The Praying Church
After decades of serving one of the largest churches in England, Charles Spurgeon was asked to account for his tremendous success in ministry. Without any hesitation, Spurgeon responded, "My people pray for me."
If it is true that the usefulness of a minister is closely tied to the prayers of the congregation, can it also be said that the progress of a congregation is closely tied to the prayers of its leaders? Could it be that ‘church growth’ has less to do with strategic planning than it does with godly leaders praying for God's blessings?
As we turn to Philippians, chapter one, I see the apostle Paul—a godly leader—praying that God would bless the people of Philippi. Paul describes his love and prayerful devotion to the Christians gathered there. And out of that love and prayerful devotion, we detect a confidence that God will transform the lives of these Christians.
After his standard introduction, Paul begins the body of his letter in verse 3, writing, "I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now"(1:3-5).
Paul teaches us a great deal about prayer in these opening verses. The first thing we learn has to do with the frequency of prayer. We learn that prayer is not something relegated to a particular portion of our day and then forgotten about. Every remembrance of the Christians in Philippi causes Paul to pray.
Perhaps a simple illustration will help. As someone who regularly skips breakfast, I have been told that my body’s metabolism slows down when I limit myself to only 2 meals a day. By contrast, someone who has 6-8 small meals a day will have a much more active metabolism.
My sense from Paul is that he has a very active spiritual metabolism, which is the result of his frequent prayer. If frequent prayer is not our habit, if we limit ourselves to one or two occasions for prayer in a day, we are at risk for having our spiritual metabolism slow down.
I think it is implied in Paul’s example that we need not make all our prayers with a bowed head and on bended knee. But as we think of particular individuals and circumstances over the course of a day, we offer up many brief prayers.
This is a discipline, to be sure—not simply because of the frequency being called for, but because there are people who will come to your mind that you do not particularly care for. Individuals you dislike will inevitably come to your mind, and yet, Paul's example remains applicable—pray for them. Upon every remembrance of them, thank God for them.
The second thing Paul teaches us has to do with the disposition of prayer. Not only did Paul constantly pray for the Christians in Philippi, but he "constantly (prayed) with joy in every one of (his) prayers" for them. It was not mere duty that motivated Paul's prayers, but joy.
This is an important distinction. Some Christians pray for others out of a sense of obligation, while other Christians pray because it is their supreme delight. As we frequently engage in prayer for others, our disposition should a joyful one.
We also learn in these verses that Paul expected his prayers to be answered. In verse 6, Paul says, "I am confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus." The question that comes to my mind when I read this is, 'Paul, what is the basis of your expectation?’
Perhaps you have heard it said that one's faith can only be as strong as the object of one's faith. In this case, the object of Paul's faith, or the basis of Paul's confidence, is God. And since it is God that has begun this work in the Philippians, Paul is convinced that God will finish the job.
By Paul’s description, we worship a God who finishes what He starts. And Paul wisely recognizes the role of prayer in this process. While Paul understands that it is God's will for Christians to grow and mature in their faith, he also recognizes that the trigger for God's will is prayer.
The puritan, Thomas Watson, reminds us of this truth when he comments on Acts 12, saying that, indeed, it was "The angel (that) fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched the angel" (Watson, Gleanings, 100).
What motivates Paul to pray for the Philippians? Why does Paul feel the way he does about them? Paul gives an answer for his feelings in verses 7 and 8, "For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me. For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus."
Paul is motivated by a deep affection for the people of Philippi—an affection rooted in his partnership with the Philippians in the cause of advancing the Gospel of Christ.
My experience certainly resonates with that of the apostle Paul. I know what it is like to have a congregation in my heart. I know what it is like to think about, and to pray for, the people of this congregation every waking hour. If you attend this church, even on an occasional basis, you can be confident of this: I pray for you.
I know that many of you pray for me and, I can tell you, it makes a difference. If someone were to ask me what is the key to my perseverance in ministry, I am inclined to answer as Spurgeon did--"My people pray for me." By the same token, I hope that, years after I've moved on from this place, if someone were to ask why this is such a healthy congregation, you could answer--"Our leaders pray for us." Prayer is the trigger that executes the will of God.
What then, is the will of God for His people, the Christian Church? Our answer is found, in part, in Paul’s statement in verse 9 and following. Paul prays for the Philippians, and I pray for St. Giles Kingsway, "that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having been filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God."
The first part of this prayer comes as no surprise to us--Paul wants our love to abound. We've heard this before--Christ commanded that we love the Lord our God and that we love our neighbour as ourselves (Lk. 10:27). Nothing new there—I suspect that no one here is surprised to read that Paul prayed for their ability to love.
But then we come to the second part of the prayer. Paul doesn't pray for just any kind of love. This isn't simply handholding, kumbuya-singing, love, but this is love overflowing with "knowledge and full insight". Paul is telling us that love should be accompanied by knowledge.
I am baffled when I hear people say, 'I don't care about theology, I just want to love Jesus.' My question for such a person is, 'How can you love Jesus unless you first know Him?' Jesus Himself, when He gave the command to love the Lord your God said that we are to do that "with all (our) heart, with all (our) soul, with all (our) strength, and with all (our) mind."
We know from experience that love and knowledge are closely linked. As I survey the relational health of couples who have been married 40 or more years, I often hear them say that they love each other more today than ever before. Why is that? Could it be that as time progresses, and as a husband and wife become more familiar with one another, that this contributes to a deepening of their love?
In a similar manner, when Paul talks about knowledge, we must not reduce that term to mean mere information. A deeper level of familiarity is implied here. Information is certainly a part of this familiarity, but we must never think that acquiring mere information will lead to a deep love for Jesus Christ.
For this reason, a variety of approaches are necessary in our pursuit of greater familiarity with God. Attending Sunday service is one approach. Daily Bible reading is another approach. Participation in group Bible studies and Christian fellowship, still another. Daily prayer, yet another.
When it comes to our relationship with Christ, the old cliché does not prove true--absence does not make the heart grow fonder. The more familiar we are with Christ, the more we will love Him.
And to what end does Paul want us to grow in our knowledge and love? His gives an answer in verses 10 and 11, "so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God."
'Paul, can you put that more simply? What’s your ‘end game’?’'
'I want you to become more familiar with Christ in order that you might become like Christ.'
Ultimately, Paul's fundamental prayer for the Philippians is that they become Christ-like. And, in becoming Christ-like, it is "to the glory and praise of God." Everything Paul prays for leads to this end. Paul wants their love to abound so that they may become more Christ-like. Paul wants the Philippians to abound in knowledge and discernment in order that they may become more Christ-like.
Knowing that this is the goal of Paul's prayer, we can read this back into verse 6, "I am confident of this, that He who began (to make you like Christ) will bring (your Christ-likeness) to completion by the day of Christ Jesus."
We glean from this the notion that a healthy church is a Christ-like church.
We also recognize that we can’t simply say we are a Christ-like congregation, or we are not a Christ-like congregation. Clearly, we are Christ-like in some measure, and yet we are not as Christ-like as we are intended to be, or potentially can be.
This is to say that progress in Christ-likeness is accomplished in degrees. And it seems that the degree to which a congregation is Christ-like is closely linked to the degree to which a congregation and her leaders are praying for Christ-likeness.
Christ-likeness is not automatic. Christ-likeness does not come in a package along with the church sign or the church building. We will be marked by Christ-likeness in increasing measure only as we commit ourselves to increase our habits of prayer.
As we commit ourselves to being a praying church; as we commit ourselves to praying for things that promote our Christ-likeness; as we commit ourselves to praying for things which promote the gospel of Christ and His glory, we can then say with Paul,
I am confident of this, that He who began a good work in (us) will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus. Amen.