What comes to mind when you hear the term “prayer meeting”? Do you think of something vital to church life and to the lives of individual Christians? Do you think of prayer meetings from church history that have been used by God to spark reformation, revival, and zeal for missions? For many Christians, unfortunately, the answer to these questions is no. When most believers hear about prayer meetings they probably think of a caricature: long-winded requests about things that don’t seem terribly important. Far from the works of the sovereign and omnipotent God who hears and answers prayer, when we think of prayer meetings, many of us think of an exercise in tedium that detracts from the work of the church.
In spite of some tedious and lifeless prayer meetings you may have encountered, this should not be! In fact, prayer meetings are vital to the well-being of the church. I want to convince you of this and to share how our church plant has incorporated prayer meetings into our life together.
Prayer Meetings Are Vital
First, prayer meetings are vital to the well-being of the church. Scripture is clear that God’s assembled people are people at prayer. Exodus 15, for example, recounts the prayerful praise of Israel after the Lord’s triumph over Pharaoh. Moses was not alone in this prayer. He was joined by “the people of Israel”(15:1). Many of the psalms are clearly intended to guide the corporate prayer of God’s people (see, for example, Psalm 125). Nehemiah 9 is a prayer meeting where God’s people confess their corporate sins and praise the promise keeping God by recounting his powerful deeds throughout redemptive history. In the New Testament, the book of Acts provides numerous examples of the church at prayer. Acts 1:4, for example, describes the apostles, the women who followed Jesus, and Jesus’ earthly family members “devoting themselves to prayer.” Later on, after Peter escapes from prison, he heads to a home “where many were gathered together and were praying.” (Acts 12:12) It’s true that some of these biblical references are speaking of prayer specifically in the context of public worship (and prayer is essential to public worship), but others show us a glimpse of a church that is often gathered specifically for prayer. Prayer meetings are vital, first, because they are biblical.
Prayer meetings are vital, second, because prayer is one of the weapons in our arsenal as the church. Ephesians 6 vividly describes the armor of God that is ours in Christ. After describing all the weapons at our disposal, Paul calls the church in Ephesus to pray “at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.” (v. 18) Prayer is both a defensive weapon and an offensive weapon given to the church militant. This is a weapon for individual believers, but it’s also a weapon for the church to wield together as the body of Christ. Douglas Kelly, professor emeritus at Reformed Theological Seminary, has pointed out that the near disappearance of the regular prayer meeting in the life of the church in North America has coincided with increasing wickedness and secularization in North American society. It’s not possible to prove causation here, but it’s certainly true that the sad state of Christ’s visible church in North America is, in part, a result of prayerlessness. Perhaps a renewed emphasis on prayer meetings will help to fan the flames of reformation and true revival in our churches!
Finally, prayer meetings are vital to the church because they are a way for us to love one another. Have you ever promised to pray for someone only to have that promise completely slip your mind? Prayer meetings are an opportunity to share requests and then pray for them—right away. Praying together in public is a way to begin fulfilling the “one another” commands of Scripture. By meeting for prayer, we love one another (John 13:34), bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), comfort one another (1 Thessalonians 4:18), and encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11). In fact, you could make the case that the prayer meeting is one place where all of the “one anothers” of the Bible can be expressed in a concrete way: by praying together for all kinds of needs.
The prayer meeting is a source of immense blessing to God’s pilgrim people. Perhaps your church already has a vibrant regular prayer meeting, but what if you’re starting from scratch?
One Church Plant’s Story
At Corona Presbyterian Church, a mission work of the Presbytery of Southern California, we devote one Adult Sunday School class each month to meeting for prayer. This meeting is always the last Sunday of the month (which makes the prayer meeting a great time to distribute the prayer list for the new month). As the pastor, I lead the meeting and open with a Scripture reading that helps to motivate, guide, and shape our prayers. Here is our format:
- Prayer for Personal and Family Requests: we’ll spend a few minutes sharing requests and I’ll ask for volunteers to (briefly) pray for each request.
- Prayer for Our Church: as a mission work, we are especially focused on asking the Lord to make us faithful worshippers, to send visitors, to help us be bold witnesses, and to raise up future elders and deacons in our midst. This can be an opportunity for an officer candidate to lead in prayer but we also break into smaller groups from time to time.
- Prayer for the Wider Church: every month we focus our prayer on one church in our Presbytery, one mission work in the OPC, and one field of foreign missions. Home Missions Today is invaluable for informed prayer for our mission works and New Horizons often gives similar updates for foreign missions. We are often aware of prayer requests for sister churches nearby, but I also contact the pastor to ask for specific prayer requests that he doesn’t mind being shared in a public setting.
- Closing Prayer: I (or an elder or elder candidate, if available) will close in prayer and ask the Lord that prayerfulness might characterize the coming week for the individuals and families of our church and for Corona Presbyterian Church as a whole.
It’s pretty simple. It’s not flashy. But we’ve found this practice to be one that we can maintain which helps us to keep prayer front and center as a church. We have lots of room to grow, but I hope our pattern gives some encouragement and perhaps some ideas to you.
Here are a few things that make this pattern work for us:
- First, the time. Each prayer meeting lasts about 45 minutes. We are on a tight deadline to clean up and vacate our rented meeting space (which, incidentally, is why we don’t yet have the ideal of a weekly weeknight prayer meeting). This time constraint informs our pace and encourages us to keep things moving. There may be some wisdom in people wishing we could pray longer than we do rather than looking at their watches wondering when the prayer meeting will end!
- Second, the format. Sometimes we break into groups, sometimes we assign people to pray for various requests, other times we’ll be led in prayer by the pastor or an elder. Very occasionally we’ll begin praying without a plan. This variety of formats presents our people with the opportunity to grow in praying together out loud but also doesn’t make people feel like they’re always on the hot seat.
- Finally, the progression. There is something really encouraging about the same prayer meeting involving prayer for a health concern and prayer for another church thousands of miles away. By sticking to some general headings (personal/family, our church, other churches, foreign missions), we lift up concerns that hit close to home, we pray for God’s blessing on our church, and we intercede for our brothers and sisters across the country and around the world.
As with private and family worship, when it comes to prayer meetings it’s always wise to start small with something you’ll actually stick with. You can always add and grow later! Prayer meetings are vital for the church and easy to begin. A prayer meeting can help your church to be faithful in prayer (Romans 12:12). Most important of all, though, faithful corporate prayer is a means of grace which our faithful sovereign God promises to use for his glory and the good of his people. So let’s commit to prayer meetings where we approach the throne of grace with confidence in our Great High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ.