A healthy church prays. As we look at the landscape of growing and vibrant churches, we find without exception that the vital, if not all-telling, ingredient is an ongoing, practical emphasis on people meeting God, both one-on-one and in corporate gatherings.
As pastor of prayer at Hillcrest Church, a large cell-based congregation in Dallas, I have learned various effective strategies for fostering exciting prayer gatherings. We have as many as 600 people involved on a regular basis in prayer for our local congregation, city and state as well as our nation and the nations. However, this emphasis on prayer did not happen overnight.
Our congregation began as a cell-based church whose very backbone was an emphasis on the words of Jesus, "'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations'" (Mark 11:17, NKJV). Before there was a structure or building on the existing acreage of Hillcrest Church, there was an old trailer on the lot where people would gather every morning at 6 a.m.
As Morris Sheats, the founding senior pastor explains: "Hillcrest Church was conceived in prayer. Prayer put this church here on the hill. Prayer kept this church going in tough times--spiritually and economically. We met for prayer when there was nothing else on the property but a trailer, which was used solely for prayer. Our plans for the chruch always included a house of prayer that would be open 24 hours a day for prayer.
"People need a place to pray...a place where they immediately feel the quiet, peaceful presence of the Holy Spirit. My vision for this place is the House of Prayer. I see it as a restful retreat for anyone at anytime [who is] seeking the Lord in prayer to come and spend time talking and communing with God.
"In our busy, crowded lives, it's difficult to find a place of solitude to pour out our hearts to the Lord, to praise Him in the Spirit or to just sit and meditate. The Bible is filled with examples of miracles that were wrought by prayer. More is wrought by prayer than this world has dreamed possible."
These comments appeared in an article titled, "Growing Into God's Plan for the House of Prayer" in the fall 1998 Hillcrest Prayer Alert publication. Today we have many departments and ministries that exist as a part of a prayer network that reaches both into our church and our city with a prayer focus. With a congregation of more than 3,000 people involved in a multitude of ministries, we are sure that the key to the ongoing life and impact on lives individually and corporately is directly related to "keeping the main thing the main thing": people experiencing the power of prayer.
There is a mighty call from heaven to God's people everywhere to begin to seek His face as never before. We need to understand that nothing ultimately happens of eternal consequences but by prayer. And nothing delights the heart of God more than when His people begin to seek His face (fellowship with God) not just His hand (have needs met by God).
Researchers have discovered that there is a correlation between prayer and church growth. Healthy churches have sustained growth and attendance. In a healthy church, people not only visit--they also become a part of that local body of believers.
Essential to that fellowship is the opportunity for believers to personally experience God's presence through prayer. Although prayer has, at times, been seen as something done by the "super- spiritual" people or the women's prayer group, it is now being seen as a vital expression of the normal Christian life.
History testifies to the genius and wisdom of God in setting His people to prayer. Take for example the "longest nonstop revival recorded in church history." It was a prayer revival among a Christian group known as the Moravians. This group of common believers began a prayer meeting that started at 10 a.m. one day and continued around the clock for the next 100 years.
The results? Not only did their community become charged with the power of God, but their passion for God and compassion for the lost took them to more than 50 nations with the gospel. This was nearly 100 years before William Carey became known as "the father of modern missions."
Healthy local congregations help the kingdom of God advance far beyond their four walls. Their communities, country and the nations reap the benefit of healthy church prayer.
Praying According to Scripture
The best way to determine what healthy church prayer looks like is to go to the book of prayer: the Bible. Here we have a golden treasury exemplifying the power of prayer. Following are only a few of the biblical examples that teach us about prayer:
1. Nehemiah was a great man of prayer. As he took on the task of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, prayer was his chief weapon. We see this throughout the book of Nehemiah:
Prayers of contrition and confession (see Neh. 1:4, 6)
Prayer of petition (see Neh. 1:11)
Directed prayer (see Neh. 2:4)
United prayer (see Neh. 4:9)
Strength through prayer (see Neh. 6:9)
The prayer of thanksgiving and praise (see Neh. 11:17).
Through prayer Nehemiah had led the people to do what had not been done in 70 years. The gates of Jerusalem were now closed against the enemy so that God's house might be built up once again. And they did it in record time. That is the power, wisdom and glory of prayer.
2. Jesus Christ models for us what healthy prayer looks like. He is our greatest example because His intercession began on earth but continues in heaven (see Heb. 7:24-25). Of the Gospel writers, none gives us a more comprehensive glimpse of Jesus' prayer life than Luke. Someone once suggested we could call Luke's Gospel, "the gospel of prayer." Why? Throughout Luke, Jesus teaches about prayer through both precept and example:
The possibilities of prayer include "open heavens" (see Luke 3:21).
The place of prayer is a quiet and secluded place (see Luke 5:16; 6:12).
The passion of prayer produces perseverance. Jesus prayed "all night" (see Luke 6:12).
There is power in corporate prayer. While Jesus was praying, "His disciples joined Him" (see Luke 9:18).
Prayer brings transformation. While praying, "His countenance" was changed (see Luke 9:28-29).
Prayer is a discipline. Always pray and don't quit (see Luke 18:1-8).
Pharisaical prayer is unmasked. Such is pretentious prayer (see Luke 18:10-11; 20:47).
Jesus commands us to be watchful in prayer. Jesus says to "'rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation'" (Luke 22:40, 46).
Prayer can be agonizing. "Being in agony, He prayed more earnestly...His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground" (Luke 22:44).
Prayer is a means of making intercession. "'Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do'" (Luke 23:34).
Prayer must bring surrender to God's will. "'Father into Your hands I commit My spirit'" (Luke 23:46).
3. The early church in the book of Acts. "And they continued steadfastly...in prayer" (Acts 2:42). Here we have one of the greatest explanations of why the church advanced so rapidly in the first few decades of existence. Someone suggested that we call the book of Acts, "the book of prayer." In 27 chapters we have the subject of prayer mentioned more than 20 times.
In Acts 2 we see that the church was birthed in prayer. They had been waiting, as Jesus had commanded, in the upper room for 10 days, and the Holy Spirit was poured out upon them.
In Acts 4 the Holy Spirit was poured out once again as the believers were gathered in prayer. "And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the Word of God with boldness" (vs. 31).
In Acts 6, the apostles kept the "main thing the main thing." They gave themselves "to prayer and the Word" in the midst of crying needs. This resulted in new, gifted leaders being raised up and greater ministry. We read, "Then the Word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith" (Acts 6:7).
In Acts 10, while Peter was in prayer, the Lord gave him a revelation of His desire for the Gentiles to receive the gospel of the kingdom as well as his fellow Jews. He was given this by way of a vision while a Gentile named Cornelius was himself praying: "'Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and said, "Cornelius, your prayer has been heard"'" (Acts 10:30-31).
In Acts 12 Peter was delivered from prison and a sure execution due to the importunate prayers of the church. "Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church...And when Peter had come to himself, he said, 'Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel, and has delivered me from the hand of Herod and from all the expectation of the Jewish people'" (Acts 12:5,11).
In Acts 13 we discover that when the Lord wanted to advance the cause of His kingdom further in the earth, He showed up by His Spirit in the midst of a prayer meeting: "As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, 'Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away" (Acts 13:2-3).
In order to fulfill their missionary assignment, they trusted God to honor His word with signs following, as a result of prayer. "In that region there was an estate of the leading citizen of the island, whose name was Publius, who received us and entertained us courteously for three days. And it happened that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever and dysentery. Paul went in to him and prayed, and he laid his hands on him and healed him. So when this was done, the rest of those on the island who had diseases also came and were healed" (Acts 28:7-9). God was backing the early church because prayer backed the early church.
4. The apostle Paul. Apart from Jesus, perhaps the greatest New Testament example of personal prayer is Paul. Paul was a great man of God (and the chief of the apostles) because he was a great man of prayer. He writes to the believers in Ephesus of his spiritual concern for them in the context of his prayer life. "Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers" (Eph. 1:15-16). From these verses we have what I call "the art of prayer."
When praying we give ceaseless thanks to God our Father. It is a constant making, or bringing forth, a recollection and a recitation of loved ones by name in our personal worship and audience with God.
For Paul, prayer was more than a passing pause to speak with God. It was a joyful privilege and ongoing burden of ministry. He tells us later that we as believers are to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17). In other words, we must never think that prayer needs to be limited to a time or place. Rather, prayers are to be made at anytime, on any occasion.
And what a pleasure it is to lift and unburden our hearts before the Lord. When we empty our hearts into His heart through prayer, we give Jesus the opportunity to empty His heart into ours.
Again Paul makes known that prayer is the giving of thanks to God. We are to come before His presence with thanksgiving and into His courts with praise (see Ps. 100:4). Thanksgiving is a right and privilege of every believer who is called to be a priest of the new covenant (see 1 Pet. 2:5,9). As the writer to the Hebrew Christians invites us, "Let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name" (Heb. 13:15).
Churches Taking Prayer Initiatives
Following are some snapshots of what healthy prayer in the four corners of the Dallas region looks like. These are some exemplary key churches and leaders that have regular prayer ministry on a local level and are involved relationally through prayer with other pastors and prayer intercessors in their region.
North Dallas. At Hillcrest Church in Dallas, we have more than 600 people who are committed to participate in a one-hour "watch" at least once each week, seeking God on behalf of others. Prayer requests come to us through our prayerline and e-mail 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Various corporate times of prayer, worship and praise allow participants to come and go as their schedule allows.
This corporate setting allows people not only to meet with God together, but also to pray for each other as the Word admonishes (see Acts 2:42; Col. 3:16-17; James 5:13-16). Because of our commitment to prayer, we also have more than 70 Lighthouses of Prayer. These are homes that have specifically dedicated themselves to be points of prayer in their neighborhoods, asking God to bless their neighbors and ultimately bring them into the fold of God's love and salvation.
Another exciting and perhaps unique prayer initiative in our congregation is a "trans-generational" prayer group. This is a weekly gathering of adults and teens who pray for God to touch the youth of this generation, both in the church and in the nation. Teens minister to one another as adults encourage and support their efforts to see lives changed through prayer. Many of these young people are responding to God's call and are doing summer mission outreaches.
In addition to our house-prayer ministry, we have teams that are being specifically trained to accompany mission teams and provide prayer coverage on sight in foreign lands. While there, they pray with insight for the land and the people groups they visit. Hillcrest also hosts an annual conference to help equip and encourage God's people in the whole area of prayer. This year we featured nine workshops on prayer in addition to our general sessions.
We also minister to and promote citywide prayer among multidenominational members. For example, one such group is the Dallas chapter of the Spiritual Warfare Network (SWN) representing 17 churches across our city. The Metroplex Prayer Net is a prayer group that focuses their prayers on citywide intercession through the means of the Internet.
South Dallas. At Mountain Creek Community Church, Robert Summers, a key leader in our South Dallas region, has observed that there are various prayer and reconciliation ministries. The result of consistent prayer and regular meetings at the Prayer Center on Prayer Mountain, where Summers ministers, is the spiritual health and growth of the churches.
There is a diversity of prayer gatherings in the area. For example, 30 to 60 church leaders gather together monthly to pray together and celebrate communion. Another group directed by Olen Griffing of the Embassy Group is seeing a prayer network of apostolic leaders within the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Another key leader is Gene Lewis. His long-running prayer and fellowship gathering is known as a diverse place of encouragement. Summers sees each of these prayer groups as unique and indispensable as a service to the church in the city.
North Central Dallas. At Park Cities Presbyterian Church, Elesia Formagus, a key prayer leader, has noted the wonderful results of prayer initiatives within their local church as well as in their community. "We have over 33 homes from our congregation who have signed up as Lighthouses of Prayer. This started when we hosted a conference in which eight other area churches sent pastors and representatives. The time of fellowship and prayer was so meaningful that there is already another gathering being planned.
"We see the Lighthouses of Prayer not only enriching the lives of our people, but also undergirding the other ministries at our church. It seems to be part of the glue that is bringing the body of Christ together at our local church.
"In addition, early this year we sponsored a prayer walk around our church neighborhood with other neighboring churches across denominational walls. We are looking forward to joining hands for future events together to reach the lost in our area of the metroplex."
East Dallas. At Harvest Church, Daniel Aleman is a key pastor and leader among the Hispanic pastors as well as cross-culturally in the city of Dallas. "Prayer Explosion (Oración Explosiva) is a citywide fellowship of Hispanic pastors in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex that was founded by Dan Aleman in the fall of 1993. The fellowship and prayer generated are around a three-fold purpose:
Prayer for revival in our city
Unity of the pastors among various denominations
Serving the pastor in his community.
"The pastors meet monthly for a two-hour prayer meeting followed by a time when we receive the Lord's Supper together in remembrance of our Lord and reinforcing our covenant as brothers.
"We continue to remind ourselves that unity among pastors in the city is a process that must continue as we move together toward reaching our city for Christ. As we pray, the barriers of our denominations, cultures, races and languages are being removed. We also are mobilizing pastors to pray together at their local, regional and statewide levels as we follow God's direction.
"The Lord has given us a directive to reach out to Hispanic pastors at a statewide level to see reconciliation between Baptist and ex-Baptist [charismatic] pastors. Our focus as we meet quarterly is for spiritual renewal."
Metroplex. Hollis Kirkpatrick, a key prayer leader for Year 2 Kneel 2000 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area writes, "The Lord has directed us to follow His leading and make contact with pastors throughout Tarrant County, advising them that prayer intercessors would like to come to their congregations to pray.
"The heart of this prayer time came from 2 Chronicles 1-7, specifically chapter 7:11-16, focusing on Solomon's building of the temple and God's spoken response to Solomon personally. Our bodies have become the temple of the living God, and His promises to hear our prayers coincide with the same.
"Also, He instructed us that David's passion to bring the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem was done through a multitude of sacrifices, before the ark actually became a present structure in its proper place. With this in mind, our instructions from the Lord have been to come together with sacrificed hearts.
"Then, allowing the Spirit to lead us into praise and worship, conviction, repentance and then to pray with hearts totally submitted to His will. This prayer time usually is for the body of Christ at whatever location we are situated. We are led to pray for the spiritual leadership, the community, the civil leadership and then, many times, the Lord gives prophetic revelation.
"At present we have met every Friday since early January. Following each gathering, we return during the week to refresh our prayers in the locations previously prayed for. We seek to hear the Father's heart for the county. We are also establishing a spiritual wall and spiritual gates around the country."
Develop Healthy Prayer in Your Church
To raise up a healthy, praying church, these steps are important:
1. Prayer must become a priority. Prayer needs to be a mainstay of why you exist as a congregation. Being a house of prayer must be central to the vision of the congregation.
2. The best way to raise up a praying church is to model it personally. If you as a pastoral leader do not engage in daily, regular prayer then your congregation will not pray daily or effectively. Paul said, "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1).
3. Make it easy for people to meet for prayer. Don't schedule prayer in such a way that it competes with other church events. List the times and opportunities to gather for prayer.
4. Demystify prayer. Put people at ease; don't give them the impression that they have to be a "top-notch" prayer warrior to engage in prayer. Don't make "praying for an hour" the pre-eminent sign of praying well or effectively. Boxing people in to unrealistic prayer goals can be discouraging. Let them begin at the level of their faith and grasp of prayer.
As people begin to engage in prayer, what was first just a duty or discipline becomes a delight and a desire. Someone once said, "Pray little and you'll want to pray more; pray more and you'll want much more time to pray."
5. People really want to experience the presence of God personally. Help them discover their "temperament" in prayer. No two people pray alike. Terry Tekyl, in his engaging book, How to Pray After You've Kicked the Dog, wrote, "Out of our personal understanding of God will flow our prayer life--tendencies and patterns of behavior that visibly demonstrate how we relate to our Father. We develop likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, 'hot and cold buttons.'
"This profile describes what each temperament looks like from the outside and answers such questions as: What motivates this temperament to pray? Where do they like to pray best? In what manner and for how long? What type of language do they use to talk to God? What do they generally pray about?"
6. The key to praying--and the real art of prayer--is praying. God looks on the heart. And when the heart and the mouth are engaged together, the Spirit of God will do the rest (see Rom. 8:26-28).
Tips for Training People in Prayer
Begin equipping people to pray through:
Mentoring. Put people in settings where people pray. The disciples learned as they watched Jesus pray. Prayer is both taught and caught.
Hold an annual prayer conference. Bring in speakers and teachers on prayer to minister on the place and power of prayer in the life of a believer and congregation. If you are unable to host a seminar or conference, find out where one is taking place in your region. There are many exciting prayer events that can ignite a passion for prayer.
Make prayer resources available. Keep prayer resources available for people to be informed of prayer needs and what exciting things are happening through prayer (prayer magazines, books and training videos).
Host a prayer breakfast locally to connect the various people who have a special drawing to prayer ministry.
Raise up Lighthouses of Prayer within your community. This gets the church out of the four walls of the church building and into their neighborhoods. There are many testimonies of communities and families being transformed through this vehicle.
As we move into this new millennium, we will see more of the greater works that Jesus promised would be done in these last days. Let's keep the prayer fires burning. Prayer is the fuel to keep healthy churches growing and going for His glory.
Walter Fletcher, Ph.D., is the pastor of prayer at Hillcrest Church in Dallas.
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Resources and Bibliography
Fromke, DeVern. Life's Ultimate Privilege, Sure Foundation, 1986.
Sheets, Dutch. Intercessory Prayer, Regal Books, 1998.
Sjoberg, Kjell. Restoration--A Direction for Prayer, New Wine Press, 1995.
Teykl, Terry. Blue Print for the House of Prayer, Prayer Point Press, 1998.
Teykl, Terry. How to Pray After You've Kicked the Dog, Prayer Point Press, 1998.
Wagner, Peter. Prayer Shield, Regal Books, 1992.
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The appendices include:
The Marvelous Adventure of Prayer
In the School of Prayer
The New Thing
Keys to Prevailing in Prayer
Getting Back to Our First Love
Paul's Call to Prayer
Waiting Upon the Lord
Pray for Divine Impact
Not Just a Prayer Meeting
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