The apostle Paul wrote to his beloved church in Philippi from the praetorium, a Roman prison. He told them that his imprisonment had “really served to advance the gospel”. There were three reasons. 1) The gospel had become known throughout the prison, 2) everyone knew that his imprisonment was “for Christ”, and 3) many Christians had become emboldened “to speak the word without fear.” 1
Paul expressed his joy because “I know that through your prayers (emphasis added) and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.” Paul’s joy was such that, whether the authorities released him or put him to death, he would be free. His freedom will come, one way or another, through the prayers of his people. What can we learn from this? The answer is that God will accomplish his purposes through the prayers of the church. Every Christian should take from this that the prayers of the local church are for the Church in the world.2
One of the best books on the subject of praying for the Church (or, for that matter, praying in general) is D. A. Carson, titled, Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation. Going through this book will bring to light that many of our prayers are trite and superficial. Carson shows that the Bible, in this case the epistles of Paul, is most useful and instructive in the way of substantive and meaningful prayer. Roughly, Carson’s categories for a Paul’s “prayers” include, 1) Paul’s actual prayers, 2) Paul’s prayer wishes (solicitations for prayer, what we often call “prayer requests”), and 3) the words of Paul which are particularly prayer-worthy.3
An example of Paul’s prayer (in this case telling the Philippians what his prayer is for them) would be Philippians 1:3-11. An example of a prayer wish could be Philippians 4:4-7, to always be rejoicing in joyful prayer; and also, supplication and thanksgiving. Then, Paul’s words that are prayer-worthy may be found in Philippians 4:8, that our thoughts be directed to “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise….” I expect that not many of us can say that we pray, like Paul, who wrote in Philippians 1:9, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ….” But there is plenty of instruction and encouragement in the inspired Scripture to help us.
Paul’s prayers are instructive and enriching to our prayers for the Church. Many of us begin with praying for the mission of the Church. But there is also wisdom in thanking and praising God for the Church, her salvation in Christ, and the grace of our inclusion. Passages like Matthew 28:18-20 may be a helpful beginning for the work of the Church in the world, or Psalm 67:1-5, “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy!”
Going to church where a pastor has spent as much time in the preparation of his prayers as his sermons, you will find patters that may be helpful to you as you pray for the church. Some people will find it useful to structure their prayers along the lines of the Lord’s Prayer, or an appropriate chapter like Hebrews 12. Even the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church helpfully divides the work of the church into, 1) divine worship, 2) gospel witness, and 3) mutual edification.
What follows below is an example from our church. Our time of intercessory prayer (sometimes called the long, or pastoral, prayer) is typically ordered in the following way. In sharing this, I hope it can be a guide to you as you seek to grow in your love and commitment to pray for the church.
Praising God for his character and works; his gathering to himself a church, and our inclusion in it; remembering his Son, who gave himself, and the Holy Spirit and the work of grace.
Grace leads us to pray for the means of grace, and the mission of the Church to make disciples of all nations. Then we specifically remember our missionaries, using Telenews and Home Missions Today for specific petitions to God on behalf of ministers and missionaries everywhere, including our mission fields abroad and our mission work at home, that God will build up his Church in the grace and peace of Christ, and that the Holy Spirit will not only draw people to the Church, but also that they will be given ears to hear and believe the gospel. It’s important to remember to pray for their families, for their health and safety, especially when traveling (vehicular deaths is a leading cause of death among missionaries in some places). We pray, too, for the persecuted Church, for their deliverance and grace for endurance; also that doors may be opened for our message (Colossians 4:2-3). We pray for church planting efforts, that God will establish his name and kingdom on earth. We often remember to pray for the regional churches by name, and often their pastors and evangelists by name, so that the congregation members will remember both how to pray and who to pray for.
Then our petitions get a little more local, asking the Lord’s blessing and help for area ministries among the poor and homeless, young people and college students. Our prayers turn to the ministry and people of our congregation, Living Hope Presbyterian Church in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: for the ordinary means of grace, that God’s Spirit will work in the lives of people; that there will be opportunities to speak well of the Lord in the community; that we will grow in our love with all peace, forgiveness, generosity, bearing one another’s burdens; that the life of Christ be manifest in our mortal bodies; that we would be transformed, not merely informed, by the reading and preaching of the Scriptures; that we would be finding new ways to reach the lost, ever growing in our increasingly diverse church community; that God will raise up leaders, servants, workers of mercy in both word and deed. After remembering our Sunday School teachers, musicians, treasurers, and other workers, we also pray for the aged and infirmed, and we ask, for the sick, that God will heal them and give them grace and patience to endure; for those who are downcast, that God will lift them up and provide help for them; for those who are anxious and in distress, that God will be their peace. Then we may go through a short list of recent illnesses, grief, affliction, and adversity, that the lasting joy of Christ will be theirs in all their sorrows. The reader will forgive me for omitting other important items that are forgotten for the moment, such as our spiritual growth and maturity (Ephesians 4:14-15)!
We continue to pray that the Lord will help us to be aware of the schemes of the evil one, such as errors and sins, so that he will not get a toe-hold in our blessed fellowship. We again pray forgiveness and deliverance from and evil. And it is often good for the church, as a whole or as individual believer, to end with the high note of our hope and aspiration to see the Lord’s return, and that all God’s people will stand on the mountain of the Lord, singing his praise with all nations.
And so we pray with all joy, the lasting and increasing awareness of God blessings, that our sins will be behind us, and that we will be a church whose life and character and work and worship are marked with the confidence of faith in making known the glory and excellence of Christ.
3-Grand Rapids, Baker Academics, 2015
by Rev. John D. Van Meerbeke