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Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Whatever Happened to Prayer Meetings?

In Acts 12 there is a kind of fun story about Peter in jail. Herod had James, John's brother, beheaded and found out the Jews liked it. So he had Peter arrested and planned to further the fun by killing him after Passover. Well, God had other plans. In the night an angel came in, kicked Peter and told him to get up and go, and they walked out. Peter didn't even know it was real until the angel left him outside the prison. Imagine that! So he went to where he knew Christians would be gathered and knocked on the door. Sure enough, there was a group inside praying for Peter, but when the girl told them Peter was at the door, they were pretty sure she was nuts and all they expected was Peter's ghost. They were wrong. (Acts 12:1-17) Fun stuff.

Here's what's interesting in that story. First, "So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God." (Acts 12:5) Then, when Peter figured out it was not a dream or a vision, but real, "he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was also called Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying." (Acts 12:12) The common theme, then, was that the church was gathered and praying. Oh, and with a greater effect than even they anticipated.

What ever happened to those meetings? In places in the world where persecution of Christians is rampant, group prayer is fundamental. But in the American church it's just about gone. Even in my youth, when "Wednesday night prayer meeting" was everywhere, it was never well attended. The vast majority have dropped it. We appear to have taken on the description of the church at Laodicea. "You say, 'I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,' and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked." (Rev 3:17) (Oh, by the way, Laodicea was not the church you want to be associated with. Jesus considered Himself outside that church (Rev 3:20).)

What else? I don't think the answer is that simple. Sure, we underestimate our need and overestimate our ability. What else? We have certainly succumbed to an anti-supernatural spirit of our day. Science reigns in our world and, while we know science isn't the answer, we also tend toward a secular view when it comes to prayer. "God doesn't do the miraculous anymore. God doesn't answer prayer." This secular view extends beyond this anti-supernatural bias, of course. We buy into the idea that making money and doing things and indulging in entertainment and all this is important. Prayer? Not so much.

American individualism has had its effect. We don't need anyone or anything. We're individuals. We're self-sufficient. If there is anything the Bible teaches us about ourselves it is our inability to do what God demands, but we're pretty sure we've got this. If there's anything current events tells us it is that we are increasingly becoming targeted in society, that immorality and evil is growing, but we're pretty sure we've got this. Prayer? Don't worry; we've got this. The early church was "continually devoting themselves to prayer" (Acts 1:14; Acts 2:42). But we've got this.

Is it possible that, due to societal influences and individualism and pride and sin that one of the problems we have with prayer is that we just don't care? When Peter was dragged into prison, the first response of the church was to gather and pray fervently. Us? Not really. We might seek to feed the poor or help out someone or something like it, but to make it an issue of corporate prayer? I don't see it very often. I wonder how much of the vanishing of the prayer meeting is due to our apathy.

If the Bible is full of prayer, both individual and corporate (and it is), it would seem apparent that 1) God considers it important (Psa 27:4; Phil 4:6; 1 Thess 5:17, etc.) and 2) Satan would target it (because God considers it important). If Jesus promised, "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you" (John 15:7), it would make sense that Satan would target that kind of power. And we've let him.

Jesus said, "If two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven." (Matt 18:19) The first church devoted itself to praying together. Jesus promised great results from prayer. To the objection, "I don't know how to pray" Paul says, "We do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us." (Rom 8:26) We are commanded to pray. We are encouraged to pray. We are promised God's will is accomplished in our prayer. Prayer produces unity (Acts 1:14). Prayer is fundamental to the Christian life.

So, whatever happened to the prayer meeting? Satan took it on and we let it go. Sin, doubt, self-sufficiency, busyness, entertainment, pride, and perhaps even a healthy dose of apathy have all intervened to cut us off from the source of power God promised and the early church knew. Perhaps, given our life and times, it is something we should recover.


Anonymous said...

Well said, sounds very much like our Bible Study last Sunday. A sad situation we find ourselves in, as a small group and the larger congregation. Keep fighting by praying as did the believers at Mary's house. Keep joining in prayer at every opportunity and enlist our brothers and sisters one at a time in the fight.

Stan said...

Yeah, I get ideas to write about stuff from all sorts of places ... even Sunday Bible study.

Bruce Hergert said...

When I read an article such as this, or hear someone speak on the subject, I always seem to have the same observation: there must have been equally fervent prayer on behalf of (the soon-to-be-beheaded) John, but he met his end anyway, while Peter was miraculously saved.

"Why one and not the other" is the most mysterious aspect of the Christian prayer life that I can think of. The standard answer I get from well-meaning friends is something like, "Who are you, oh man, to question God's ways?".

This issue, for me, is where the rubber meets the road. I admit my lack of depth of knowledge about prayer. But, my buddy Stan, do you have a different answer? Please?

Stan said...

Prayer, to me, is my conversation with God. That is, the Father says, "Stan, talk to me. I want to hear what's on your mind." And we know that I don't know how to do that (Rom 8:26), so He takes that into account. So I tell Him what's on my mind, what's on my heart, and I aim to pray, "Yet not my will, but Yours", that He would always be glorified, whether in saving Peter or in James's execution or whatever other answer He gives. I trust He will.

David said...

"Prayer, to me, is my conversation with God. That is, the Father says, "Stan, talk to me. I want to hear what's on your mind.""

That might be another symptom of the problem. Prayer is my conversation with God, not yours. Combine that with people like me that feel that my prayer requests aren't worthy compared to others. I can't count how many times in corporate prayer that I've thought about speaking up, but then someone else has a dying aunt or lost brother or some other hardship that makes mine feel petty in comparison.

Stan said...

I remember a youth leader I know who stopped asking the high schoolers for prayer requests because it became something of a contest to see who had the "biggest request". I get what you're saying.

I don't know if "prayer requests" is the answer or even the question. I wonder if they are some of the problem (as you have indicated). I also wonder if "prayer meetings" -- gatherings for corporate prayer -- don't scare some people away because they might want to pray with the group but don't want to get stuck with being asked to pray out loud or forced to offer a prayer request or ...