Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Interview ~ John Armstrong on the Prayer Movement

The Modern Prayer Movement

John H. Armstrong
Several of my friends are deeply involved in the international prayer movement. I have deep respect for these friends and for this movement. It is clearly one part, and maybe the most important part, of my growing hope that we will see a full-scale revival and cultural renewal in North America. One of my very good friends, Phil Miglioratti, directs the work of the National Pastors Prayer Network ( www.nppn.org), as well as other prayer ministries. Phil and I converse now and then and clearly share many similar convictions about the church and the place and ministry of prayer. Rather than curse the darkness Phil lights real candles that assist churches and leaders to actually pray. Phil's articles and writings have appeared in a number of places and can be found by using the Web site above. I heartily commend Phil's ministry and encourage you to utilize it yourself. You may also consider inviting Phil to help you in your efforts to teach and practice prayer in your congregation or city.

Recently Phil asked me if I would answer several questions about prayer that he could use in his ministry. I agreed, but asked him if I could use these answers in an ACT 3 Weekly this summer. This process resulted in Phil's questions and my responses that follow.

1. John, though you are not a prayer leader by role or title, you have a strong commitment to prayer in the local congregation. Why?

I believe that every work God designs to accomplish in this world begins with the Holy Spirit pouring out the spirit of intercession and supplication upon the people of God. As a historian I have studied revivals, and revival movements, for over thirty-five years now. You can trace every revival, for example, to people praying and asking God to powerfully move so as to renew the church. And you can almost always trace the salvation of a person to at least one praying person who asked God to work in them. Somehow, in God's kind purpose, the receiving of blessings by his people is directly related to his people asking for him to bless.

I have discovered, after twenty years in the pastorate, and fifteen years of serving pastors and churches around the country, that the congregation that really and truly prays is the congregation that really and truly seeks the kingdom of Christ first, not its own ends. The church that is truly faithful must be a praying church that consistently and corporately asks that "his kingdom comes and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven" or it will become nothing more than a religious club with an agenda. I am convinced we have thousands of such religious clubs in our country at the present time. Because I believe in making every effort that we can to renew the church I believe such an effort will be birthed and carried along by a strong commitment to prayer.

2. Most prayer leaders are faced with many practical issues, thus they have little time for theology and history. What are the critical theological questions every prayer leader must think about that will form their personal theology of prayer?

First, no one, especially a prayer leader, should be so busy that they have no time for theology or history. I do not believe every leader should be a theologian or a historian, in the fullest sense of these words, but every leader needs to know the essential theological truths that form the life and faith of a healthy Christianity. Zeal for prayer is no excuse for ignorance of great truths like the incarnation, the Trinity, grace, sin and forgiveness. And ignorance of history reveals a certain lack of humility. It is as if we are saying, consciously or not, that we know great truths directly and owe nothing to anyone who went before us in God's saving of his people throughout all of history. Every single one of us owes a great deal to many who lived and died before we came on the scene. History acknowledges this and seeks to learn from what others can teach us if we are humble enough to listen.

What "critical theological issues" then should every prayer leader think about "that will form their personal theology of prayer"? I may surprise you but I would begin with the doctrine of the Trinity. I believe we assume this truth and do very little to understand how this distinctly Christian truth informs everything we do in worship and prayer. If the God we seek is an eternal Trinity, living in communion within the three distinct persons, then when we pray we enter into the communion of the three persons. How should we address God? How does our seeking the will of God in our prayer life work in terms of the unity within the Godhead? What, to be very specific, does the relationship of the Father to the Son have to do with our prayer life?

A second critical theological truth that must impact our prayer life is the doctrine of providence. Is God all-powerful and what does this mean for my asking him to answer my prayer? When I pray how do I avoid fatalism, on the one hand, and manipulation on the other?

A third great theological truth that busy prayer leaders need to give attention to is the doctrine of the church. We evangelicals have a "low church" theology, often because of our reaction against Catholicism. We need to recover both a high Christology and a higher ecclesiology, or doctrine of the church. The New Testament is replete with the emphasis that God saves us as part of a body of people, a family, and a community. We are not lone rangers when we pray. We are members one of another.

A fourth great theological truth that prayer leaders should think about is the ministry of the Holy Spirit. I know this is assumed, and much work on the Holy Spirit has been done from within the prayer movement. But errors about the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit still abound. I think the singular most important text in the Bible, at least in this regard, is Luke 11:13. Here Jesus explicitly tells us that "the heavenly Father [will] give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him," yet I see few who ask. Pentecostals often assume that they have him, because of some marvelous past experience of God, while non-Pentecostals assume that they have the Spirit simply because they are believers and have all that they will ever need. Something is going on in this text that doesn't neatly fit into these two systems. It is critical, I believe, that we seek a richer, fuller understanding of this matter if we would strengthen the prayer movement.

3. What should we have learned from Christian history that can guide prayer leaders as they face day-to-day, week-to-week and even year-to-year issues?

If we knew Christian history better we would know about men like George Whitefield and John Wesley, or Adoniram Judson and Charles Spurgeon. We would know about women like Terese of Lisieux and Catherine Booth. We would know real people with real struggles who faced real problems just like our own.

By knowing the lives of such people, and by having some knowledge of the big story of Christian history, we would more clearly understand that almost every problem we face today has been dealt with in the past. We would know where to find solid answers and how to avoid the fads and extremes, which we do not handle well at the present time. We would also avoid making extravagant claims about our own ministries and glean rich insights from how others struggled in prayer, often for years, before they saw amazing answers. History humbles you if you read it correctly. We could stand a larger dose of humility today since we seem to talk a great deal about the next amazing thing that we are about to undertake for God because we are a special people.

I believe that we would also understand how worldliness hinders our prayer ministries. This is true precisely because it is worldliness, which is not the created world but rather the way the world thinks and acts without hearing and obeying the Word of God, that creates apathy and false comfort. We grow too comfortable with this world's way of doing things and fail to see how techniques also hinder prayer movements. We keep looking for new techniques and Christ is looking for a people who know their only hope is in him alone. Our best contribution to the prayer movement is to know how weak and powerless we really are without him. The apostle did plainly say, "God chose the weak in the world to shame the strong" (1 Corinthians 1:27b). We act as if this is not true when we build our movements on strength rather than weakness. The world will never understand this truth, indeed it cannot. By the power of the Spirit, we can and should understand it and lean into it.

Christian history will also reveal that the debates we have about ritual, form prayers, and liturgy are often wrongly argued. Even the great John Wesley understood that as powerful as free and spontaneous prayer was we should never assume this is the right (on only) way to pray. In fact, Wesley rightly said that if you listen long enough to extemporaneous prayers you will begin to hear the same form and words prayed in the same way. Is this not itself a new form of ritualism? Growing up in a free-church context, where liturgy was frankly despised, we became very proud of our spontaneous prayers I think. I noticed, while still a young boy that the same words were used week after week when we prayed.

4. Are you encouraged or concerned about the prayer movement's progress and direction over the past fifteen years or so?

Actually I am encouraged by the big picture of things. I think the movement shows evidence of growing up in grace and seeking a richer and fuller understanding of the truth of Christ. We also seem less preoccupied with the techniques I referred to above. We are looking for help, for example, to encourage prayer and to feed other strands of biblical insight into the movement, but we are not as focused on right methods and big personalities as we were at one point. Prayer has a way of doing this since the focus is not on preaching, teaching or singing. I also think the movement is growing beyond the "big person" complex that impacts other movements in the church. When you think about the prayer movement, for example, you do not have a huge name that stands out as the leader. It seems that the "weak" and those who are "nothing" are more prominent in this movement (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:26-28).

My concern for the prayer movement is that the lack of a healthy doctrine of the Trinity, and of God's providence, will cause it to become another movement of pietism that fails to recover a robust Christian confession, which is needed now more than ever. I do not think we realize that we are able to build a prayer movement that is shaped by worldliness, not by the Spirit. The enemy would love to destroy any movement of prayer and will use imitation and phony piety to accomplish his work. He is not original, and again history reveals to us how he has done this in the past by leading movements of prayer to become self-centered and non-confessional. We need to remember that Christ calls us to "love God with all your mind" not just with "all your heart" (Matthew 22:36-38). An a-theological-or worse yet an anti-theological-movement of prayer will always be a real danger and we must resist it without allowing denominational differences to divide the movement or destroy us from the opposite direction.

5. Recently you served as an interim pastor (2004). If you were to speak from a pastoral position to a prayer leader, what three or four objectives would you encourage them to adopt?

I would first encourage them to make it their goal to involve the entire congregation in prayer, not just a handful of faithful people. This will not be easy to do, but without it you can divide the church into the "haves and have nots" and the result will actually destroy a real movement of prayer. I have seen it happen. You can have special prayer meetings and teams but make sure you lead the whole church to prayer step-by-step.

Second, I would encourage the leadership to saturate every thing they do in the ministry of prayer. I have seen one false start after another where initially good intentions are cast aside by the busy pace at which modern church leaders operate a ministry. We must realize the work of the church is not a business but rather a spiritual work to be done with spiritual means. Every elders/deacons meeting should be a prayer meeting and every worship service should be covered and immersed in prayer. I am always excited when I show up at a church to speak and find out this is going on. There is always a more fruitful ministry that comes with my speaking when this is the context.

Third, I would make it a clear objective to teach prayer. I would preach and teach on it continually. (A series on the Lord's Prayer was given in my interim setting.) I would utilize the various resources that ministries like your own provide to train people in prayer. I think we assume that prayer is caught, not taught. It is clearly both.

Fourth, I would create sacred space devoted to prayer. This would include a prayer room in the church building, if possible, and designated places for prayer during various times and seasons. We create a large place for corporate worship, offices for staff and counseling, rooms for Christian education, but nothing is devoted to prayer in much of our planning for space and development.

1. You are one of the most widely read persons I know. What books on prayer should every prayer leader have on their reading list?

1. The Complete Works of E. M. Bounds on Prayer

This particular volume includes eight different books by this nineteenth century teacher, a master on the subject.

2. Prayer, Karl Barth (50th Anniversary Edition)

Barth was one of the church's greatest thinkers in the 20th century and he wrote a gem. This edition has a number of additional essays and resources that make it more valuable.

3. The Struggle of Prayer, Donald G. Bloesch

Rarely does an evangelical theologian write on prayer thus this is an important book because if treats the subject both biblically and theologically.

4. With Christ in the School of Prayer, Andrew Murray

Murraywrote a number of books on prayer but this is the classic.

5. Prayer: History and Psychology, Friedrich Heiler (Samuel McComb, translator and editor)

Heiler was a professor of history and philosophy in Germany and there is no book on the subject that contains the breadth and scholarship of this one.

7. Please write a prayer for those who lead or serve in their congregation's prayer ministry?

O Lord and heavenly Father, who has given to me the gift of service through the ministry of prayer, grant that I may serve your people with clean hands and a pure heart. Give to me the love of your dear Son so that all I do may be enabled to serve your people faithfully and teach them your truth about seeking you alone. Help me to depend entirely upon your Spirit so that I will humbly demonstrate to all what it means to be strong in my human weakness. And guide my ministry of prayer so that you will be glorified and Christ's church renewed day-by-day through your almighty power.

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Act 3 is a ministry to advance the missional mandate of the Lord Jesus Christ in the third millennium, through the witness of Scripture and the wisdom of the Christian tradition.

Act 3 Weekly is part of the writing ministry of John H. Armstrong and the ministry of ACT 3: Advancing the Christian Tradition in the Third Millennium.===>Click headline to access website . .

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