Acts 6 is the account of the first deacons. The apostles were swamped with complaints about the distribution of food to widows in the church. Rather than take this issue on themselves, the apostles appointed seven other men “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” to address the problem. They did this because they needed to “give [their] attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” Acts 6:4.
I’ve tried to focus my work as a pastor in the same direction. As a preacher, the “ministry of the word” cannot be easily avoided. I have at least one sermon to prepare every week (and at some points over my career I’ve had to write two or three), plus other Bible studies that I lead. I am not an extemporaneous speaker, so my people could always tell when I wasn’t ready to preach.
It is much easier to neglect prayer. It’s never been natural for me to devote significant time to prayer every day (the “tyranny of the urgent” can make prayer feel like a luxury), and prayerlessness can be masked in a way lack of sermon preparation cannot. But, thanks in large part to Paul Miller’s A Praying Life, I’ve won a few battles.
I’ve come to see, however, that the apostles in Acts 6 weren’t worried only about reserving time for their own personal, devotional lives. Just as they ministered the word publicly, and not only in their closets, so likewise the ministry of prayer has a public face.
It’s necessary, but not sufficient, for ministers to spend time in solitary prayer. Rather, they are called to lead their people to pray as well.
My awareness of this responsibility took years to evolve. The single most pivotal event in this process, however, was attending a 9Marks Weekender. I walked away from that conference a changed pastor when it comes to corporate prayer.
Part of the conference involved attending a Sunday morning worship service at Capitol Hill Baptist Church where the pastor voiced a five-minute pastoral prayer. I had never, that I could recall, heard such a prayer on a Sunday morning. I was convicted by how I had never led our people to ask God to bless new members by name, other local churches, members of our government, and for specific unreached people groups.
At the conference we also attended the church’s Sunday night prayer meeting. As with the pastoral prayer, I’d never attended a prayer meeting where prayer requests went beyond illnesses and “being with” victims of the latest natural disaster, nor had I ever seen a pastor bring specific items for the people to pray for and ask for volunteers to do so.
Finally, we attended a Capitol Hill Baptist elders’ meeting. At the beginning of the meeting, each elder in turn told how their brothers could pray for them. Then each elder prayer for the man on his left (or right, I don’t really remember).
Upon returning to Oxford, I immediately included a pastoral prayer on Sunday mornings, changed our Wednesday night service to include as much time for prayer as we gave to the teaching, and we began opening up our elders’ meetings by praying for one another.
A few years passed and I began to be convicted that we need to pray together as a church staff. We began meeting once a week, separately from our weekly staff meeting, for the sole purpose of prayer.
In the last few weeks, it dawned on me that it might be helpful to tell our people early in the week what we’ll be praying for on Sunday mornings. That way, we can pray together all week long in asking God for certain things. So in our Tuesday church newsletter I include several items from the coming Sunday’s pastoral prayer.
Obviously, there’s no one right way for a church to pray. I know I will never stop learning how we can do it at Grace. But I hope and, of course, pray that more churches would take the time to consider how it could be done better.
We have not because we ask not. In prayer, we have an audience with the King. We neglect it only to our detriment.