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Fundamental, Traditional And Essential

by Ewen Butler

Prayer meetings tend to draw weak numbers of believers, the reasons for which have naturally been a subject of speculation. It is doubtful that the NT writers were thinking of private prayer (or private faith, for that matter) as much as we tend to read them that way.
At least until recently, traces of mainstream denominational jargon could still be detected in some areas of Pentecostalism. Participating in a sacrament service, experiencing a baby christening, or attending prayers were terms sometimes used to frame activities of church life. “Going to prayers” rather than “going to church” is a particularly telling statement in that it implied what the church, as the gathered community of believers, was supposed to be specifically doing. Corporate prayer has to a large extent defined the place of worship over the centuries. A review of the Acts church supports this premise.

The transition from synagogue worship, with regular prayer offered to Yahweh, to primitive Christian prayer offered to the Triune God seems not to have been an especially problematic one for early Jewish believers, though it was likely a gradual development. They seemed to know that prayer now took on new, enhanced significance since the Son of God had ascended to His exalted place at the right hand of the Father. Furthermore, they appeared to know instinctively that praying together and staying together were somehow connected, and that returning to Jerusalem to “wait for the gift my Father promised” (Acts 1:4) involved being “joined together constantly in prayer” (Acts 1:14). Other passages in Acts certainly implicitly, if not explicitly, refer to the centrality of corporate prayer. The Pentecost event itself is not only preceded by corporate prayer but is immediately followed by it in the daily practice of apostolic worship. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). When Peter and John were threatened by the Sanhedrin not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus anymore, “they raised their voices together in prayer to God” (Acts 4:24). In Philippi, Paul and Silas looked for a place of prayer on the Sabbath in the same tradition of the apostles Peter and John in the Jerusalem church, who apparently continued the habit of going to the temple at the hour of prayer (Acts 16:13,16).

At the risk of overgeneralization, it is not altogether inaccurate to conclude that increased individualism and personal independence have had some impact upon the perceived value and practice of corporate prayer. An overdue refocus on personal piety involving the spiritual disciplines—particularly private prayer, intercession and meditation—has had the attendant result of de-emphasizing the value and power of prayer(s) offered by groups of believers. It reflects the historical tension between piety, as practised in the wider community of faith with its liturgy, sacraments and prayers, and that practised in monastic, communal contexts where the focus is predominantly on individual prayer, fasting and service. That said, any loss of corporate praying would seem to run counter to what the NT church would have understood Christian living to be.

Given the changing landscape of Pentecostalism in particular, in which social engagement is coming to be seen as a defining evidence of the presence of the Spirit in the world, it is time to reaffirm the value of what the church has seen as central to its mission—participation in the advancement of the kingdom through the God-ordained practice of corporate prayer. The beginnings of the Pentecostal movement demonstrate that engagement with the needs of humanity took place not just through social action but through the raw power of the supernatural brought to bear upon the ordinary situations of people through prayer gatherings. Faith that God, through the working of His Spirit in the church and the world, was able to work miracles was and still needs to be the modus operandi of the contemporary church. It seems that a healthy approach to the mission of the church involves that very balance of doing acts of mercy and praying for divine intervention in situations where no amount of human social engagement can effectively penetrate.

But corporate prayer has fallen on hard times. Prayer meetings tend to draw weak numbers of believers, the reasons for which have naturally been a subject of speculation. It is doubtful that the NT writers were thinking of private prayer (or private faith, for that matter) as much as we tend to read them that way. Getting together to pray and worship was central and essential to their primitive faith, as it is now in much of the burgeoning church in the developing world. There is hope, however, that a new awakening of Spirit-inspired zeal and unity can take place in the contemporary church if the church can only recover the value and power inherent in the practice of praying together.

A careful distinction needs to be made here, though, between corporate prayer and meeting together for individualized prayer. In real corporate prayer, people listen and participate in the prayer of others. Silent praying in a room with a small group of people can be nothing more than individual prayer in a corporate context. People need to be encouraged and given opportunity to let their voice be heard and to pray without fear or embarrassment. Organizing the prayer meeting so that individuals are assigned specific needs to pray for audibly is a helpful way to allow all present to participate by praying in agreement. The practice of “leading in prayer” is a means of rallying many voices in one harmonious approach to the throne of grace.

At the same time, corporate waiting—as opposed to individual waiting—on God can be considered an aspect of praying together. It is often in this context that spiritual gifts are manifested and the body of believers is together edified. It is reasonable to assume as well that the Apostle Paul’s perspective?—that we do not know what we should pray for as we ought—applies not just to private individuals but is true also in the gathering of believers. The Holy Spirit can therefore be expected to be present, enabling corporate prayer by being the author of unutterable groanings that ascend to the Father.

In the final analysis, corporate prayer is still fundamental to the life of the 21st-century church. It is neither shallow nor cheap. It is rich, rewarding and reviving. Providing opportunities for frequent prayer of this kind is neither a waste of time nor an outmoded style of leadership. Corporate prayer is entirely biblical and stands squarely in the mainstream of our Christian tradition.

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REV. EWEN BUTLER—is the senior Pastor of Church on the Hill in Cobourg, ON. He and his wife are originally from Newfoundland. Among his previous ministries, Ewen served as Senior pastor for evangel pentecostal church, toronto; on the faculty of master’s college and seminary; And As dean of students at eastern bible college.
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