At The Belfrey, the church I lead, we spend much time in worship and prayer. In our services. In our House of Prayer. And especially at our staff gatherings. That’s on purpose, because it’s important. Worship and prayer are basic to what disciples of Jesus do. It’s crucial that we exalt Christ and call out to him.
I was telling our staff this week that as I look back on the last year, much of our praying has been about growing more Christ-like. We’ve been asking the Lord to change our hearts that we might put our lives in order. We need to be filled with the Holy Spirit so that the very life of Jesus may live in us and be expressed in the world. Praying like that is essential to the life of discipleship and we must keep doing that as we go into the future.
However there’s one kind of prayer that I think we’ve slightly neglected this year which I hope, as we look ahead, we can do more of. It’s intercession.
I’ve just completed doctoral research on prayer, leadership and church planting movements. (That’s why my blogging and writing slowed down, giving space for studying!) In the West many churches are declining, but some are growing, with the growing churches often associated with movements of church planting, so I wanted to learn more about these movements and their leaders. Rather than researching strategic matters I wanted to learn about the prayer behind them. So I studied ten such movements, to get a snap-shot of their praying, and I asked lots of questions. Here are a few.
I wanted to know: do the movements pray? The answer was yes. 100%. Every one. Most pray at least weekly. What about the leaders: do they pray? Yes. 100%. And when do they pray? Daily. All the leaders pray in morning, with prayer being the first thing most of them do on awakening, and the rest praying in the first part of the morning. What kind of prayers do they pray? The leaders pray all sorts of prayers, with two standing out. They all (100%) pray for themselves: for their circumstances and family. That’s understandable. But they also all (100%) intercede for others. Every day. The movements they lead similarly pray all kinds of prayer, but one type of prayer stands out as something they all (100%) do. They intercede for others.
These growing movements and their leaders are all committed to intercession. I find this fascinating.
When we ask God for things in prayer, that’s called petition. When we ask God for things for ourselves, that’s called supplication. When we ask God for things for others, that’s called intercession. And it’s intercession that is central to the prayer of growing movements of church planting. This shouldn’t surprise us, as intercessory prayer is encouraged again and again in Scripture. One of the foundational bible passages on intercession is found in 1 Timothy 2:1-4, which says:
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
Here are four things to notice:
1) Pray First
As disciples of Jesus, some things are primary. They’re a priority. For example, as we consider how to handle our money, we are to give first, prioritising giving before spending, and trusting we are able to live on the remainder. When it comes to our use of time, prayer is of first priority, as we’re told that ‘first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone’ (v1). So we petition first, particularly interceding for ‘everyone’ – that is, not just ourselves and our immediate needs. So intercession is a top priority.
One of the reasons for this is that intercession changes things. Church planter Neil Cole knows this, saying that ‘Prayer is the one thing we have that can bring about change, and if the world ever needed God’s help, it needs it now.’ Mother Teresa similarly said that ‘God shapes the world by prayer.’ Sarah Yardley agrees, writing that ‘Prayer is intercession, knocking on the doors of heaven with bruised knuckles.’ So disciples of Jesus pray first. Intercession is a priority.
2) Pray Wide
As we intercede, we are to pray broadly, praying ‘for everyone, especially for those in authority’ (v.2). This means that we’re to pray for all kind of situations, calling out to the Lord for his kingdom to come. We might choose one thing to pray for, or a few. The important thing is that we come to the Lord and ask. We’re particularly told to pray for leaders, so in the UK that would include local politicians and town councillors. On a national level it means praying for the Queen, and her government and Prime Minister. In all the political turmoil of recent times, with many rightly complaining of a lack of integrity at the highest levels of government, have we also been praying for our political leaders? It’s something disciples are called to do.
3) Pray Good
Praying like this, say 1 Timothy 2, ‘is good, and pleases God our Saviour’ (v.3) If you’re a disciple of Jesus, you will want to please your Master, Jesus, and here we’re told one way to do this: by interceding. I’ve often wondered why it pleases him.
I think I got the answer as I undertook background reading for my dissertation, particularly reading some of the work of Michael Widmer. Widmer says that intercession is good, because intercessory prayer is the most Christ-like prayers we can pray. When Jesus walked this earth, he put others needs before himself, and when we intercede, that’s what we’re doing as we pray for others. Also, what is Jesus doing now? Romans 8:34 and Hebrews 7:25 tell us he sits at God’s right hand interceding. So when we intercede we’re joining in with the continued work of Christ today. We’re co-labouring with him. We’re pleasing him.
4) Pray Salvation
Finally, we’re told to intercede because Christ ‘wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth’ (v4). We’re to pray that people will be rescued from a life of sin and selfishness and come to know the forgiveness and liberty that Jesus brings. Acknowledging that we, and all people, are lost without Christ, is central to our prayers. If we truly care about people, with the compassion of Christ, we will want them to come to know and follow Jesus.
D. L. Moody, the nineteenth century evangelist knew this. Not only did he love telling people about Jesus, but he prayed for this. It’s said that he made a list of one hundred people he wanted to become Christians, and he interceded for them, asking God to save them. When he died, ninety six of them had come to faith. That’s wonderful! I would be so happy about that. What’s more remarkable, is that the remaining four attended his funeral, and by the end had all committed their lives to Christ!
So intercession is really important. It’s essential that we pray first; pray wide; pray good, and pray salvation. I urged our staff team to be doing this in the coming weeks and months, individually and together. It’s what we’re called to do in Scripture, and interestingly it’s what growing movements and their leaders do. Maybe they’re on to something…?