In my last blog post, I posed a question: “Why are churches in the developing world so vibrant?” I maintained that Western Christians intent on Church renewal must imitate their brothers and sisters in the developing world by embracing biblical orthodoxy.
But that’s not the only way we need to emulate fellow believers. Here in the West, we must commit to faithful prayer if we’re serious about Church renewal.
I had the opportunity to interact with Christians overseas recently. It struck me how loud and passionate their prayers were. I could tell they were used to crying out to God. It made me think of what it must have been like in the upper room. Christ’s disciples gathered there at the beginning of Acts, and “with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14, ESV).
In the self-obsessed West, thoughtful worship, petition, and thanksgiving to God through prayer have sadly fallen out of common practice. The frequency of our prayers has also declined.
Pew Research found that fewer Americans say they’re praying every day, according to a survey in 2014. Younger and religiously unaffiliated people show the lowest proclivity toward prayer. Neither trend bodes well, with fewer Americans attending church and Millennials less engaged with traditional religion.
Even when Americans do pray, the content of their conversations with God are often self-centered. Lifeway Research conducted a survey on prayer in August 2014. They polled Americans about what they normally prayed for, and found that Americans “ask for divine help in times of trouble but rarely praise God’s greatness.”
“Most people pray when they need the red phone for help,” LifeWay Research Executive Director Ed Stetzer commented. “But their prayer life isn’t a habit rooted in a relationship with God.”
These types of “red phone” prayers ignore key elements of prayers found in Scripture. Look no further than the Lord’s Prayer as an example. Christ instructs his disciples to focus on praising God, asking for His Kingdom to come, seeking forgiveness of sins and requesting God’s help for personal sanctification. This prayer only briefly includes a request for God to meet the petitioner’s physical needs.
One passage that recently impacted me regarding prayer was Nehemiah 1:5-11. There, Scripture records Nehemiah’s heartfelt plea after discovering how badly Jerusalem had been destroyed by her enemies. He began by praising the Lord. He focused on “confessing the sins of the people of Israel,” repeating what he had already prayed to the Lord “day and night” (Nehemiah 1:6, ESV).
Throughout the prayer, Nehemiah demonstrated his profound biblical literacy by extensively quoting the Old Testament. He laid hold of God’s promises he found in the Scriptures. Only in the final verse of the prayer does Nehemiah make an explicit request for God’s help.
These scriptural examples should point us to what so many Christians in the developing world have already discovered. The point of prayer is finding God, not self-fulfillment.
Pastor and author Tim Keller addressed this very issue in his book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. Keller said Scripture doesn’t portray prayer “as merely a way to get things from God but as a way to get more of God himself.”
As prosperous Westerners, we often fail to see our need for the active work of God in our lives. By contrast, poverty, sickness, insecurity, and political upheaval serve as daily reminders in the developing world for believers to seek God.
“Without this powerful sense of God’s reality, good circumstances can lead to overconfidence and spiritual indifference,” Keller also wrote. “Who needs God, our hearts conclude, when matters seem to be so in hand?”
In short, our prayers in the West lack urgency because we don’t believe that finding and knowing God is an urgent need. This severely hurts our churches. When we aren’t seeking God corporately and individually to our fullest, we can’t expect our efforts to succeed. Our social witness, evangelization, and membership will all suffer.
If Western churches want to capture the vibrancy that characterizes churches in the Global South, their leadership and their members must commit to persistent, biblically informed, urgent prayer. Only then can they achieve Church renewal and effectively participate in building God’s Kingdom.
South African pastor Andrew Murray aptly described the transforming power of prayer in Church renewal and expansion: “The man who mobilizes the Christian church to pray will make the greatest contribution to world evangelization in history.”