Prayer Waves 5: Cultures of Prayer
Continuing in a vein that I have for some time on the subject of prayer, I wanted to take a look at ‘cultures of prayer’ – places and movements in the world which have really taken hold of the vision of prayer in a particular way, so that it becomes really a part of the identity of who they are as a people. This can be easily started of course from the book of Acts, where importantly (as I have touched on before) we witness a continually-praying community at the heart of the church that was bearing such a great revival. Without prayer we will not sustain God’s move in our midst; only prayer can keep us riding on the wind of His Spirit: continuous, persistent, breakthrough prayer.
Book of Acts
Before the famous outpouring of chapter 2, before any of the recorded miracles of the book of Acts, before there was church growth or evangelism, or preaching, or teaching, or anything else – the first thing in the life of the church was prayer. Luke, at the very end of his Gospel account, significantly recorded that ‘they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God.’ (Luke 24:52-53).
We witness here the beginning of what was to become the epicentral life of the church: the continuity of worship and prayer in the temple. It doesn’t actually tell us there was any prayer at this point, which is an important point: before ever we get into prayer, it is important to worship. But it is difficult to really prescribe this when, for the disciples, their worship stemmed from an overwhelming joy at the victory of their Lord and Teacher, Jesus Christ, whom they had also witnessed ascend into heaven. So we too need to make sure that we remember, and take note of, His good deeds whenever they occur or are mentioned around us, so that we cultivate this atmosphere of joy and worship.
The theme is extended clearly right into the book of Acts, again as I mentioned, before there was any Holy Spirit outpouring. Acts 1:14 says, ‘These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women…’ and so on. That was the culture in which the disciples sought to balance their authority and accountability in chapter 1, and eventually into which, ten days later, God poured out His Holy Spirit in great power.
Most readers may well know the story of chapter 2, of how tongues of fire came and rested upon each one of the one hundred and twenty disciples gathered into the upper room in Jerusalem. Many people heard a great noise, as the disciples were speaking in other tongues the wonderful works of God (praise is still a theme!), and were gathered together wondering what the commotion was. Peter preached a message far beyond what we would have expected from him if it were the Peter of the Gospels – but of course this one had now fully dedicated his life to the Lord Jesus, and had just experienced the fullness of God entering him! And 3000 people got saved that day.
It is an incredible account and one which often sets many hearts ablaze. It is significant to note that right away after this whole event is recorded, it notes carefully that ‘They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer…’ and, ‘Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple…they were…praising God and having favor with all the people.’ (Acts 2:42,46-47)
There they are. Right in the middle of this now extremely vibrant church life, right at the core, are the worship and prayer life, along now with fellowship, breaking of bread, the apostles’ teaching and so on, all of which are important. But those things which they carried right from the beginning, remain. And there, I think, lies the key to the longevity and great power of the incredible movement and revival that we read about in the book of Acts.
Indeed, we witness the centrality of this lifestyle later on in the book too. When the first major problem in the church arose in chapter 6, of the widows not being cared for, the apostles appointed a few to look into this specifically, and then went on to say ‘But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word’ (Acts 6:4). What was going on? Were these apostles who said this being obnoxious and dismissive, assigning a few lesser-apostles to feed the widows? Well no, first of all it clearly says that they selected seven men of good reputation, ‘full of the Spirit and of wisdom’ (v.3). Secondly, their statement of devotion to prayer and the word, was meant to encourage those seven that they would be backed up by that same life of the church that had born so much fruit for them already in their presently-short history.
As we have seen before, Paul continued to encourage this kind of lifestyle when writing to the churches. He told the Philippians to ‘Rejoice in the Lord always…[and] in everything by prayer, and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.’ (Phil 4:4-6) He was even more blunt and straightforward with the Thessalonians, summing up that three things in the life of the church would essentially encompass the will of God for them: ‘Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.’ (1 Thess 5:16-18) A life of continual praise, prayer and thanksgiving is the healthiest place a church can be.
Other cultures of prayer
I would love to know more about what I’m going to write. Some of what I know, I have only by hearing others talk about these different cultures of prayer (as I’m calling them). A few I have read about, which is exciting. I am sure that literature exists about the others, but sadly I haven’t laid my hands on it yet!
One movement that had a profound impact on especially the British church, in ways that I think most British Christians would not realise, was the Moravian movement.
This movement already had its roots and its beginnings firmly established by the time it began to experience renewal in the 18th century. In 1722 refugees, the poor and needy, began to be welcomed onto a site belonging to one Count von Zinzendorf in Saxony, Germany, shepherded by a group of Bohemian Brethren. As they built a community of help and care for one another, and of devotion to God, one of the unique and almost unprecedented things that they established was a continuous prayer meeting that went on night and day, non-stop for 100 years!
It would be impossible here to list the great achievements of this movement in any concise way, and they deserve really their own article and study (you can read the Wikipedia entry here). Suffice it to say that they really were the first modern Protestant missionary movement, sending out a large number of missionaries to extraordinary places, in sometimes extraordinary conditions: I have heard that some of their missionaries sold themselves into slavery in order to reach the people that they needed to. They had and still do have, to this day, a great motto saying: ‘Our Lamb has conquered, let us follow Him.’ They would also encourage their missionaries to ‘win for the Lamb the full measure of the reward for His sufferings.’
I do not doubt that the great longevity of this movement, the power and efficacy of their witness to nations, was due in large part to their emphasis on prayer, especially continuous prayer, at the heart of their culture.
I mentioned that they were important even to us Brits. There was once an unbelieving Englishman named John on board a ship which was encountering a heavy storm. He naturally became scared, but there were some Moravians on that boat who were so much at peace, so unafraid and so trusting in their God, that it made him marvel. He never forgot that and it led to his being converted. This was John Wesley, who went on to pioneer the Methodist movement which radically transformed the face of Christianity in Britain at the time.
The Moravians have spread all over the place, and particularly have settlements now in the United States. I have heard tell of one place where they habitually and continually prayed, where now the heavens are so open that people experience some very unusual and incredible encounters with God and with the supernatural, because of the huge rift in the heavens that has been caused by so much prayer.
Another place that causes my heart to burn whenever I read or hear about it, is South Korea, and in particular the churches of such leaders as Yonggi Cho. For a long time Pastor Yonggi Cho lead the largest church in the world, and it still remains one of the biggest today. Yet it began with him in a small tent pitched on the streets, preaching to the passers by, to whoever would hear him.
What did he do when he wasn’t preaching? He prayed. He would retreat into his tent and spend time in prayer and the word.
Later when the church was beginning to be properly planted, his mother-in-law would apparently enter his room at 4am, with a bucket of cold water and a sponge, and begin to throw the wet sponge at him saying “wake up, you’ve got to pray”! How many of us would like that kind of rude awakening in the morning?! Yet it was part of what birthed one of the most significant churches in the late twentieth century.
Of course as they continued to grow (and the growth was dramatic), they taught their members to pray, and made prayer a core part of what they did as a church. They have now established what is known as ‘prayer mountain’, a whole area of land dedicated to prayer. They now take prayer requests from all over the world and systematically lift them before the Lord, often waiting until they get a testimony before they put down the prayer request.
All of this is and more is recorded in detail in Paul Yonggi Cho’s excellent book, Prayer: key to revival.
The Welsh Revival of 1904-5 was an extreme catalytic moment for the church of the twentieth century, globally speaking. It preceded and effected the great Azusa Street outpouring, to which many attribute the birth of Pentecostalism. It of course affected the British Isles, and evangelists and pioneers like Smith Wigglesworth may not have emerged in the way that they did, had it not been for the Welsh Revival. A prayer movement was actually born out of this particular revival too, which is surely significant, with Rees Howells and his Bible college years later coming to affect events on the international scene through their prayers.
But of course, it was prayer that preceded this revival. Just as the title of Cho’s book suggested, it was most definitely the key. The leader of the revival, Evan Roberts, before ever there was a revival, became unusually and distinctly hungry for God, until there became nothing else that would satisfy him. He became consumed by his desire for God, sometimes not even sleeping, instead lying awake praying and having significant encounters with God as he lay in his bed. He then began to gather his young friends around him, and other young people in different locations too, to really pray and lay hold of God, and it was from this group of young firebrands that revival suddenly began to spread throughout Wales.
Prayer precedes Revival
There are more areas that I know less about. I hear rumours of these kinds of cultures in Nigeria, in South America, in China. I am hungry to find out more, but that will take more time for research. But suffice it to say that from what I know, one thing is clear: prayer precedes revival. God has never supernaturally visited a place in a significant way, but that there has been a praying remnant who have remained faithful to the vision and have not lost hope in praying for God to move powerfully in their area, city or nation. It was that way in the book of Acts, and it is still that way today. We need to establish communities like the Moravians, like the Koreans, like the Welsh, who aren’t just a friendly bunch meeting together to have a good time, but who consciously and deliberately come together to seek and lay hold of God. And to do this continually – not just once in a while; not just for a short season and then backing off again. We need a culture which keeps prayer at the absolute core of what we do. Some people say this has to be 24/7 prayer. I’m not going to be so tight about it – nothing in Scripture indicates that the church actually prayed around the clock. To take this literally is to potentially do ourselves in with something we can’t readily achieve.
This is not to say that it can’t be done – as we read above, we know that the Moravians did it. But it’s about the attitude of our heart being centered around prayer, keeping a check on ourselves that in our personal lives, and in our church life, that it always has the priority, and that we do nothing except that we thoroughly cover it in prayer.