Long live the prayer meeting!
When I was a kid, the independent Fundamentalist Baptist church I grew up in had a prayer meeting. It felt like all the churches did, not just among the Baptists, but in many other evangelical churches as well. Over the decades since, prayer meetings have slowly been replaced or even removed. In many of the churches I have been a member at, the prayer meeting was among the most poorly attended services. As churches begin resuming more and more of their services post-COVID, it maybe that some church leaders will consider not bringing back the prayer meeting. I want to stand in defense of the prayer service.
I believe that the prayer meeting is a crucial part of a local church’s weekly gatherings. The prayer service is an extremely good and edifying way of building a culture of prayer in a local church. I want to encourage churches to continue it, and to thrive in using it.
By the way, I am not drawing a distinction between the “prayer service” and the “prayer meeting.” When I say “prayer service,” I do not mean a fifty-minute Bible-study with prayer requests tacked on the end (though that’d be better than nothing at all). I mean a service dedicated largely to prayer, where corporate prayer to God the Father in the Name of Jesus Christ is emphasized both qualitatively and quantitatively.
Lest I over-argue my thesis, let me be clear. I am not prepared to say that every church must have a weekly prayer service. I am open to the thesis that there are other possible ways that churches can be committed to corporate prayer. Sometimes circumstances are such that prayer meetings must be cancelled or suspended. I am not ready to argue that a church without a prayer service is a church in sin.
I do strongly believe, however, the weekly prayer service ought to continue. The prayer meeting is an excellent and helpful way of organizing corporate prayer in Christian assemblies. To some, the weekly prayer service (on the surface, at least) appears to be a tradition of sorts. If the prayer meeting is a tradition, however, we should not abandon it simply for the sake of being anti-tradition. In fact, we should at least receive traditions from our fathers with a sense of respect and deference, unless they can be shown to be against Scripture or spiritually inferior to other ways of applying the commands of Christ.
I have several reasons that churches ought to have prayer services or prayer meetings. I offer my first reason in this first post.
The Prayer Service has Biblical Warrant
The Book of Acts is a book about prayer. Prayer shows up several times and at important points in Luke’s inspired story of the early church. We get a sense of how important prayer will be right at the outset, when the read that the apostles were in the “upper room” in Jerusalem, “devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14). Here, in the earliest days after the ascension of Christ, the disciples of Christ are already devoted corporately to prayer. Prayer thus becomes the atmosphere for the later outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1).
The importance of prayer is further confirmed in the ideal description of the new church, right after the Jews in Jerusalem turned to Christ following Peter’s great sermon. Acts 2:42: And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. The word devoted appears again. The newly formed church in Jerusalem was a praying church. How did their devotion to prayer show itself? Perhaps in prayer meetings, perhaps not. We do not know for sure. But if we are going to be devoted to prayer ourselves, how can we organize ourselves to have this same commitment to prayer? By praying together. This is done well with a regular, set day and time for a church to pray together each week.
In Acts 4, the Jewish authorities arrested Peter and John for preaching Christ. Once Peter and John are arrested, they headed back to the church for a prayer meeting (Acts 4:24). Likewise, when Peter was in prison, we find the church banded together praying for his deliverance (Acts 12).
Furthermore, think of all the times the apostles command us to pray.
I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf. (Rom 15:30)
Praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints. (Eph 6:18)
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Phil 4:6)
Pray without ceasing. … Brothers pray for us. (1 Thess 5:17, 25)
Casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Pet 5:7)
These are well-known commands that show the importance of prayer. (This is not an exhaustive list of commands to pray, of course.) I think for many of us, we read them to be commands to individual believers by default. We think Peter and Paul are talking about our secret prayers in our “prayer closets.”
But is that so? Try a thought-experiment for a moment. What if all these commands—or even just one or two of them—were to churches corporately, as bodies? If that is the case, then we must find a way to do serious prayer together. Suddenly prayer becomes something that we are going to need to give more than ten minutes to in a Sunday morning service. We will have to develop a culture of prayer together.
I would suggest that the New Testament commands to pray put us in exactly such a spot, that we should seek to organize focused, corporate prayer into churches’ spiritual lives together. I agree with Joel Beeke: “The practice of the New Testament church shows that prayer meetings should support the stated assemblies for worship rather than compete with them. They have an important but ancillary function to the assembling of the church around the proclamation of the Scriptures.”1
In fact, at the church’s meeting for prayer the church most explicitly keeps the command and realizes one of the most precious promises of Jesus: Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:19–20) In the context, Jesus is addressing church discipline, and then expands to speak of the whole of churches’ authority and work.2 That authority extends to our prayers together, as 1 John 5:14-15 make clear.
The presence and blessing of Christ in a church is a most precious promise, and it surely applies to a church engaged in that great and holy labor that is prayer. What believer in his right mind would want to miss a service where Christ has promised to be present and to bless? To skip the prayer meeting is to skip Jesus among us. To come to the prayer service is to commune with Christ and his people, with a sweet dependence on the Almighty, expressing adoration, faith, and submission to him.
[To be continued….]
- Joel R. Beeke, The Family at Church: Listening to Sermons and Attending Prayer Meetings (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), 46. [↩]
- Compare Matthew 28:19-20. See Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2010), 169-227, especially pp 180-183. Some pastors actually believe that in Matt 18:20 Jesus was instituting the necessity of a prayer meeting in this passage. That’s likely not the case. [↩]