By Gary Kinnaman
How to Launch and Sustain a Prayer Ministry in Your Church
(A few years ago this article appeared in Pray magazine and War Cry, the magazine of the Salvation Army).
Prolonged and painful. That’s how I described our annual church budget deliberations. Once our executive pastor, Chris, blurted out, “How we spend our money is our religion!”
What he meant was this: our priorities are not the things we say are important to us. Our priorities are the things we actually do. So, fearless man of God that I am, I’ve suggested to the people in our church that the best way for us to help them along the road of right priorities, perhaps, is to do a little review of their personal bank accounts.
I’ve walked right out into the congregation and, making eye contact with some poor soul, asked, “Can I look at your checkbook?”
I reach out my hand. I pause. Everyone holds their breath…
No, I’ve never looked! But God does. He looks at our calendars and day planners, too. It’s not what we saythat is important. It’s how we spend our money and use our time, and the painful reality is that mostChristians just don’t spend much of their time alone with God.
How can we change that? How can we mobilize people who say they really want to pray, but don’t? I’m a realist: there are reasons—legitimate reasons—we can’t dismiss lightly by saying things like, “They just don’t love God enough.” If we are wise, we will take these reasons seriously as we strive to get more people to pray more.
Some reasons why people don’t pray more
They’re busy. And this isn’t a lame excuse. People really are busy. It’s well-documented that our world has never been more stressful, so even if you’re not busy, you sure feel busy!
They’re distracted. George Otis’ landmark video, Transformations, features a collection of case studies on the power of prayer to change our world. One of them is Cali, Columbia, and in the video you can see for yourself tens of thousands of Christians in a soccer stadium, not one empty seat, worshiping and praying for miracles for their city and nation. All night!
I was there with George when he filmed the event, and what you don’t see on the video are the thousands of Christians outside the stadium who couldn’t get in, but still stood there praying. All night!
It’s so different here in our wonderful country. On a recent evening, my wife Marilyn and I were eating fast-food at one of our new urban “power centers,” a cluster of mega-stores, theaters, and restaurants. “Just look at all the people,” I muttered through a mouthful of Mexican food. “All these glittering distractions are a not-so-obvious reason why people think they don’t need God.” And don’t kid yourself: our multiple choice culture deeply affects Christians, too, and keeps them from prayer.
Another reason people don’t pray more: they don’t know how to pray. For many people, prayer is not “natural.” Our minds are restless, God’s doesn’t exactly “answer back,” and we get stuck on how to express ourselves to Someone we can’t “see.” And for “type A” people like me, prayer can seem unproductive.
Praying with others
Finally, people don’t pray more because they have no one to help them and to hold them accountable. Even though most of the prayer in the Bible seems to have been in community, somehow we’ve come to neglect the “together” element of prayer.
Instead, we think of prayer as a highly personal and individualized practice, a spiritual art we have to masteralone. And if we don’t, there certainly must be something wrong with us, we presume. But didn’t Jesus say that he was present whenever and wherever two or three are gathered?
May I confess my own failure to pray often enough and long enough? Let me encourage so many of you whose hearts are troubled by the sense of spiritual failure because your prayer life is, well, inert. There is a failsafe solution that’s worked marvelously for me: praying with others in regular, pre-arranged times and places.
A passion to pray
So how, then, can we mobilize people to pray and to pray more? First, people are motivated to pray when someone with extraordinary passion challenges them to pray. An element of effective leadership in any context is passion, and no local church will have a growing prayer life if leaders in that church are not impassioned about prayer. Preach about prayer! Make appeals! Tell powerful stories of answered prayer. Beg a little?
Passion is essential, but it has limits. Feelings and emotions fluctuate, and the fiery flash-points of revival don’t always seem to produce long-term Christian growth. Dare I suggest that passion, or emotional energy, as important and as biblical as it is, is not a primary core value of the Christian life? The apostle Paul made this pretty clear: “If I…surrender my body to the flames [on fire for God], but have not love, I gain nothing….And now these three [primary core values] remain: faith, hope, and love” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3,13).
I could not have sustained a preaching ministry for twenty-five years in the same church by being on fire for God every minute of every day! Most of the time, the good I do in ministry I do routinely. Like my forty-year marriage! Certainly, my relationship with my dear Marilyn needs a good and frequent dose of passion, and my spiritual life needs an occasional “rush,” too, those times when God fills me with perceptible grace and joy. Most of my life, though, is about daily, unemotional duty, discipline, and obedience to God.
Life is like a day at Disneyland: you spend most of the day standing in line and just a few seconds on the rides. The whole day can’t be an uninterrupted emotional high. That would be utterly exhausting, and even the best rides would get boring! Not too long ago I got stuck on a roller coaster that went around the tracktwice. At my age, my day was over! Time for the motel.
The Bible has some good terms for overcoming the routines of life: faithfulness, perseverance, patient endurance. Back at Disneyland, that would be the standing-in-line part. Passion moves and motivates me, but faithfulness sustains me. Patient endurance keeps me in line.
The discipline of prayer
Second, people are mobilized to pray when local churches provide them with specific and routine prayer opportunities championed by the senior pastor. A good football coach has to motivate his players, but he also better have a good game plan! Pastors and prayer leaders, you have to be passionate about prayer, but in order to mobilize and sustain prayer in your church you must have a plan.
Your plan must be manageable, because—and never forget—people are busy. We have a choice: we can make people feel guilty that they don’t have time for prayer, or that they don’t pray passionately enough. Or we can try to make the experience of prayer as accessible and convenient for as many people as possible. You see, when people pray just a little, and it’s a very positive thing, they will want to pray more. We must avoid giving our people the feeling that there are only two options for prayer: all night or not at all.
I am especially grateful for the most passionate intercessors in our church, but most of the folks in our congregation just can’t keep pace with them! You know, some people can run a marathon, but not many. Others can barely walk!
Manageable and measurable
Your prayer plan should also be measurable. Ever heard someone say, “I just don’t feel God in our Sunday services like I used to”? As measured by? Or, “Our pastor used to preach better.” As measured by? Or, “This church should be praying more!” As measured by?
It’s an objective fact that church people can be pretty subjective, and most churches do not have practical ways to measure the success or effectiveness of their ministries. It’s like when your boss at work tells you that you’re “just not doing your job.” As measured by? Don’t you just hate it when she has no specificanswer for that question?
A good example of “manageable and measurable” prayer was my early morning, weekly men’s prayer meeting. We did it for twenty years, and a little rule sustained us: “You have to be here every week unless you are sick our out of town, and you have to make a six month commitment.” We took attendance and followed up aggressively with people who are absent. People will not always do what you expect, but they will be more likely to do what you inspect! “Manageable-and-measurable” (once a week for one hour for six months) kept our men’s 5:30 AM prayer meeting going for two decades! Some weeks we’re passionate, butevery week we’re faithful.
Ideas that work
Below are some other examples of specific things we did at our church to mobilize and sustain prayer. Notice that our prayer plan had multiple points of entry: some of the praying we do is intense and prolonged, some is not. We were realistic and accepting of the fact that most people will not be attracted to the intense parts, but we are very grateful for the ones who are. Ultimately, prayer is a God-thing. After we have preached and planned, we have to be at rest that God will do the rest.
Depending on the size of your church and your prayer “staff,” which may be a single volunteer prayer leader, you can do one or more of the following as a first step in developing an intentional and strategic prayer focus in your local church:
- A structured prayer time before every worship service and in every worship service.
- A weekly early morning men’s prayer meeting led by the senior pastor: 10 minutes of worship, 20 minutes of Bible study, 10 minutes all of us praying together, 20 minutes praying in groups of no more than four.
- Four special days of prayer and fasting every year: week after New Year, week before Easter, National Day of Prayer, and week before school starts. We end each of our special days of prayer and fasting with a prayer service from 6 to 7 PM, sometimes followed by a “break-the-fast” fellowship meal.
- Quarterly, one or two day “time with God retreats” at a local retreat center. Get people out of their routines and into the presence of God!
- “PIT Crews” (personal intercessory teams) for every leader in your church. I had about a dozen people who prayed for me and my family every day. I met with them every couple months, sent them books and other materials on prayer, and mailed them a copy of my monthly calendar with notations to guide their prayers. I also get in touch with them all, immediately, through email.
- A regular, structured prayer time with the leaders/staff of your church. We did it weekly, for one hour, and attendance was required.
- A sermon series every year on “spirituality,” including prayer.
- Regular classes on prayer for adults and children—led by people in your church or city who love to pray.
- Books on prayer, if you have a book table or book store.
- Prayer leaders in each ministry or department of your church. Even the smallest congregation will have more than one ministry.
- Specialized training for prayer leaders in your church.