Musings on Mission 6: We don’t really believe in Prayer

This is the most important post in this series on mission.

It is often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. That is generally true enough, but only in relation to human activities. When we talk about mission we are joining God in his work. What causes genuine spiritual results in mission is not us; it is God. Our role is to be fitting instruments and partners that he delights to use in his work.

That means that, for Christians, the definition of spiritual insanity is doing anything different to what God tells us to do. There isn’t a better strategy for spreading the gospel than plainly and openly explaining the truth (2 Corinthians 4:2). You can’t be “more effective” than talking about Jesus clearly and faithfully. God delights to win people to himself through the foolishness of ordinary people proclaiming their crucified saviour (1 Corinthians 1:21). In the world insanity is failing to try new things. For Christians, insanity is moving away from old things (God-given things) for the sake of novelties.

Prayerlessness comes from Disbelief

I sometimes worry that Christians don’t really believe that prayer works.

Of course, prayer isn’t like a magic spell that “works”; it’s making requests of God. Really what I mean by “prayer working” is believing that God is living and active and that he answers the prayers of his people. If we believe this then will pray. If we don’t believe it then we won’t pray. Prayer is the act of someone who believes they cannot achieve something without God’s help.

The implications of this for mission are simple:

Missionaries who believe in God’s sovereignty pray.
Missionaries who don’t believe in God’s sovereignty focus on their own strategies and techniques instead.

Or, more bluntly, think of it the other way around:

Missionaries who pray believe in God’s sovereignty.
Missionaries who focus on their own strategies and techniques don’t believe in God’s sovereignty.

Do you believe that you make disciples, or do you believe that God makes disciples (and that you would like him to make some disciples through you)? Everyone wants to claim that we believe that God makes disciples. But let’s be honest with ourselves:

Do we prioritise prayer as the key to mission effectiveness?

We should evaluate this by looking at how we spend our time and where we have applied our focus and energy. We need to look at our weekly schedules, our planning retreats, our conferences, our denominational planning, our engagement with the latest work on leadership, strategy, and management…

To the extent that we believe that it is God alone who gives results, we will have prioritised prayer. To the extent that we have focused our energy and priorities on our own skills and strategies, we have denied the sovereignty of God by our actions.

Yes, there is an important place for thinking through what we are doing strategically. I believe that  learning skills and “how to” is important. But polishing your car is pointless if there is no petrol in it. Do you instinctively respond to the challenge of mission with urgent prayer, or by focussing on slightly upgraded human activity? Do you call on God’s power or your own?

Church Culture

Every denomination and church network has its own distinctive culture. I have been part of churches in several different denominations and networks and am often intrigued to notice the cultural differences. Some low-church denominations have a strong aversion to anything that can be labelled ‘tradition’; others consciously value tradition. Some expect lay-people to be heavily involved in every way; others have the expectation that the pastor does most of the formal ministry. These kinds of differences are often only obvious to outside observers. They are the kinds of things you notice when you change denomination, or visit a church in a network that you were once part of. When I recently preached at a congregational church I immediately felt like I was back in the church of my childhood, though that was an entirely different church with entirely different people in it. The style, songs, and basically just the atmosphere of church had a particular vibe to them.

Church cultural differences aren’t always merely neutral. Different church cultures tend to be good at different things.

I was once part of a church that was good at prayer. I don’t mean to imply that this church had superior skill in praying, or something like that. Prayer isn’t a tool that you get more effective at wielding. All I really mean is that there were a significant number of people who prayed regularly, fervently, and persistently. The mid-week prayer meeting was well attended. Sunday-morning prayer meeting was well-attended. Post-church prayer was offered and received. Overall there was a real sense that prayer was an absolutely crucial part of what we did as a church. It was a pervasive spiritual attitude that was hard to pin down to any one factor. But was immeasurably good and spiritually alive.

I don’t think I have witnessed a church that is good at prayer since then. In fact, I think prayer is presently deeply neglected in the Christian cultures and communities that I know. In saying this I am not holding myself up as a prayer-warrior to be emulated. I am part of this failing too. We have soaked up too much of the secular spirit of our age. Charles Taylor describes the modern outlook ‘the imminent frame’, meaning that today even people who believe in God are able to live as if he doesn’t exist, at least for all practical purposes. The only things of consequence are those things in front of our faces: energy, strategies, actions, results. Christians need to watch out for this godless worldview and how it has permeated our thinking. I’m sure it is has contributed to our prayerless church culture.

Frantic, Anxious Hives of Human Activity

Prayerlessness is a mark of spiritual dryness and lethargy. It is God’s people “going through the motions”. This is even (and especially) true where people appear to be energetic and engaged!

Modern evangelical churches are often hives of busyness. There are a multitude of ministry programs to serve in. Keen Christians are those who serve in multiple ministries and are walking hives of frantic, anxious activity. Many pastors are this way too – there is always a great deal to do! But, by my reckoning at least, there aren’t many who are praying as eagerly as they volunteer for serving in programs.

Among pastors I notice a strong focus on statistics, growth-barriers, performance indicators, and so on, and so on. But I don’t hear a call to a renewal in prayer. A few years ago I was at a pastors’ conference. The discussion being led from the front was about ways to make ministry more effective. Presentations were given on all kinds of good and useful things. However, prayer was not mentioned. Then someone suggested that we should pray more and that a reasonable indicator of the spiritual vitality of a church was how many people came to our prayer meetings. Surely if God is the one who brings people to salvation then the key to ministry effectiveness is to spend more time asking him to mercifully work through our feeble efforts! The point was listened to politely but was not engaged with. The meeting returned to focusing on what we can do to get better results, and prayer wasn’t mentioned again.

This is the problem. The sovereignty of God is minimised in our ministries. We are frantic, anxious hives of human activity driven by a lack of faith. Busyness tends to make a casualty of the only means of spiritual effectiveness that we have: our relationship with our heavenly Father. We need to rediscover the fact that God is in control. To the extent that we believe this, we will return to prayer.

Pastors, how about we cancel some church programs and lighten the loads of those serving in them (at least temporarily)? How about we do less and pray more?

Spend a season praying more. See how it goes. Lead others to do the same. We might all discover that God delights to give to those who ask.

‘Musings on Mission’ Series
1. The Disappearance of the Visible Church
2. We Need to Spend Less Time with Other Christians
3. We Need to Think More Carefully about Christians Schools
4. We Need to Stop ‘Church Planting’
5. God Uses Godliness for Mission
6. We Don’t Really Believe in Prayer