How churches and pastors praying together can unite a city for Christ
"If what you say is true, then what you are experiencing in Lubbock, [Texas], is nothing less than a miracle!" The reunion of two friends, one ministering in Austin, Texas, and the other in Lubbock, came at a prayer gathering in the state capital last fall. The two had worked together on the same church staff in Lubbock more than 20 years before. Both were now serving as senior pastors of new churches that had been established since those early days in west Texas.
The story of what the Lord had been doing in Lubbock was almost unbelievable. Twenty years earlier the city was known as a "city of churches," with a different congregation staking its claim on every other street corner.
Suspicion among churches was the norm. The attitudes of one congregation for another--often even within the same denomination--ranged from ambivalence to outright mistrust. If they did not actually view one another as the enemy, they were at least "the competition."
Churches viewed each other as nothing more than obstacles to be overcome as each congregation battled to carve out its own empire. And empires they were, with the largest Baptist, Methodist and Church of Christ congregations in the nation making Lubbock their home.
But in the last four years something phenomenal has taken place. A vibrant and growing prayer movement is penetrating the city, changing the hearts of Christian leaders, instilling a refreshing hope in the hearts of laymen and leaving in its wake a new kind of church.
The church that is emerging in Lubbock is a city-church, which rallies around a shared devotion to Jesus Christ. It is a church that has awakened with a kingdom vision--a vision greater than any single congregation.
Busily preparing the way of the Lord through fervent, prevailing prayer, believers in the city are truly beginning to love one another regardless of denominational labels or ecclesiastical preferences. The citywide movement is such a departure from the past that city officials, educators, journalists and outside observers are beginning to take notice. The story of how God is bringing these things to pass in this most unlikely of places can be told by the milestones along the pathway to prayer in the city.
CITYWIDE TRANSFORMATION BEGINS
The first recognizable milestone was the First Citywide Pastors' Prayer Summit held in the fall of 1995. Attendance was modest considering the number of pastors in the city. Still, something was birthed as pastors set apart three days for prayer for one another and the city.
The group was diverse. Ministers from the Church of Christ sat down with pastors from the Assemblies of God. Methodists and Baptists joined together. Black, white and Hispanic men and women were in attendance. The local Catholic bishop came by to spend a few hours. The lordship of Jesus was central and prayer was the only agenda.
The pastors' walls came tumbling down. After only the first day together, the pastors' walls of self-protection began to tremble. In a moment of silence during prayer, one man confessed the shame and guilt that were weighing him down. Cautiously, he unburdened himself of the secret of his young daughter's unwed pregnancy. At another time it might have been a risky thing to do, only offering ammunition to those who would look for any opportunity to bring evidence of another church's theological weakness by exploiting a personal tragedy.
Thankfully, the atmosphere of prayer had already done much to change the hearts and natural inclinations of those present. Now the men and women gathered were more inclined to shed their own tears with their brother than to point their finger at him. Prayers and tears flowed freely as other men and fathers surrounded the wounded brother.
Moments later, another outwardly calm and collected pastor revealed his personal struggle and asked for prayer. At this, the dam burst. Ministry continued into the night. There was a new willingness to move beyond the pastoral facade. This unanticipated openness disarmed everyone, initially startling some but soon reassuring each one that when believers come together in the place of prayer, it can be a safe place.
The beginning of healthier relationships between city pastors was birthed during those three days as acceptance, trust and genuine concern grew among the pastors who attended. A covenant was signed, each one promising to be available to the other and agreeing to gather each month for prayer. Pastors who had historically been unable to gather around worship or the Word or even around simple good works were finding common ground in prayer.
AN UPHILL BATTLE
During the next couple of years things moved at a steady but uneventful pace. This was a time for prevailing prayer--a time when pastors in the city learned that the primary distinctive of prayer that prevails is that it refuses to give up.
It was a constant struggle to be willing to let one's guard down. Yet even during the long early months--when so many of the prayers sounded like orations from a pulpit and one wondered whether the goal was to impress men or to implore God--the pastors of the city persevered.
Prayer can affect an entire city. The second important milestone occurred with the Citywide School of Prayer hosted by a local church in early 1998. More than 500 people representing 26 nearby towns attended the weekend seminar led by Terry Teykl.
That weekend the concept that prayer can affect an entire city was given a larger scope. Now laymen as well as pastors were beginning to believe that prayer was the hope of the community. Concepts of city strongholds and spiritual gateways were shared, paving the way for a vision to see the city captured for the kingdom.
Later that spring the second pastors' prayer summit was held. As at the first gathering, the group was diverse. A healthy mix of race, gender and denominations was in attendance. Near the end of the summit, the decision was made to issue a public statement that would not only serve as an act of public repentance for the failures of the Christian community in the city, but would also alert Lubbock to our purpose to pray for the city and our commitment to love one another.
But something important was lacking, in spite of the initial fervor. Nothing was done toward the issuing of that public statement for the next several months. The momentum waned through the early days of summer.
The need for servant leadership. If there were an area in which pastors had failed since the initial prayer focus, it might have been in understanding Jesus' model for servant leadership. No one seemed willing to take a leadership role. Perhaps this was because each of the pastors participating in the monthly prayer gatherings chose to defer to the others.
On the surface this seemed the humble response; yet in fact, without leadership there had been no forward motion. It may have been that giving leadership to a citywide effort was simply one job too many for the already overcommitted pastors to tackle. After all, they had their own congregations to worry about.
It had taken more than two years to call the second pastors' summit because no one had taken the responsibility to convene the group. Now our fresh initiatives were lying dormant, waiting for someone else to act.
Eventually, a handful of pastors gathered to consider how they might move things to the next level. They began to plan events that might get the ball rolling once again. But as summer temperatures peaked, vacations and travel interrupted their best efforts. It was not until the early fall that seven pastors from the city finally reconvened to consider following through on issuing the public statement discussed the previous spring.
The pastors repent to a city. A brief statement was drafted, stating their desire to repent of the attitudes that were so evident among the body of Christ in the city and which were counter to the love Jesus intended His followers to have for each other. Central to the statement was the declaration of the pastors' intent to continue their commitment "to pray and to work together to create an atmosphere for revival in our city."
In the next two months, efforts were made to circulate the statement to other pastors in the city, asking for their participation and endorsement. The statement, surrounded by pastors' signatures, would appear as a full-page advertisement in the local newspaper during Thanksgiving weekend. Thirty pastors in the city representing Methodists, Baptists, Nazarenes, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ, Assemblies of God, independents and charismatics signed the statement on behalf of their congregations. The advertisement ran in the Sunday paper on Nov. 29, 1998.
LIGHTHOUSES OF PRAYER
The next day the third pastors' prayer summit was held at a nearby retreat center. There was a great sense of anticipation among the pastors. After the day of prayer together, one of the ministers was asked to share a testimony.
He had recently returned from the International Conference on Prayer and Evangelism in Argentina, hosted by Ed Silvoso and Harvest Evangelism. The concept of a city church was explained: one church with many congregations. He described how the strategy of neighborhood Lighthouses of Prayer had prepared the spiritual atmosphere for taking the city of Mar del Plata, Argentina.
Perhaps most important was the idea that pastors are the spiritual gatekeepers of a city. They would not give evidence to the love of Jesus until they loved their city as much as they loved their own congregations. In God's eyes, they were not only shepherds of their own congregations, but were first and foremost the spiritual shepherds--co-pastors and elders--of Lubbock.
Pastors from divergent backgrounds laid hands on one another and prayed. Something was imparted that evening beyond the information shared. The suggestion was made that the group recognize their call by ordaining one another as co-pastors of the city of Lubbock. In response, the pastors knelt individually as the others laid hands on them and prayed. That night a conception of sorts took place as the body of Christ in Lubbock was impregnated with something entirely new.
The name "Pray Lubbock" was adopted to identify the cooperative prayer efforts in the city. In the next few months other pastors and churches were recruited in an effort to establish Lighthouses of Prayer across the city. An initial goal of 1,000 lighthouses was set.
By the first week in March, Pray Lubbock was prepared to ask pastors to come together to commission the neighborhood Lighthouses of Prayer. Pastor Ted Haggard was invited from Colorado Springs, Colorado. He spent three days in the city, meeting with pastors and leaders and finally keynoting the Lighthouse commissioning service on Friday night.
Twenty congregations came together. The downtown flagship Church of Christ hosted the event in their sanctuary, where more than 1,000 people from 20 congregations gathered to worship the Lord and thank Him for what He was doing in Lubbock. At the end of the service, the pastors stood at the front of the sanctuary and raised their hands over the crowd. The congregation raised their hands in recognition of their receiving an impartation of the spirit of intercession. It was a historic event in the city--that night the Church of Lubbock was born.
KEEPING THE MAIN THING THE MAIN THING
In the last year, special gatherings for intercessors and other prayer events have been planned, though Pray Lubbock has fought the tendency to be event driven. Because of the tragedy at Columbine High School, organizers scheduled a prayer rally early in the school year to cover with a shield of prayer children, schools, teachers and others involved in education .
The "Cover the Kids" rally greatly encouraged school officials, teachers and parents. Coordinating with existing ministries, the event gave a significant boost to the local Moms in Touch prayer ministry, setting in motion an increase in ongoing prayer for schools across the community.
In the fall, the ministry team of Pray Lubbock set aside two days for a prayer retreat. They sought direction from the Lord for the coming year. Two things became clear to the team: First, the Lord wanted them to keep prayer central to all they would do, keeping the focus of that prayer on the spiritual transformation of the community. They would hold the vision of city-reaching before the various pastors and congregations. Second, the Lord confirmed the importance of the relationships fostered in the atmosphere of prayer.
They pray more than they talk. During the first year of Pray Lubbock, the nine members of the ministry team have met together from two to four times each month. While there has always been much to discuss, the team has determined to guard their prayer time. The guiding principle they have established is to pray more than they talk. If they find themselves devoting more time to discussing an item of business than they have spent in prayer for it, they cease the discussion and go back to prayer.
In this atmosphere of prayer, nine strong friendships have emerged. Even though the additional time demands of Pray Lubbock are significant, the love and fellowship that the team shares among its participants has become an important personal benefit to each person. As difficult as it may be to carve out the additional meeting time, each member genuinely looks forward to their gathering together.
Realizing the important benefit of their relationships, the team asked the Lord how this could be extended to other pastors in the city as well. They spent time during their prayer retreat seeking direction in this specific area. As a result, each of the nine men prayerfully selected from six to 10 other pastors in the city who had become involved with Pray Lubbock in the last year, and formed their own groups.
The team has given up one of its own gatherings each month in order to accommodate meeting time for these newly formed groups. Their sole purpose is to foster relationships in the environment of prayer.
Pastors' luncheons have also begun. These gatherings meet at a different church each month immediately following the monthly pastors' prayer meetings. The dual purpose is to keep the regular monthly prayer time focused on prayer alone while allowing additional time to build relationships among pastors of the city.
Different churches host the luncheon each month. The final 10 minutes of the lunch time are used by the ministry team to teach one of the concepts involved in city transformation. A different concept is briefly covered each month, such as prayer walking, spiritual mapping, the city church or spiritual strongholds. This helps keep the vision before the city pastors fresh and allows a forum for drawing in new pastors who have just come on board with the local prayer movement.
The fourth pastors' prayer summit was held this last November with twice as many ministers in attendance than before. The focus was the characteristics of city transformation. The decision was made to begin to have two prayer summits per year, in the fall and spring.
PRAYER HAS MEASURABLE EFFECTS
Momentum is building. More than 30 churches have fielded more than 1,200 neighborhood Lighthouses of Prayer across the community since last March. From 40 to 60 pastors continue to gather each month for prayer in the conference room on the 19th floor of the Metro Tower, which also houses the Pray Lubbock offices. The large conference room is the geographical high point of the city, affording a panoramic view of Lubbock.
Measurable effects of the prayer movement in the city of Lubbock are beginning to register. Crime statistics are down. Citywide the growth in church attendance is up. Churches continue to add to the neighborhood lighthouse effort. The severe drought that has plagued much of the southwestern United States this last year has been shattered in Lubbock with a historic amount of rainfall and repeated flooding of city streets and neighborhood playa lakes throughout the spring and summer--even while other parts of Texas continue to suffer from lack of rain.
At various times in the last four years prophetic words have been given to encourage the body of Christ in Lubbock. Many of these prophetic words liken what the Lord is about to do in our city to rainfall, flooding or some other reference to water. This makes our historic rains seem even more significant.
Some of the messengers bringing these prophetic words are people well known to us, while others have been unfamiliar--yet the words themselves ring with consistency and have been confirmed again and again by spiritual leaders in the city.
A few examples: "The rivers of Argentina will flow through the streets of Lubbock, flooding the entire city." And again: "The peoples of the earth will hear of it and come to you. They will resort to your place as a city and a land of refuge. They will seek out the desert place and will find safety. They will come thirsty into the barren land and find your hidden waters." And then: "The Lord will come like a flood, pouring over the city. His rain will gather into pools, then run into streams, then rush into rivers and eventually overflow to the state and the nation and to the world."
And finally, a word given at a monthly pastors' prayer gathering almost four years ago: "The Lord has seen what you are doing, and He is pleased. Because of what you are doing here today, He is going to make you the envy of the nations."
Here, in this modest city of less than 200,000 people, something historic is taking place. Brothers are learning to live in a new kind of unity founded upon Jesus Christ, fueled by fervent, united prayer and aimed at nothing less than the transformation of their community. Prayer is changing God's people, and as a result it is beginning to change a city. And in a place like this--where brothers dwell together in unity--the Lord will command a blessing!
David Eppler is pastor of prayer at Trinity Church in Lubbock, Texas.