The Church Prayer Meeting, Its Decline and Revival
G. Chewter[These are notes of an address at a meeting for ministers and printed in the splendid Gospel Tidings edited by P.M. Rowell, Chapel House, Forest Fold, Crowborough, TN16 1TD.]
1. PRAYER MEETINGS CAN EASILY DEGENERATE.
Some of the reasons for this are:
1. Wrong attitude – Many may be happy to come and join in regular worship services but in regard to meeting for prayer the thought may be, ‘It’s only a prayer meeting’. In many churches the prayer meeting is left to the ‘faithful few’. Bill Hughes, one time pastor in Glasgow had a rule that if a member did not attend the prayer meeting they were not permitted to come to the business meeting of the church. If they were not prepared to pray with the church why should they have the privilege of participating in its decisions? When things are at a low ebb in a church the prayer meeting is often first to be dropped. The story is told of a certain chapel where many years ago the people, having lost heart in public prayer meetings, decided to give them up. But one old lady strongly disagreed. So on the usual prayer meeting night, dressed in her weatherproofs, she braved the storm, unlocked the chapel and taking her usual place, sat down to pray. On the way home she decided to call at one of the members’ homes. ‘Where have you been on a night like this?’ was the inquiry. ‘I’ve been to the prayer meeting.’ ‘O, I thought they had been discontinued; were any others there?’ ‘Yes,’ said the faithful old lady, ‘there were four of us – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and me, and it was a special time.’ Through the old sister’s perseverance the church was shamed into gathering again at the time of prayer.
2. Excessive length of each prayer – This is an old, old problem. The spirit may be willing but the flesh is weak. Long prayers often become a weariness to the flesh, making it hard for those listening to spiritually participate and keep up concentration, especially if it is an evening meeting. This problem often has to be addressed and pastors down the years have had their own ways of dealing with persistent ‘offenders’. It is reported of the late Henry Popham of Eastbourne that he would sometimes say before calling any of the brethren to the front, ‘If you’re too long in prayer, I will pull your coat tails!’ Alternatively, he would deliberately drop a hymnbook!
Short prayers help to retain freshness. Besides, most prayers in the Scriptures are brief and to the point. ‘Some pray me into the spirit and others pray me out of it by undue length,’ Spurgeon complained. It has been said: ‘Short prayers sink deep’. ‘It is strength, not length,’ said Spurgeon. ‘The worth of a prayer is not gauged by its dimensions,’ – M’Cheyne. Thomas Boston said: ‘Lay no weight on the quantity of your prayers; that is to say, how long or how many they are. These things avail nothing with God, by whom prayers are not measured, but weighed.’ To quote Spurgeon again: ‘It is necessary to draw near unto God, but it is not required of you to prolong your speech till everyone is longing to hear the word Amen’. The only exception I believe is if a spirit of prayer and supplication is poured out upon one member in a special way. They will know, and every spiritually-minded person will know, and will lose sight of the time. J. C. Philpot’s advice was that on such occasions we should make the most of it and spread the sails, as it were, to catch those heavenly breezes.
3. Formality – We are creatures of habit and routine. We all tend to have our own phrases and manner of approach to the Lord. It is therefore easy for prayer to become so predictable. Interestingly, John Newton used this observation as an argument in favour of the use of written prayers in public worship. In most extemporaneous prayers, he maintained, you recognised the beginning, could discern the middle and you knew when it was coming to an end, so why not use written ones, was his conclusion. The problem of excessive length and formality was dealt with very succinctly by D. L. Moody when he said: ‘Some people’s prayers need to be cut off at both ends and set on fire in the middle.’
4. Vagueness or being unspecific – Although prayer involves communion with the Lord and a worshipping frame of mind yet we are to make requests. The story is told of a prayer meeting where one brother seemed to be preaching rather than praying. One sister felt especially troubled by this, so she interrupted by calling out: ‘Ask for something!’
5. Prayers that are unduly personal – very little prayer or desire may be expressed for the conversion of sinners and the furtherance of the gospel: instead, the time is spent in an introspective rehearsing of numerous personal doubts and fears. One preacher described it as ‘hanging out the dirty washing for all to see’.
6. Pride – a desire to be seen and heard. The heart being uplifted at the thought of an opportunity to show others one’s ‘gift in prayer’. This was the downfall of the Pharisees: they wished to be seen of men. To quote the theologian, Robert Reymond: ‘When you pray, remember whose attention you wish to gain.
In these and other ways prayer meetings can easily degenerate. So what can be done?
2. IMPROVING THE PRAYER MEETING.
1. First and foremost we must recognise our continual need of the gracious influence and utter dependence upon the Holy Spirit. To quote again Rom. 8.5, the Spirit helpeth our infirmities. How much we need that help! The Apostle Paul says: What is it then? I will pray, with the Spirit and with the understanding also, 1 Cor.14.15. In Eph. 6.18 Paul exhorts us to praying with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit. Again and again we need to be anointed with fresh oil (Psalm 92.10).
2. From time to time we must emphasize to our people the importance of meeting together to pray. It may be a rather hackneyed expression but there is truth in it: ‘Those who pray together, stay together’. Spurgeon called the prayer meeting: ‘the powerhouse of the church’. If the engine room is out of action then the whole mill will grind to a halt. We cannot expect blessing if we do not ask. It may seem a rather simple diagnosis but it may apply in some cases: Ye have not, because ye ask not, James 4.2.
3. The need for unity – After the resurrection we read of the disciples in the upper room: These all continued with one accord in prayer and in supplication, with the women, Acts 1.14. The words of John Newton’s hymn are appropriate here: ‘The force of their united cries, no power could long withstand, for Jesus helps them from the skies with his almighty hand’. Some of the best prayer meetings are those where there is one heart and one desire for the blessing of God to accompany the preaching of the Gospel and for the extension of the kingdom of Christ. It is an abuse of the prayer meeting for a member to deliberately contradict or try to ‘correct’ another’s prayer when they themselves are called on to pray.
4. The need for focus – In Acts 1.14 they were not only united in prayer but their meetings had a focal point – the fulfillment of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. That focus can also be ours. We urgently need the Lord to come again in power to His people in a way of revival and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 4 the disciples under threat from the authorities gathered to pray, v23 states that they lifted up their voice with one accord. And when they had prayed the place was shaken where they were assembled together, v31, the focal point being a desire for strength not to buckle under the pressure, but, Grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word, v29. Acts 12 records for us that the central purpose of the prayer meeting in the home of Mary at Jerusalem was for the well-being and deliverance of Peter. I believe it is far better, if possible, to pray for people by name in their particular circumstances rather than petitions couched in vague and general terms such as: ‘we pray for the afflicted’, ‘we pray for the aged’, ‘we pray for the missionaries’. Who have we actually prayed for? While we need to be sensitive to people’s feelings especially relating to personal problems, yet I believe the more specific we can be the better.
On a practical note, a regular church prayer meeting consisting of members only can prove to be a useful opportunity for individuals to share in confidence their concerns, enabling those who pray to do so in an intelligent and informed way. This brings the added benefit of mutual understanding, sympathy and support. A very moving account of a prayer meeting at Tyre is given in Acts 21 where after seven days’ fellowship, men with their wives and children knelt down on the shore and prayed, the central focus being concern for Paul’s welfare and safety, as he was determined to preach at Jerusalem. The previous chapter records a similarly moving account of Paul praying with the elders of Ephesus at Miletus, resulting in the people being moved to tears at the thought of his departure. By the way, though emotion should not be deliberately encouraged, yet I do not think tears should be despised or discouraged. Prayer meetings are moving where there is a longing desire and yearning for answers from heaven. So, in all these cases the meetings for prayer had a focal point. To this end it may be helpful to regularly bring to the meeting items of particular concern, which need to be prayed for.
5. Careful thought as to the location – If the prayer meeting attendance is usually small it may be helpful to meet in a vestry or some other suitable room where a sense of ‘togetherness’ will be created, enabling those more hard of hearing to follow, rather than six or seven people dotted about in a chapel designed to seat 150 or more people.
6. Brevity (again!) – If there are few who publicly participate it may be argued that if each prayed for only 3-4 minutes then the prayer meeting would soon be over! To this I would reply by suggesting that each are encouraged to be brief and given the opportunity to pray more than once during the meeting. This concept may sound rather foreign to some, but it can work well.
7. Take it home! – Maybe we have all been at fault at times, in praying for certain matters publicly and neglecting to do so privately. How good if the members of the church take up the burden of the church, continuing to carry the church affairs to the Lord when alone on their knees. A truly praying church will be made up of members who pray much at home. C. H. Spurgeon claimed that: ‘Neglect of private prayer is the locust that devours the strength of the church’.
We have a powerful adversary who would love to exploit all our weaknesses and infirmities in prayer, but we have an almighty and merciful God, who waits to be gracious and has promised for the sake of His Son to hear the cries of His people.
‘The one concern of the devil is to keep the saint from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom, but he trembles when we pray’ (Samuel Chadwick).
Whether as churches or individuals we need to hear again the exhortation of the Apostle that we might be encouraged afresh: Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need, Heb. 4.16.
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