The first article in this series on choosing an authentic New Testament church (using the model given in Acts 2:42-47) focused on the importance of Biblical preaching and Bible study in the church. The last part of Act 2:42 gives an equally important mark of a Christ-centered church:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
The idea that prayer would be a hallmark of the Christian church might appear at first to be a blinding flash of the obvious. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus praying, often rising before dawn and going to a solitary place to do so(as in Mark 1:35). He teaches the apostles (and us) how we should pray in Luke 11:2-4, in what we have come to call “the Lord’s Prayer.” In 1 Thessalonians 5:17 Paul tells us to “pray without ceasing.” Countless other verses throughout the Old and New Testaments not only tell us to pray but explain the benefit of praying constantly.
Yet prayer is perhaps the most discussed and yet least practiced aspect of the Christian life today. Walk into any Christian bookstore and you will find shelf after shelf filled with books on prayer, all claiming to hold the key to improving your prayer life. Many of these books contain good information, and they may even end up doing more than just gathering dust on someone’s bookshelf. But until you get on your knees and actually pray, they are of no use whatsoever.
Part of the reason for the general decline in prayer among Christians (at least in America) may be the hectic pace of our lives. Both adults and children are so completely overscheduled that making time for anything more than a quick prayer at meals or bedtime seems nearly impossible to many people. Often we are content with the idea that we’ll do our praying at church, which brings up the second, and perhaps even larger, problem: in many cases, there’s not really any prayer in our churches anymore either.
To claim that there is no praying going on at church may seem outrageous, but is it really? In most churches (with some variation by denomination) the Sunday worship service is scripted almost to the minute; the emphasis is on the music and the sermon, with only short opening and closing prayers, one before the sermon, and the longest before the collection plate is passed. There is certainly no extended time of prayer during most services.
Furthermore, the mid-week prayer meeting has all but disappeared from most of our churches, even in the Bible Belt, replaced by other activities that draw a better crowd. At the churches that still have some type of prayer meeting, only a small fraction of the congregation will show up. Perhaps rather than bemoaning the fact that children can’t pray in school we should ask why we often don’t pray in church.
Prayer is, in essence, how we talk to God. It is how we thank Him, praise Him, petition Him, and grow closer to Him. Christians claim to have a relationship with Jesus, and yet we often only pray (talk to him) when we need something. Try that with any of your other relationships and see how long they last.
The outlook is not all bleak, however. There are churches both large and small that still emphasize prayer as crucial to the Christian life. Some congregations have replaced the traditional prayer meeting with small groups that meet for both prayer and fellowship; these smaller groups enable people to really get to know who they are praying for and what their needs are. And some churches have gone completely against the tide, developing vibrant prayer ministries that permeate the entire congregation.
In looking for a church that follows the New Testament model, be sure to seek one that makes prayer a priority, both as a congregation and individually; in such a church prayer will be a centerpiece rather than an afterthought. The Bible promises that “the earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.” (James 5:16 NLT). We are promised nothing if we choose not pray.