpose of concentrating for a season on an important spiritual matter in prayer. Serious fasting is rare in the modern church because serious prayer is uncommon.
What would happen if we took the selection of leaders so seriously that we made sure it was saturated with prayer and fasting? What would happen if we prayed that the Lord would raise up missionary leaders out of our congregation? What if we became so serious about that that we regularly fasted and prayed for the Lord’s provision and direction?
III. ( NIV) They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, {22} strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God," they said. {23} Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
Note again the importance Paul and Barnabas placed on the role of local spiritual leaders and caregivers for the local congregation. This was important because of their understanding of the faith; it was something that required faithfulness and diligence and it involved hardship. Elders are spiritual leaders who are committed to helping other believers grow in faith even in tough times.
Our English text says they “appointed” elders in each church. That term suggests to our ears that Paul and Barnabas did the selecting. That is not necessarily the case. The term translated “appoint” may be translated “to elect by a show of hands.” I suspect that if the model we saw in is any indication, the people to be led and served were involved in the decision. This must be the case for genuine leaders. Leaders are people that others follow. You can appoint officers without input from the followers; but you can’t select leaders that way. The followers must be involved if the leaders are to lead.
Note again the role of prayer and fasting. This was serious matter for these congregations. The spiritual leaders to a large measure would determine the future direction and wellbeing of the congregations. The Lord’s choice and blessing was what matter most. The only way to seek that was in prayer and fasting.
Conclusion: We are about to enter into the annual process of selecting elders and deacons in our church. That is an important time. How would a New Testament church go about this process? The answer is we don’t know how these decisions were made in the New Testament church. That must not have been that important or the Scriptures would have given us more information. What we do know, however, is that prayer always played an important role in the process. If we are to be a serious New Testament church, we might select elders and deacons in many different ways, but we cannot leave prayer out.
***Dr. Roger W. Thomas is the preaching minister at First Christian Church, 205 W. Park St., Vandalia, MO 63382 and an adjunct professor of Bible and Preaching at Central Christian College, 911 E. Urbandale, Moberly, MO. He is a graduate of Lincoln Christian College (BA) and Lincoln Christian Seminary (MA, MDiv), and Northern Baptist Theological Seminary (DMin).
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