The Lost Art Of Group Prayer
The Lost Art Of Group Prayer
Why is the prayer meeting the loneliest event of the week?
Kent R. Wilson
On August 15, 1988, one million Korean Christians showed up for an open-air prayer meeting during the Seoul, Korea, Olympics. But this was not the first time such a large group met to pray. Almost a year earlier, one million people came together for the National Day of Prayer.
The Second Baptist Church of Houston, Texas, one of the largest churches in the United States, coordinates over one thousand volunteers in uninterrupted, twenty-four-hour prayer.
In his book Churches That Pray, Peter Wagner reports that early-morning prayer at the Korean Myong-Song Presbyterian Church begins at 4 a.m. and is usually packed to capacity with four thousand believers. With the 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. services, a total of twelve thousand people show up every morning to call upon the Lord.
Yet in the United States, typical attendance at weekly prayer meetings is only a fraction of a church’s total congregation.
Whatever happened to the prayer meeting in America?
In many churches corporate prayer has lost its intensity, meaning, and priority. Usually group prayer is confined to sharing requests for sick relatives and other needs unrelated to the whole Body, followed by quick prayers through the accumulated list.
In the first-century Church, group prayer was a central focus. Corporate prayer, as Christ intended it, was a uniting, effective source of unique power for the believers. Where have the prayers of many churches today taken a wrong turn?
Prayer and the Early Church
From the moment the apostolic believers were on their own following the ascension of Christ, they assembled for prayer (Acts 1:12-14 , Acts 2:1). On the day of Pentecost, the first church was born not out of organization or preaching, but out of prayer. Scripture says they joined together constantly and “devoted themselves … to prayer” as one of four primary activities of their church life (Acts 2:42 ).
Prayer is spoken of more often than any other activity of the gathered Church. They prayed over the choice of a new apostle (John 1:14 ) and over the prison release of Peter and John (John 4:24 , John 12:5 ). The apostles considered prayer to be their primary duty (John 6:4 ) and confirmed its importance by appointing new elders with prayer (John 14:23 ). Paul and Barnabas were singled out as the first missionaries during a prayer meeting (John 13:3 ), and they typically sought out the places of prayer when arriving in a new city (John 16:13 , 1John 16:6 ).
The early Church visibly depended on prayer as the means of releasing the power of God. Their belief in the role of public prayer was clear: “If we do not pray, God will not act.” What did these first believers know that we have so easily forgotten? What is the purpose, if not the advantage, of two or more believers praying together?
The Unique Power of Corporate Prayer
The early believers did not seek opportunities to pray as a body out of convenience alone. They understood there existed a hope and a unique spiritual power in the prayers of the Church that did not exist in their experiences of private prayer. That special power began to unfold in the words of Christ in Matthew 18 when He spoke of humility, erring believers, and forgiveness (these concepts are related!)
Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.
Although these words of Christ are included in the immediate context of corporate discipline, the choice of words indicate that Christ had a much broader context in mind. From this and several other key passages, we get a glimpse of the purpose and unique promise of corporate prayer.
How Corporate Prayer Works
“If two of you on earth agree about anything…” Jesus knew His audience was familiar with music, and they appreciated the different instruments used in the synagogue service. He used a word that came from the world of music to explain the primary condition of group prayer—to “agree” or to “sound together.” Our English word symphony comes from this word. When musical instruments of differing tones and pitches play together in a symphony, they must “sound together” or symphonize to create a unified sound. And so it is with group prayer, where the differing wills and ideas of two or more believers must symphonize as one sound to God.
In Acts 4:24 , the rejoicing Church “raised their voices together in prayer to God” over the release of Peter and John from prison. Here their prayers sounded out “together” or “with one mind” in the same way that Jesus commanded prayer with one voice or sound. Paul warns Timothy that this unity of prayer can be hurt when he encourages “men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing” (1 Tim. 2:8 ). The word disputing literally means “reasoning” or “dialogue,” which in a negative sense turns prayer into disagreement and a lack of unity.
So the primary condition for the power of corporate prayer is agreement or unity. It is prayer that sounds out to God with complete unity of mind, purpose, and request so that everyone is acting as one.
I attended my daughter’s first junior high band concert several weeks ago, which should have earned a congressional medal of honor on any parent’s list of achievements. Most of the one hundred or so students had taken up their instruments for the first time only weeks before, so you can imagine the sound that valiantly poured forth. The first two “warm-up” songs were aptly named. But there wasn’t a parent in the crowd who would have left his or her seat at such a proud presentation. Everyone was smiling by the final song, for the sound had finally become harmonious and unified. They had learned to symphonize.
Why does Scripture promise us unrestrictedly that if we pray anything in agreement it will be done? The answer lies in the next sentence: “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Mt. 18:20 ). In Jn. 14:13-14 Jesus promises that if we ask anything in His name, “I will do it.” Later we are told that if we ask anything according to His will, we have what we ask of Him (1 Jn. 5:14-15 ).
Praying in agreement produces the same result as praying in Jesus’ name or praying in His will. When two or more believers come together to pray, they often come with different ideas about what to ask and a different understanding about what the will of God is in the matter. One may think that God wants to heal the sick. Another may think that He is bringing a trial of illness to teach the afflicted. But as they seek agreement and unity of request, they begin to hear the voice of God gradually conforming their differing thoughts or “reasoning” (1 Tim. 2:8 ) into the will of God. And their prayer is answered.
The Promise of Corporate Prayer
The next time you have the privilege of praying with other believers, listen for how often the word if is used. “Lord, if it is your will that our congregation be able to buy this land, then let it be so.” “We ask that you heal Andy from his disease, if it is your will.”
We pray tentatively when we don’t know the mind of God. The power of prayer lies in coming to God with all the definiteness of His promises. When we seek unity of thought and we make our request as one voice to God, the answer is certain: IT WILL BE DONE. There is no “if” in united prayer. This is because when Spirit-led believers seek corporate agreement, they will discover the will of the Lord. And God will accomplish His will. A century ago Charles Mackintosh wrote:
It is one thing to utter words in the form of prayer, and another thing altogether to pray in simple faith, in the full, clear, and settled assurance that we shall have what we are asking for. It is greatly to be feared that many of our so-called prayers never go beyond the ceiling of the room. In order to reach the throne of God, they must be borne on the wings of faith, and proceed from hearts united and minds agreed, in holy purpose, to wait on our God for the things which we really require.
Symphonic prayer must be more than speaking the same request off of a prayer list. C.S. Lewis once wrote in his typically ironic style, “Simply to say prayers is not to pray; otherwise a team of properly trained parrots would serve as well as men in prayer.” If all that is needed in corporate prayer is for every believer to repeat the same words, then prayer would never be a problem. Every Sunday the Lord’s Prayer would be 100 percent fulfilled. And every Wednesday night the prayer meeting would end with an unbelievable working of God. One thing more is needed to symphonize in prayer.
The Work of Corporate Prayer
Agreement has never been easy. Anyone who has spent even a moment with another human being knows how differing thoughts or “dialogue” can turn more quickly into “disputing” than into agreement. Symphonic prayer takes work.
That’s why whenever corporate prayer is mentioned in the early Church it is usually accompanied by words such as “they continued steadfastly” (Acts 1:14 , Acts 2:42 , Acts 6:4 ), “earnestly” (Acts 12:5 ), “strive together with me” (Ro. 15:30 ), and “be watchful” or “spiritually alert” (Mt. 26:38 , Mt. 26:40-41 , Col. 4:2 ).
I have never experienced a committee meeting that didn’t take some effort to reach consensus. And in most committee meetings what is sought is a consensus built from the ideas every member originally brought to the meeting. In corporate prayer we do not seek a consensus of human ideas; we seek consensus with the will of God. And that takes even more time.
Praying together takes endurance, perseverance, and watchfulness in order to reach unity. Sounding together will not happen in the short ten or fifteen minutes allotted in the typical church schedule or small-group meeting.
When the early Church prayed for Peter in prison, they “earnestly prayed” throughout the night for his release (Acts 12:5 ). Literally, this means their prayers were “stretched out” without relaxing in effort. They prayed “through” until they could sound out the will of God clearly. And then God acted.
Revisiting the Modern Prayer Meeting
What would corporate prayer look like if we were to follow these principles? How would it affect our church services, our scheduled prayer meetings, our small groups and times of prayer around a friend’s table? Probably, they would be changed forever.
First of all, if we followed the biblical principles for corporate prayer, our primary objective would be to seek the mind of God by seeking unity and agreement. We would not be focused on “getting through the list.” Seeking agreement may take more time as the group studies Scripture together, discusses the need, and listens sensitively to one another. But such time is not wasted, since it is focused on finding agreement in prayer.
Second, although little is said about what the early saints prayed for, it appears that their prayers were focused on a few key concerns instead of a large list of miscellaneous needs. There is great validity in praying for someone else’s sick aunt or wayward relative, but only when the petitioner can enter into a sincere concern and intercession for the need. In the context of a large church gathering, that is usually hard to do. By focusing on fewer requests and those that concern everyone involved, it is easier to seek unity and agreement before God. The concerns more peripheral to the whole Body could then be taken up in prayer by smaller, more targeted groups of believers.
Third, group prayer would be different because prayers would be specific and confident. No more “Lord, please be with Karen in her time of need” or “Bless the pastor today” types of prayers. Such generic prayers can have no symphonic agreement, because they have no content to agree on. When we pray generic prayers we do not need faith and we do not seek an answer, because generic prayers are always true. God will always “be with” His children and “bless” us. Charles Mackintosh again writes,
The simple fact is, we are too vague and, as a consequence, too indifferent in our prayers and prayer-meetings. We do not seem like people asking for what they want, and waiting for what they ask. This is what destroys our prayer-meetings, rendering them pithless, pointless, powerless; turning them into teaching or talking-meetings, rather than deep-toned, earnest prayer-meetings.
Finally, group prayer will look different because everyone will be looking for God’s answer to their prayer. Is it possible for us to pray and not look for the answer? Absolutely. We do it all the time when we pray through a list and then absentmindedly go about our business.
When the focus of prayer is on agreement, the promise of Christ is sure: “It will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” And that promise will be the hope of corporate prayer. When you know an answer is coming, you pray looking for it. Effective, powerful prayer is that way because it gets answers.
The power of public prayer is not found in numbers as many have claimed. Jesus was clear when He said, “Where two or three come together.” Neither is it found in repetition, as if the longer a need is on a prayer list the more likely God will answer. We put the heart and soul back into public prayer when we find the power of symphonic prayer—when believers are committed to the work of finding agreement in Jesus’ name.