It is fascinating that the only request for ministry formation and development that the first followers of Jesus made was that the Master teach them to pray. This always seemed strange to me until I became a pastor in a church.
I quickly learned that in pastoral training, practice, and congregational life, prayer is relegated to the second tier of ministry behind strategy, structure, and style. Prayer does not seem to come naturally, not even to the religious experts and the professionals.
My own prayer life was lacking and needed renewal, and so I cried out to God to make me a man of prayer. I found comfort in the words of the disciples of Jesus, “Teach us to pray.” Aside from the amazing sense of personal renewal I experienced when I gave myself over to the ministry of prayer, there were the added benefits for the life of my congregation that I had not considered. As my prayer life was refreshed and refuelled, I witnessed the awakening of hearts in my community. My passion for prayer stimulated prayer in the leaders and parishioners around me. I quickly noticed two very obvious and tangible transformations that took place.
First, when we take the ministry of prayer seriously in the local church by committing to pray for our people, our priorities change. Our worldliness decreases, and our obsession with keeping up appearances, our addiction to competition, and our submission to the forces of a success-driven church culture all fade. It turns out that many of these things are not the Father’s heart at all. Only when we have a renovation of our hearts in the place of prayer, do we begin to understand this. He gives us a new heart, and here is why…this leads to my second insight:
Praying for our people opens the door to the reality of broken lives in desperate need of good news. Prayer that pushes through shallow religion and into Kingdom promises takes us beyond the wading waters of the shore and deep into the ocean of our congregational lives.
In the last season as a praying pastor, I have broken my heart in prayer. I have prayed over friends whose marriages are unravelling, who have lost little ones, who are struggling financially, who are recovering from abuse, who are trying to understand faith, who are figuring out parenting, and battling addictions, looking for employment, and journeying through mental health struggles. I have not run out of stuff to pray about!
Something that I have been keenly aware of taking place in my own heart is that by turning my attention to the priority of prayer, it has diminished the amount of time I have given to the petty stuff that exists in the weird subculture of Christianity. Those nasty emails haven’t phased me, those other churches that are trying to rustle sheep from other flocks, they haven’t annoyed me. Those leadership challenges about strategy and structure – important as they are – have all been driven out of my heart and mind by the need for gospel-centred prayer to work in my life and in my congregation.
In my mid-20’s I severed a hamstring and missed a full season of rugby. I was a competitive athlete, and this was a devastating time for me. I was just married and was putting on the weight that comes from newly wedded life. My diet as a youth pastor was also based on sugar, and my now sedentary lifestyle all meant that my return to playing rugby a year later was in pretty rough physical shape, carrying the baggage of an excess thirty pounds or so. The journey back to fitness was long and slow.
One thing that I learned over those next months was the connection between my attitude and discipline, and my relationships to my team, the referee, the opposition, and my own fitness. When I wasn’t fit, I complained, I made excuses, I cheated, I looked for shortcuts in training, and I was a regular visitor to the sin bin.
My coach challenged me about my attitude and my personal fitness. I was rebuked to my core, and I set about losing weight, getting fit and leaving the excuses behind. The last three years of my rugby playing days were filled with success and joy and a less than average amount of yellow cards for a wing forward – hey, nobody’s perfect!
I believe the same is true in our prayer life brothers. When we are unfit in prayer, we look for short cuts, we develop stinky attitudes, and we are insecure about our place on the team. Instead of playing together and enjoying the game of ministry, we set ourselves as opponents rather than partners.
Pastors, small group leaders, youth leaders, husbands, friends: test this out. Don’t just take my word for it. Ask your community to send you their prayer requests and commit to pray for them. Your life will be filled with pain and praise, and your priorities will change- I guarantee it!