Thursday night prayer meeting is the highlight of my week, more important to me even than Sunday worship. Possibly that’s because I am more relaxed and better able to enter the experience. Even so, it is a solid rock on my calendar and I rarely miss.
What makes this hour rich and powerful is the prayer of a handful of mature brothers and sisters. They pray with the passion and intensity of that poor woman accosting the unjust judge. Their intercession is marked by reality and urgency, as if they know they are doing something of first importance.
When they pray, I want to pray too. And I want to know what they know so I can pray as they pray.
A Generation of Leaders
One evening after prayer, my dad made a casual comment citing a book he’d read on intercession. “Your mother and I keep a little shelf of books on prayer,” he said, and named a few of the authors—Andrew Murray, A. W. Tozer, John Wesley, R. A. Torrey, E. M. Bounds.
These men were all great Christian leaders in their day, the Christian celebrities of their era. And they all wrote books on prayer.
In that moment I did a mental inventory of my own reading list. I could name titles on leadership, change management, contemporary culture, platform building, fundraising, the use of social media in ministry. Yes, there is one book on fasting and another on prayer—but I haven’t read them. Somehow they keep getting pushed to the bottom of the pile.
I suspect my list compares to that of many pastors. We have immersed ourselves in the literature of institutional leadership, and we have become experts. I wonder if we are also growing into spiritual leaders who are as familiar with the ways of heaven as of earth.
The Most Obvious Gap
The practice of prayer—or lack thereof—may be the most obvious gap in our leadership practice.
An Ellis Research survey found that just 16 percent of pastors are very satisfied with their personal prayer lives, 47 percent are somewhat satisfied, 30 percent somewhat dissatisfied and 7 percent very dissatisfied. A separate survey reports that 80 percent of pastors spend less than 15 minutes a day in prayer.
I haven’t tracked my own prayer time, but I have a rough idea. I am certain it is outstripped by time spent on organizational management by at least 10 to 1.
You hit what you aim for, and we have aimed to become a generation of efficient, culturally savvy leaders. We don’t seem at all concerned with becoming a generation of prayed-up, powered-up, poured-out saints whose primary vision is of God and whose best skill is seeking him in prayer.
Running with the Giants
Few have accomplished more for the Kingdom than Luther, Calvin, and Wesley. If we learn anything from their example it is that prayer is the primary factor in the success of a Christian leader. Prayer is not the frosting on our vision for the future; it is the foundation of all spiritual work.
John Wesley was one of the most visionary and effective leaders of his or any generation. He wrote, “God does nothing but by prayer, and everything with it.”
John Calvin said, “To make intercession for [others] is the most powerful and practical way in which we can express our love for them” (emphasis added).
Martin Luther states, “If I fail to spend two hours in prayer each morning, the devil gets the victory through the day. I have so much business I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer.”
Three hours. A day. In prayer.
Imagining New Possibilities
The church in North America is experiencing a starburst. We are gathering fewer and fewer people into larger and larger congregations, giving the appearance of success even as our influence in the culture is vanishing. Could this be, in part, because as we have focused more and more attention on engaging our culture we have devoted less and less energy to seeking God?
What might be possible if we spent as much time in prayer as on social media? What if we were as devoted to prayer as to leadership development? How might the future change if Christian leaders made prayer their first and most important work?
Oswald Chambers said, “Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work.” He is right in that prayer is primary to what we do. Imagine what might result from putting that first thing first.
Plugging the Hole
Jesus’ disciples had enough self-awareness to ask for instruction on prayer. Perhaps that’s a good place to begin, with the Lord’s own prayer.
Beyond that, I resolve to learn prayer from other disciples, past and present. Here are four good books on prayer that I’ve previously read. I hope to add one book to this list each month this year.
Lord, teach us to pray.