THE IMPORTANCE OF PRAYER
Excerpted with permission from the highly recommended book
The Kingdom Unleashed: How Jesus’ 1st-Century Kingdom Values Are Transforming Thousands of Cultures and Awakening His Church by Jerry Trousdale & Glenn Sunshine.
(Kindle Locations 761-838, from Chapter 3 “Praying Small Prayers to an Almighty God”)
Prayer was … central to Jesus’ life and the lives of believers in the early church. In monasteries, life was structured around regular times of prayer. Monasticism has a generally negative reputation among evangelicals, but it is worth noting that every major reform in the church, up to and including the Reformation, started in monasteries.
We can also say unequivocally that every major revival and every movement of the Spirit was preceded by long, intense prayer. The question, then, is why do Christians in the Global North spend so little time and attention on prayer? The answer is found in a significant shift in culture that took place between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
From Deism to Materialism
As early as the seventeenth century, thinkers in Europe were becoming increasingly rationalistic. Some began moving toward deism, the idea that God created the universe and then stepped back and let it run on its own without ever intervening in it. This was done in a misguided notion of protecting the glory of God; if God did intervene in the world, they reasoned, it would suggest that He did not make it right in the first place. Deists thus had no place for revelation, for miracles, for the Incarnation— or for prayer.
Deism is a fundamentally unstable worldview. It suggests that God acts only as the Creator of the universe, not as its Sustainer. Therefore, it becomes very easy to drop God out of the system altogether if you can find another explanation for the universe that does not require a Creator. By the early nineteenth century, the scientific establishment began to argue that the universe was eternal, and therefore God was unnecessary. They thus became materialists; that is, they argued that the only things that exist are matter and energy. Given these assumptions, a materialist must conclude that all physical events have purely physical causes, and empirical observation and science are the only things that qualify as true knowledge.
Christians have never adopted a materialistic viewpoint, for obvious reasons, yet elements of materialism have so shaped the cultural mindset in the Global North that they have also shaped the de facto worldview of the church. When combined with the fact/ value distinction, which we discussed in the last chapter, materialism has had a devastating effect on prayer and on reliance on the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. We acknowledge (at least in theory) that God can act in the physical world— but we tend not to expect Him to. When praying for the sick, for instance, we tend to assume that God will work through the mind and skill of the physician or through medicines or through the normal healing processes of the body, or even by miracles, and so we pray that way. We tend not to pray specific prayers asking for divine intervention in the physical world. Why? Because we have erred in our thinking, unconsciously believing that physical events have only physical causes; and because we have erred in our practice, relegating God primarily to the realm of values— intangible things— rather than giving Him Lordship over the world of facts that can be measured and studied by science.
The Problem of Affluence
The affluence of the Global North has also had a negative impact on prayer because we unconsciously believe that we do not need to rely on prayer for most things in our daily lives. The Global North is so wealthy that most of us do not have to worry about having our basic needs met. The things that we think we need are better described as things that we want, and our problems are mostly “first world problems,” and our “prayers” are more like selfish wishes. Scripture often warns us of the dangers of affluence, including presuming on the future (Luke 12: 16– 21) and forgetting the Lord (Deut. 8: 17– 18) because we assume that we got where we are by our own power or abilities. Jesus’ instructions to pray for our daily bread seem irrelevant when we have a refrigerator full of food.
This abundance of resources also seduces the church away from relying on prayer. Consider how decisions are typically made in churches: there is a short prayer followed by a long discussion about the issues; a proposal is made and voted on; and a short prayer is said asking God to bless the decision that was made. We would be far better off spending more, if not most, of our time seeking God’s wisdom through prayer rather than relying on our own ideas. Yet we are so used to making our own decisions and relying on our own resources that it seems natural to do that in the church, as well. We pay marketing, media, and management consultants to tell us how to grow the church, how to run stewardship campaigns, how to raise money for a building fund— all examples of relying on our own resources rather than on prayer and the Holy Spirit.
The simple truth is this: secular methods will never produce spiritual results. There are no consultants in the places where the church is growing the quickest. Those brothers and sisters have to depend on prayer and on obeying the instructions given in Scripture for spreading the Gospel.
Lifestyle and Mindset Issues
Another barrier to prayer is lifestyle: we are simply too busy. Churches are built around programs that keep us doing things, and individually we have so much going on that we do not have time to pray. Or so we think. Martin Luther reportedly said that he was so busy that he could not possibly get everything done without taking at least two hours a day to pray. He knew something that we have forgotten.
Our busyness is connected to a cultural bias toward acting to make things happen. Our culture loves slogans and aphorisms such as “God helps those who help themselves” or “if it’s going to be, it’s up to me.” We know in our minds that these notions are not scriptural, yet too often our actions don’t line up with that thinking. Our cultural ideal is to be strong, independent, and self-reliant. Yet the Bible tells us that we are strong when we are weak, that we are dependent on God and on one another, that we can do nothing apart from Jesus. Churches hold classes and seminars on personal evangelism, they encourage people to invite their friends to church, but they rarely hold prayer meetings focused on disciple-making and growth of the Kingdom. Yet Jesus tells the disciples not to try to spread the Gospel without waiting first for the Holy Spirit, and every major endeavor in the Gospels and Acts is preceded by deep and intense prayer. In other words, if we want to move the church forward, the critical action that we must take is prayer.
Yet another barrier is a lack of mental discipline. Our fast-paced culture and the constant availability of the internet, often in our pockets, have so affected our minds that our attention span has shrunken from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8.25 seconds in 2015— and the average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds! We can, of course, focus longer on things that truly captivate our attention, but unfortunately, it seems prayer is not one of them. It is thus difficult for us to manage anything beyond short prayers— unlike our brothers and sisters in the Global South who often spend all night in prayer.
Another area where we lack discipline is in the practice of fasting. Fasting is closely associated with prayer, biblically, historically, and currently in the Global South, yet it is rare to find Christians in the Global North who fast. The fact/ value distinction discussed in chapter two is again at work here; we do not understand what fasting is supposed to accomplish since we do not see a close connection between body and spirit. And in a consumerist culture like ours, self-denial seems strange, alarming, and unhealthy. all. If we did believe in prayer, we would do it more.
Part of the reason for this is, once again, the fact/ value distinction, along with the materialistic mindset. The physical world of fact is separate and distinct from the world of the spirit according to this false worldview, and consequently, it is hard for us to see how praying can produce change in the physical realm. We know intellectually that God can make things happen in the physical world, but we do not expect Him to.
Psychologically, we also have to deal with the problem of unanswered prayer (or, more precisely, prayer that God answers with a “no” or a “wait”). People fear to pray specific prayers because too often God has not granted us what we asked for. We provide ourselves with cover in these situations by making sure that we pray “if it be Your will,” but we do not believe or trust that God will give us what we ask. Our prayers seem ineffective, which reinforces the fact/ value distinction in our minds and makes us less inclined to pray, preferring instead to act.
The effect of all this is that, even in our discipleship programs, we tend to discount prayer. We offer regular classes on the Bible and train people to lead small group Bible studies, yet most churches have little if any teaching on how to pray. When we do pray, our prayers tend to be so vague that we cannot really say with certainty whether God actually answered them, or whether things would have worked out the same way even without prayer or divine intervention. Often this vagueness is put in spiritual language— bless so-and-so— without any concrete idea of what blessing would look like.
Prayer is the lifeblood of movements. The church in the Global North does not rely on prayer, and if behavior is any indication, it does not believe in it, either. If we are going to see movements in the Global North [or anywhere else], we will need to see a new, ongoing commitment to serious, intense, persistent prayer for God to open heaven, to raise up disciple makers and church planters, to guide us to His people of peace, and to empower our work.