This material accompanied the sermon CHARITY CHURCH from the sermon series: Be the Body – Seeing the Church as the Body in the Bible and Making the Body a Priority in the Present by Pastor Howard Lawler on 1/21/18.
“Since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you.” A rabbi Jesus saved wrote those words long ago about a church he loved. A Baptist pastor has stolen them for a church he loves. I am the happy thief. Paul’s words express my heart for the whole body of believers at Fishkill Baptist Church.
The Lord has provoked delight in my heart in many ways through the consistent love shown by this church family. For example, a lot of unstructured ministry done under the influence of the Holy Spirit has met many needs, quietly and effectively. So too has a lot of structured service done by our Deacon team and through those they mobilize for person-to-person ministry.
The life of love finds varied and vital expression at Fishkill Baptist. Newcomers often comment on the respect with which we handle God’s Word throughout all our ministries. The same newcomers also comment about the warm welcome they receive from the church as a whole. Some seem surprised that careful exegesis and caring people so closely combine here at FBC. That is the way it should be. But both are crucial to the life of love.
A wide-angle view of love at FBC shows a lot of beauty. So do close ups. Let’s grab the zoom lens now. Look specifically at the FBC prayer culture as a manifestation of gospel love. When I candidated for the position of senior pastor at FBC, I said the goal was to develop a prayer culture, not just schedule a prayer meeting. We have been patiently and positively building that culture.
A lot of prayer at our church is organic, meaning it happens spontaneously. It is not, however, accidental at all. It is fruit rooted in gospel teaching. This non-structured prayer ministry happens when people spend quiet moments together in our prayer room. Some pray at a diner or in the park. Others send prayers to one another by text, email, or even good old snail mail. No mere human coordinates this vibrant and pervasive prayer ministry.
On the other hand, a lot of our prayer ministry takes place in structured settings. Our church staff, for example, prays together each week. Every elder meeting begins with prayer to prepare our hearts for deliberations and ends with an extended time of intercession. Men’s and women’s ministries pray together. Our music team does the same. The agape meals, the VBS prayer squad, youth leading prayer at the Friday night youth group meetings, special prayer gatherings with CB churches, and other planned prayer sessions enrich the life of the church.
Twist the zoom lens once again for an even tighter look at prayer. Gaze solely now on the two structured prayer meetings each week here at FBC. One meets on Sunday
morning and the other meets on Wednesday night. They appear in the bulletin under a bland brand name that is at least accurate and easy to remember – “Prayer Meeting.”
These regular weekly meetings are not better than other meetings at our church. But they play a special role we should all understand. That role is not clear to all attendees or even apparent to all official members. Allow me to sketch some key distinctions between other meetings which feature prayer, and our “Prayer Meeting”.
Other meetings that include prayer here are based on some particular association. The group glue might be life-stages, common pursuit of a particular ministry, concern for certain vulnerable people, mutual support in trials, interest in a particular Bible study, and more. In these meetings, prayer is a valued part of the mix. Yet prayer is not the whole point of the whole meeting. In most meetings, participants anticipate those with whom they will be praying because they all know the formula of the group glue. They also know that the prayers will lean toward the concerns most associated with that group.
Many fine results emerge from such meetings. We elders stand by ready to encourage those ministries. We appreciate the hard work done by the leaders and others.
As your pastor, I support those ministries and am glad for them all. Yet I am not fully at peace. I am convinced we all need to know the special role that our main prayer meeting plays. I thrill to the potential it has to make us grow taller as a church. That is the point of love according to Eph 4:15-16. “Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. ”
Start with the basic shape of the weekly prayer meetings. They do not feature prayer as part of the meeting. They are simply and solely prayer meetings. The people do not gather for Bible study and prayer, for singing and prayer, or for anything else and prayer. We gather only for prayer.
We have adopted a new, clean approach to the meetings so prayer remains the point. We begin by reading a priority prayer right from the Bible. We encourage people to work that week’s biblical prayer into our prayers at the meeting and beyond. Before we pray, we briefly update one another on emerging situations not already included in the prayer sheet. Then we get down to praying. Contrary to some fleshly expectations (mine included) the time often seems to fly by. The praise items and requests range over the whole FBC ministry, and beyond.
Every meeting is open to everyone. You never know with whom you might be praying on a given morning or night. The broad exposure to many people (far beyond the dozen or so that meet in a typical home group) has not diluted fellowship as one might fear. The meetings have distributed encouragement beyond the associations we would normally choose.
The people represent widely divergent demographics (age, ethnicity, education, and even sports affiliations!) Some people are introverts, some are extroverts, but most are in the middle. Some pour out their hearts. Some pray simple sentence prayers. Others sit and pray silently, week after week. I have often been refreshed by the prayers of others as I sit mutely, sometimes for a whole meeting. They carry me peacefully to the quiet waters and green grass of grace.
Pause for a moment from that placid prayer scene to insert my work in strategic planning. Sorry. I need to tell you about how the Lord linked the two in my mind and heart. The elders are doing careful research about how small groups have been effective, or not, in the evangelical circles over the past three to four decades. It is far from a simple matter.
As I have read and researched the history and the emerging revaluations of church small groups, I saw that our prayer meetings are actually unusual small groups. They are out of the typical mold. They are elastic — at once small and large. The typical number of people in prayer meeting at FBC on a given night or morning is usually not large. But the total number of people who take part over time is large. Some people are quite regular. Many come as they can.
Small group ministry is about building relationships. Real relationships are being built at FBC simply through people hearing one another pray. Those relationships pick up where they left off when providence prevents attendance for a time. People remember one another’s burdens and delights. They contact each other between meetings for further prayer and encouragement. Sometimes the participants almost switch out entirely from one week to the next. Yet the same spirit of prayer is present each time. I have never seen that marvelous kind of consistency before in any similar prayer meeting format.
These meetings are, at the human level, self-selecting groups. They form simply by people showing up. Anyone is welcome to do so. As a staff pastor at three churches, I attended training seminars for small groups, started small group ministries, trained leaders, and directed whole programs. The church staff assembled standard small groups by considering life-stages, spiritual maturity, geographic proximity, interested parties, known interpersonal relations, and other variables. My wife and I hosted small groups in our home.
We saw a lot of good things happen. But I never saw the kind of love that is now forming and spreading from the simple, old-school FBC prayer meeting. Even the standard prayer meetings I have coordinated in the past have not manifested this lively dynamic. Something special is starting to happen here.
One thing is clear as I look at the actual people growing together at these meetings. No pastor (including me) knows a seminar formula that would put together this particular group. Yet it has become the finest band of brothers and sisters I have seen stand side-by-side on the spiritual firing line. The Lord has done it, and it is marvelous in my eyes!
As I prepared to preach a sermon recently on Eph 5:1-2, I realized that those two verses identified what is best about our prayer meetings. Paul wrote, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” The prayer meetings are producing breadth and depth of love that come by humble people looking up together to God.
I am convinced that even more fruitful use of these prayer meetings will energize all of our ministries. It will play a key role in the development and implementation of our tactical plans. Prayer meeting does not compete with any other ministries. Prayer meeting compliments all our ministries.
Truth be told, few church folks naturally love to go to prayer meeting. At least most are not keen at first. It is common, however, for church folks to look for a church ministry they naturally love. That natural draw overcomes inertia and makes it relatively easy to take part.
Eph 5:1-2 charts a different course for the doctrine-driven church and its prayer life. We must imitate Jesus and show love by giving and sacrificing. The application is clear. Do not try to love going to prayer meeting. Determine to go to prayer meeting in order to love. In the future I hope to write about how to overcome some common obstacles we all face.
In the letter to the Ephesians, love and prayer are true partners. Paul reveals his own labor of love for that whole body of believers in Eph 2:15-19. Driven by gospel-defined love, he says “I have not stopped giving thanks for you,” “remembering you in my prayers,” “I keep asking,” and “I pray.” In Eph 3:14-19 he mentions gospel-defined love three times and says, “I kneel,” “I pray,” and again “I pray.” Prayer flows from a pastor’s heart when true love fills it first. Prayer flows from a whole church when the people are receptive to love as God defines it in Ephesians. Embrace the love we see displayed from the beginning of the letter to the end. Ask the lord for increased devotion to prayer.
If guilt or fear is holding you back, take those very things to the throne of grace now. Heb 4:14-16 says, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Ask your savior to remove internal barriers or bad experiences that are holding you back. The throne of grace is a great place to dump excuses. It is a better place to pick up forward momentum.
All of the elders would love to talk and pray with you about how to start tasting the good grace now being served by God at our prayer meetings. As shepherds who love this church, we urge you to come to serve. Come to savor. “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Eph 3:20-21)
– Pastor Howard Lawler