Prayer and revitalization
“Are you kidding? This is what we prayed for all these years!”
I was standing outside our little church building with Leah, an elderly church member who has long since gone to be with her Lord. The congregation had just decided to move our Sunday morning gathering from our 19th-century clapboard chapel to the auditorium of our local junior high school. It was clearly the right decision for us — we were out of space and not inclined to split the church into two services. But I was concerned about the feelings of some of the older members. After all, they had been coming to this building on Sunday mornings for a long time.
To give you some context, our church was founded in the mid-1800s. As the area transformed over the decades from rural to blue-collar to white-collar, the church had its ups and downs. When we had begun the process of revitalizing the church four years earlier, Sunday morning attendance only occasionally reached double digits. Now, we had grown out of our little meeting space and we were planning to move on to what was next.
When I asked Leah if she was upset about the decision of the church, I was expecting some mild disapproval. At the very least, I thought she would be sad about the change. But it turned out she was thinking in terms of answered prayers! She told me that throughout the decades of decline in the church, a group of elderly people would gather every week on Wednesday and pray. Leah told me they specially prayed that God would cause the doors of the church to overflow. Now, their prayers were literally being answered: People were sitting in the aisles, leaning on the ductwork, and listening in from an adjacent room.
The revitalization of our church was God’s answer to the prayers of these elderly saints. But it didn’t stop there! When the church began to grow, the church’s hunger for prayer grew as well. God’s answer to the prayers of his church for revitalization was to send more people who would pray for more people. Sunday morning services were marked by extended times of prayer, as we asked the Spirit of God to move powerfully in our midst and in our community. On Sunday nights, people came back to pray for unsaved friends, neighbors, and co-workers. As people started coming to Christ, more and more people showed up to pray for the lost and for the spread of the gospel. And yes, the elderly saints kept gathering every Wednesday night to pray for even more of the Lord’s blessing.
There are times when prayer seems inefficient and ineffective. God doesn’t always answer immediately and in the ways we expect. I remember talking to a member of a different church in our area that was struggling. I asked if they gathered regularly to pray, and she told me she had wanted to start a weekly prayer meeting a while back. But when she pitched the idea to the pastor, he said they had tried it and it hadn’t worked. That pastor was leaving, frustrated at the lack of growth. I told her to read Luke 18:1-8 and then start a prayer meeting with anyone who would attend.
Anyone who has tried it knows that church revitalization is more than we can handle. Any kind of church growth and life you can drum up purely through techniques and strategies is not revitalization that pleases the Lord. We can work and preach and evangelize, but in the end we all know we depend on God to give us the growth (1 Cor. 3:6). That’s why we must pray. J.I. Packer reminds us that the enormity of our task and our dependence on God “ought to drive us to prayer. It is God’s intention that they should drive us to prayer. God means us, in this as in other things, to recognize and confess our impotence, and to tell him that we rely on him alone, and to plead with him to glorify his name. It is his way regularly to withhold his blessing until his people start to pray… But if you and I are too proud or too lazy to ask, we need not expect to receive.” (Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, p. 119)