Me? Teach you about prayer? Hmmm. That’s a challenge. It’s a bit like preaching a sermon on humility; it’s a topic fraught with the danger of destroying one’s credibility just by broaching the subject.
Yet, God has given me a passion for prayer in recent years. Because of the marked transformation I’ve experienced, I’d like to venture out and share what has stoked my passion.
I’ve pastored for more than twenty years and must admit that prayer has been a struggle throughout my ministry. For years, my spiritual disciplines were marked only by obligatory, token prayer. I’ve always known that prayer is essential to life and ministry, and I’ve preached about it, too. Even so, my knees remained soft and tender from lack of practice.
This only began to change two years ago. I don’t write as one who’s arrived. I write as one still struggling to learn what it means to have faith and to be faithful in prayer.
As pastors, how do we stoke our personal passion for prayer? Speaking out of my recent experience, I’m not sure we do. God does it—and sometimes it hurts. For me, the cool embers of token-praying were only fanned into flame through the experience of brokenness.
In 1987, I founded Intermountain Baptist Church in Salt Lake City. We’ve never been a “big” church, but we’ve always considered ourselves a solid one. The teaching was sound, the body enjoyed a consistent sense of unity, and we experienced occasional “growth-spurts” that fed our sense of well-being. Most important, everyone liked me! At least I thought they did.
Then it happened—murmuring in the church body. Somewhere along the way, we lost our sense of purpose. Criticism instead of encouragement began to fill the air. Families began to grumble against our youth leaders. Parents questioned what we were teaching their kids in Sunday School. Some even withdrew their children. Conflict marked church board meetings. Some criticized my preaching as being too negative (actually, I was preaching through the book of Revelation).
It was only a matter of time; families began to leave the church. Presently our average attendance dropped by 25% and, shockingly, I’ve discovered that some people really don’t like me at all.The result? At times, discouragement grips me. A sense of inadequacy is my companion. Brokenness has gained a greater place in my life, and it’s stirring up my passion for something more than token-praying.
I should have seen it coming. After all, the Bible is clear. We are called to labor hard for God. We witness, we preach, we lead, we work—but in the end, only God can make His Church grow (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). I’ve always believed it—in my head. Now, after twenty years, this truth is finally making the journey to my heart. I really am dependent on God! Really! And so is the church I pastor.
It’s this awareness that’s beginning to drive me to prayer. God continues to reveal how desperately dependent I am on Him. I need to pray, and for significant amounts of time. I wonder if God is using your brokenness to do a similar work in you.
So how do we cooperate with God when He begins to stir up our passion for prayer? What can we do to fully embrace His gift of a deeper prayer life? The answer to that question will be different for each of us. Still, on the front end of my personal journey, I’ve discovered at least three principles that hold true.
First, our passion for prayer is enhanced by mutual accountability. For more than a year, I’d been aware of a small group of local pastors who had entered into an accountability relationship for the purpose of spurring each other on in prayer. I’d even been invited to join them. I declined, knowing that I “didn’t have the time.” Only when God began to show me how desperately I needed to pray was I willing to yield.
It would be hard to express what a blessing the group, and the accountability, has been to me. The commitments we make are straightforward; they include praying for at least one hour each day, praying with our wives at least three times a week (something I’d seldom done), praying regularly for each family in our church, and praying for each other. Each week we report our progress—or lack of it—by email. We also meet monthly for corporate prayer and lunch. With the help of the group, I found myself consistently keeping my commitments to pray. Now, two years later, I find myself moving even beyond the initial commitments I’d made. The growth I’ve seen in my prayer life would never have happened if I’d tried to grow alone.
If you’re hungering to grow deeper in prayer, don’t strive in isolation. If there isn’t a prayer accountability group in your area, consider starting one. Perhaps you minister in an area where establishing a local group isn’t practical; why not start an accountability group with seminary or Bible college friends by email? If possible, meet face-to-face once or twice a year.
Whatever method you choose, your growth in prayer will be enhanced by mutual accountability.
Second, our passion for prayer is enhanced by the practice of a persistent routine. Routine—the word itself doesn’t have a pleasing ring. It sounds monotonous, dry, and boring. Worse, it sounds unspiritual. Somewhere along the way, we picked up the idea that spontaneity is more “holy” than steady routine.
Scripture doesn’t support this idea. Don’t get me wrong, spontaneity in prayer and worship is a wonderful thing; it’s just not the only thing. In fact, I’m fairly certain it’s not even the normal thing—not when it comes to effective prayer.
The Bible encourages routine when it comes to carving out time for God. It was Daniel’s prayer routine that got him tossed into the lion’s den (Daniel 6:10). The Psalmist declares, “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous law…” (Psalm 119:164). Even after Pentecost, Peter and John were engaged in routine when they went up to the temple at the hour of prayer (Acts 3:1).
Because we really are people of routine, we must make significant time for prayer as a part of it. As Church leaders, the Apostles specifically chose to devote themselves to prayer and the word (Acts 6:4). In order to do so, they delegated and disengaged from other opportunities for ministry. Men like Wesley, Luther, and Knox all practiced specific routines of prayer. Should we expect it to be different for us? For me, a routine for prayer means setting the alarm clock earlier (which also requires going to bed earlier). Whatever your routine for prayer looks like, you’ll never regret establishing it.
It almost goes without saying: maintaining a routine of prayer requires resolve. This being the case, a third important principle is our passion for prayer is enhanced by a Spirit-empowered resolve. J.I. Packer has written a book called Prayer: Finding Our Way Through Duty to Delight. On many days, I find that my praying falls more in the “duty” category. But our God is a commitment-keeping God, and He calls us to be commitment-keeping people. I believe we honor and please Him when we demonstrate resolve in our daily commitment to pray. Even when my sense of delight is absent, the simple act of “showing up” to pray puts me in a place where God can change and bless me.
More than this, even on those days when my prayers seem rote and my heart feels detached, Romans 8:26-27 holds true: “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” In other words, even when nothing seems to be happening, something’s happening. I’m learning to take the act of prayer by faith; this means showing resolve one day at a time.
Reflecting on the necessity of resolve, E.M. Bounds wrote, “Praying is spiritual work, and human nature does not like taxing, spiritual work. Human nature wants to sail to heaven under a pleasant breeze and a full, smooth sea. Prayer is humbling work. It abases intellect and pride, crucifies vainglory, and signals our spiritual bankruptcy. All these are hard for flesh and blood to bear.”
I am grateful to God for His patient stoking of my passion for prayer. He has given me brothers who help me stay the course. He meets me in the midst of prayerful routine. He has granted me a new resolve to persistently cry out to Him. It’s making a difference. In some instances, prayer is changing my circumstances. In every instance, prayer is changing me.
Things are improving in our church. But even where struggles remain, I find myself responding differently than I did before. I’m less defensive and more patient. I find myself more willing to confront unhealthy situations and people. More significantly, I am beginning to experience the peace that comes with knowing God intimately and learning to trust Him more. No, the flame of full-fledged revival isn’t burning at Intermountain Baptist. But the praying for revival has begun.
Lord, keep on stoking me. Lord, keep on stoking us all.