What do you pray for… the church?

We pray for all sorts of things: family, friends, job, health, and the list goes on. And in each of these categories, we pray for any number of things. But what about the church? Do you pray for the Church? What about your church? And if you do pray for the church, what do you pray for?

Over more than a decade as a solo pastor, I can honestly say that I’ve prayed for the Church more times than I can count. I’ve prayed for the church’s finances. I’ve prayed for ministries. I’ve prayed for leaders, vision, repentance, and impact. But most of all, I’ve prayed for growth. Of course, that prayer for growth always went by some other name: impact, effectiveness, influence. But each of those things were about growth.

As much as I’ve prayed for the church, though, I’m must confess that I have too often been so wrapped up in doing the business of the church that I’ve forgotten to pray for the church.

The other day, I realized that I had been in one of those slumps. Sure, I had prayed for people in the church: the woman with cancer, the couple whose marriage was struggling, the family who lost their son in a car accident. I even prayed for the two couples that have struggled to start a family, but I had never stopped to really pray for the church herself. And so I resolved to do better, but as I made that commitment, it was as though the Holy Spirit spoke into my heart a rather striking question: Do you really know how to pray for the Church?

Now, the first thought I had was that, yes, I knew exactly how to pray for the church. Offerings were tight in October; in the past few months, we’ve launched a number of new ministries; attendance has been plateaued; and if I’m to be honest, I long for a couple of young families to come into the church with kids roughly the same age as my own so that our kids aren’t all by themselves. But as I quickly ticked off these prayer concerns, I felt the Spirit clearly checking me: Is that it?

As I grappled with that question, I knew that it was a challenge. God wouldn’t be content with me just running through the typical church prayer list. He wasn’t exactly saying I was praying wrongly, but I knew that He wanted me to justify what I prayed. And to know for sure that I was praying for all the stuff I was supposed to pray for our church.

Determined to meet the challenge, I asked myself how to find what I was supposed to be praying for the church. The obvious answer was Scripture. But where? Given that the book of Acts is often upheld as the account of the church at its best, the obvious course seemed to look through Acts to figure out how the apostles and co. prayed for their church. What I found struck me.

The word “pray” (or a variant thereof) appears in the HCSB translation of Acts 31 times according to biblegateway.com. Given that the book of Acts has 28 chapters, prayer shows up, on average, more than once per chapter. I think it’s fair to say that prayer is a significant recurring theme throughout the book! And in considering how prayer was used in the church of Acts, I have come up with a list of things which the members of the first century church prayed for their church. I offer here  list of ten things which we should be praying for the twenty-first century church.

1. They prayed for unity.

The book of Acts picks up with Luke’s account of the Ascension. After Jesus had gone back to heaven, we read that the eleven remaining disciples returned to Jerusalem and, along with a number of women and others, retreated to the Upper Room. In 1:14, we read, “All these were continually united in prayer.” Admittedly, at first glance, Luke isn’t saying that they’re praying for anything in particular at all. But that word “united” is significant. You see, in John 17, Jesus had prayed in vs 11 that His disciples would be “one as We are one,” and in vss 21-23, He prayed four times in three verses that the believers who followed after them would be made one as well. Jesus prayed that His followers would be united. Why? Because, looking through John 17:21-23, in particular, we find that Jesus thought unity was going to be crucial to the Church. In fact, in Jesus’ estimation, unity was key to the relationship He designed for them to have with each other and Him. It was integral to them validating His identity for the rest of the world. It was essential to them being like God. And unity was critical to the rest of the world experiencing a life-driving relationship with Him (i.e., the church being effective at ministry). In fact, when Jesus prayed in John 17, unity was essentially the first thing He prayed for the Twelve. And it was the only thing He prayed for those who would believe through their message. And now, back in Acts 1, we find that they were united in prayer. I don’t think that’s coincidental. When we pray for our church, we must pray for her unity.

2. They prayed for leaders.

One of the first orders of business for the church of Acts, even before Pentecost, was to choose new leaders. In Acts 1, Peter stood up in the assembly and announced that they needed to find someone to replace Judas, who had committed suicide after betraying Jesus into the hands of the Jews. In Acts 1:24, rather than holding an election or just picking an arbitrary candidate, the gathered prayed that God would reveal the man He wanted for the job. Later, in Acts 6, after the distribution of food to widows and orphans became too much for the apostles alone to bear, the church appointed seven men to take care of this important ministry. And the first thing the church did after choosing them? In Acts 6:6, “They had them stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.” And in 13:3, after Barnabas and Saul were set apart for the work God had called them to, we see that the church prayed for them, too. So they prayed for God to reveal leaders, and they prayed for those leaders as they led. When we pray for our church, we must pray for her leaders.

3. They prayed for boldness.

In Acts 4, Peter and John were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin. Before releasing them, the Sanhedrin ordered the pair to never speak in Jesus’ name again. And they backed up that order with more than a little threatening. After they were finally let go, the two apostles returned to the church, and upon recounting the story, the church’s first reaction was to pray. Starting in vs 24, they reminded the Lord of His faithfulness, and in vs 29, they got down to the big ask. They prayed, “And now, Lord, consider their threats, and grant that Your slaves may speak Your message with complete boldness.” Now, the first thing that jumps out at me is that they wanted the Lord to “consider their threats.” That’s an interesting choice of words. They weren’t asking God to neutralize the threats. If they had been, then we might have grounds to pray for our churches safety and security. But instead, they merely asked that God would be mindful of them. And that, in the midst of these threats, He would “grant that Your slaves may speak Your message with complete boldness.” Did you hear that? What they really wanted was “complete boldness” to proclaim the gospel regardless of the threats! Too often in our churches today, we pray for safety! Too often in our churches today, we pray for comfort! The first century church prayed for boldness in the midst of danger! When we pray for our church, we must pray for boldness.

4. They prayed for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit among the saints.

In Acts 8, word reached Jerusalem that some Samaritans had heard the gospel and believed. When they sent Peter and John to investigate, the rumor was verified. The only catch: the Samaritans had not yet received the Holy Spirit. In vs 15, we read, “After they went down there, they prayed for them, so the Samaritans might receive the Holy Spirit.” And two verses later, they did. But this wasn’t just some momentary burst of tongues or something like that! The language here, as elsewhere in Acts, indicates that this was the beginning of a permanent, overflowing indwelling of these Samaritan believers by the Holy Spirit. When was the last time that you prayed the people of another church – or even your own church – would receive the Holy Spirit? I hate to admit this, but even when I do pray this prayer – especially for other churches – I don’t necessarily pray that it would be a permanent or overflowing thing. I want to retain an edge over them, as though we’re in competition or something! Nevertheless, when we pray for our church specifically or the Church in general, we must pray for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit among the saints.

5. They prayed for forgiveness, but…

Directly on the heals of the Samaritans receiving the Holy Spirit, a man named Simon showed up, desperate to control the Spirit as Peter and John had. He even offers to pay them, probably a fairly substantial amount of money, considering what we know of him as a sorcerer. But the apostles rebuked him, and harshly. They bid him to pray that the intent of his heart would be forgiven (Acts 8:22). In the process, though, they also prayed, “May your silver be destroyed with you, because you thought the gift of God could be obtained with money!” Of the entire prayer, it was that first bit about the silver being destroyed which caught Simon’s attention. And in vs 24, he pleaded, “Please pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.” In other words, he was more concerned about escaping the consequence of his sin than he was about being forgiven of and delivered from his sin. I must admit that I do this, too. But I can’t help but notice that Peter and John didn’t take the bait. They urged Simon to repent to receive forgiveness, but they never prayed anything to the effect that he wouldn’t lose his silver! Why is that? Because, while the church should be passionate about people receiving forgiveness, it is not the church’s place to endorse people shirking responsibility for their actions. When we pray for the church, we must pray for people to receive forgiveness, but never for them to merely escape the consequence of sin.

6. They prayed for direction.

In Acts 9, the infamous persecutor Saul encountered Jesus while en route to Damascus. In the aftermath of that encounter, Saul, blinded, was taken to the house of one Judas on Straight Street in town. In Acts 9:11, a second man, Ananias, was directed by the Lord to go to Straight Street, to the house of Judas, and ask for Saul, “since he is praying there.” Now, technically, Saul wasn’t really praying for the church. But over the next few chapters, Saul would change his name to Paul and emerge as the first, preeminent Christian missionary and a key leader in the church. So what he was praying there in that house in Damascus, I think, is significant to our discussion today. And what was that? Well, considering Saul had just been accosted by the same Jesus he had denounced, whose followers he had actively persecuted since the stoning of Stephen in Acts 6, I suspect his prayer was dominated by a singular question: Now what? What does all this mean? Where do I go from here? For three days, Saul prayed, I believe, for direction, and I think that is a valid prayer for the church today. We live in a world which is constantly changing, and we serve a God who recreates us from the ground up (2 Cor 5:17) and promises to announce new things (Is 48:6). Sometimes, we’re going to have to stop and ask, “Okay, Lord. Now what? What does all this mean? Where do I go from here?” When we pray for the church, we must pray for direction.

7. They prayed for miracles.

A little later in Acts 9, we are introduced to a disciple from Joppa named Tabitha. She was a key minister and leader in the church there, but one day, she became sick and died. After sending someone to nearby Lydda to fetch Peter, the apostle sent them all out of the room, knelt down, and in 9:40, prayed. Then, he looked at the dead woman and ordered, “Tabitha, get up!” I don’t think it takes a genius to figure out what Peter prayed for. He wanted a miracle. He expected a miracle. And yet, how often do we in the modern church dismiss miracles as fairy tales or figments of the imagination? At best, we give them lip service – yes, we believe God does miracles – but then hedge our bet with a “Give us a miracle or…” sort of prayer. But let’s be frank here. Some of our churches – some of our people – need miracles. And in those moments, when we pray for the church, we must pray unashamedly, unreservedly for miracles.

8. They prayed for devotion.

In Acts 10, while Peter was still in Joppa, a Roman centurion from Caesarea named Cornelius had a vision from God in which he was instructed to invite the apostle over for coffee. Without hesitation, Cornelius complied, but it was a two-day journey from Caesarea to Joppa, so the centurion settled in to wait. The next day, as his servants were approaching Joppa, we read in vs 9 that Peter went up to the roof of the house in which he was staying to pray. Why did he go up there? I suspect it was quiet, and there was a nice breeze. What was he praying for? I have no idea. He just went up there to pray. Too often, we forget that prayer isn’t just about us delivering to God a laundry list of things we need. Sometimes, it’s about us listening to what He has to say to us. And sometimes, it’s about us just being there, in His presence. I really don’t think Peter had a specific list of things about which he was praying this day. Rather, he just went up to the roof to hang out with his Lord. I’ll call this praying for devotion, but in reality, it’s really “just because.” Just because we want to hear what He has to say. Just because we want to be in His presence. Sometimes, when we pray for the church, we must pray simply for devotion.

9. They prayed for opportunities to witness.

In Acts 16, it was Paul and his partner Silas who were in trouble. Having cast a fortune-telling demon out of a little girl, they had been thrown in jail for harming the kid’s masters’ lucrative source of income. And in Acts 16:25, we catch up to them in the middle of the night, “praying and singing hymns to God.” Which hymns were they singing? I have no idea. Nor do I know what they were praying for. I mean, given that they were sitting in a jailhouse, I think I might have been praying or escape, release, or something along those lines. But then there was a violent earthquake which broke open the prison doors and busted everyone’s chains. The guards, who had fallen asleep, woke up, and upon seeing the damage, was just about to kill himself when Paul stopped him. All the prisoners were still there. If you’re praying for escape or release, wouldn’t you run immediately if the doors busted open? Of course! So what were Paul and Silas praying for? I might postulate that, if they weren’t praying for release, they may have been praying for opportunities to witness. Because that’s exactly what they got: upon realizing that all the prisoners were still there, the jailer asked in vs 30, “What must I do to be saved?” And Paul and Silas told him immediately. When was the last time you prayed for an opportunity to explain to someone how they might be saved? If Paul and Silas were doing this about midnight, from a jail cell, I dare say we should probably be doing so wherever and whenever we are. When we pray for the church, we must pray for opportunities to witness.

 

10. They prayed for deliverance.

Finally, in Acts 27, while en route to Rome to meet with Caesar, Paul and his company of soldiers and friends were caught in a wicked storm. After two weeks being blown all over the Mediterranean Sea, the sailors realized that they were growing near land. But in the night, they couldn’t see what the shore had in store for them. They were confronted with the very real prospect of being crushed against the rocks. Then, in vs 29, we read that the sailors on the boat dropped anchors from the stern, and they all “prayed for daylight to come.” Why did they want daylight? Because even though there was virtually no possibility to save the ship after they threw overboard all the tackle, at least in the daylight they would be able to see to swim to shore without getting crushed against the rocks. To be clear, Paul and his companions were praying for deliverance. And I dare say, sometimes, we need to pray the same thing for the church. We should pray that the church be delivered from financial duress, power struggles, petty bickering, gossip, prejudice, and any number of other mortal dangers which will scuttle her right now. And we should pray for the deliverance of the people in the church, too! How many of our pewmates are going through something terrible right now! Pray that they be delivered safely to the other side! When we pray for the church, we must pray for deliverance.

So there you have it, folks. Ten things that the first-century believers prayed for their church, and ten things which twenty-first-century believers should be praying, too. And given that this is all taken from just one book of the Bible, I think it probably safe to say that the list is not exhaustive. And if we have ten things to pray for the church in this one book, and there are who-knows-how-many other things to pray for her in other books, I think we must also realize that praying for the church isn’t really an optional thing. So whatever you do, make sure to pray for the church!

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