Ch 19: Prayer & Preaching .
In Acts 6:4 the apostles when faced with other calls on their energies, delegate some responsibilities and choose: “We will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word”. Throughout this period of revival this choice the Apostles made was present in my mind. The fact that they found that prayer and preaching were vital to the dramatic spread of Christianity in their time had to be taken seriously.
Lay involvement in church ministry was a bit of a fad at that time, so in encouraging lay people, particularly our new converts to share in things like pastoral care I was not doing anything very unusual. Although I do remember one vestry meeting where as I explained this one woman burst out: “Why should we pay a dog and bark too!” so there those who thought differently.
I will talk more about this whole-body-of-believers taking up the work of Christ later. For this blog I want to focus on prayer and preaching as a priority I felt I should set myself as the minister.
Prayer for revival.
One time an older man in Koo-wee-rup bailed me up in the street and asked what I did between Sundays. When you think about it this was rather funny in a farming community – I don't think he would have asked a sheep farmer what he did to fill in his time! However being young and a bit innocent I told him – including the hours I spent in prayer each day. To this he contemptuously retorted: “Shouldn't take you more than five minutes to say your prayers!”.
These days God has very kindly put me out to pasture for a spell and it does only take me five minutes to say my prayers. In those days I was working for him to bring people to salvation and part of that work was serious prayer. It was 'work' and it took a great deal of time. It was not a burden, it was not something I had to force myself to do or anything like that. In this sort of revival prayer it is Christ who works in us to inspire both the will and the deed to his chosen purpose. Then he delights in displaying his power by answering those prayers even more abundantly than we could imagine!
Looking back I can't say how much was decision of will and how much was pushing by the Holy Spirit. Certainly I wanted people to come to Christ. Inez, who I will introduce in a moment, once said that my “sole desire was souls”. Out of love for Christ yes it was. So once I understood from the scriptures and reading about earlier Christian revivals that devotion to prayer was vital yes I made a decision of will to try to devote myself to prayer. But if it had been just my decision, they would just have been dry and dusty prayers. I would have soon given up. And I really don't think God would have answered them. It is in part our decision, God is like that, he wants us to choose to be part of his work and he wants us to chose to treat his work as more important than other pursuits: but it it also totally the work of his Holy Spirit in us.
Excursus on prayer
Just to be straight on this: when people say “Prayer works” I think, “No! Prayer does not work. God works! He is just really kind in allowing us to have a little part in his work when he does really powerful things in response even to our feeble requests.”
What I mean is this. The big mistake pagans make, and some Christians copy is to think that “prayer” is some sort of magic humans can work. It really isn't! Prayer is part of our life with God. It includes making requests to a most wonderful, loving and infinitely wise Heavenly Father. The “faith” element in our prayer life includes trusting that God is much wiser than we are and that often we will pour out our hearts to him asking him to do things we include things which would not be right or we ask him to give us things which even a human parent would refuse to give because they know that would be bad for the child. So faith is trusting God to on occasion answer “No” or “Not yet” or “Let s talk about that some more so you can understand my ways better” or even “I can do better than that”.
True Christian prayer and pagan magical incantations could not be more different! Do not confuse them!
On the topic of prayer, of course God knows what we need before we ask. But he likes us to ask. And sometimes he will do things when we do ask that he would not do if we did not ask.
That can be a heavy responsibility especially if God has put you in a position of leadership where you and not anyone else are the one who must ask him for a certain thing to be done! People in special positions of authority do have both greater opportunity to ask certain things of God, and more terrible fault before him if they do not.
Moses is the example that got to me. Psalm 106 :23 says:
The image this evokes is of a warrior of old standing in a gap where the city wall has been broken down by the enemy and denying them entrance. It is a courageous and lonely stand! When God places one of us in some position of responsibility and authority there are times when the fate of those or the enterprise which we serve hangs in the balance and only we can stand in the breach before God in prayer such that he will act to save.
Coming back to general prayer for revival of Christianity, my researches have led me to this conclusion: God is kindly letting us have a little slice of the action, but it is still and always his action.
One example of this which really struck me was in reading about some of the revivals of past generations. True, they described the fervent united prayer that went on before and during the revival. But I got the strong impression that it was always God who sent the desire and earnestness for that prayer to his people first. I suppose they could have ignored his call and perhaps he would not then have sent revival. But they did respond, and in many cases God responded with incredible power. I remember reading of one revival where the grace of God fell on a town with such intensity that even people travelling into town were immediately falling to their knees and surrendering their lives to God.
The reverse does not, I think, hold. Sometimes people (or more usually church leaders) think that a revival would be nice, and issue a call to fervent united prayer. But it is all human decision not a response to God's call. Not surprisingly it all fizzles out. I suspect that in those instances we are just in a tiny way re-enacting what happened when the Israelites first refused to enter Canaan: God told them to turn back to the desert. Then they said: “No, we are feeling braver now, we will go up and conquer the promised land”. They were, as God had warned them, smartly chased out of it by the Canaanites.
So, effective prayer for revival has at God's call and in response to God's call.
Preaching for Revival
I expected people to be converted during my sermons, and they were.
The lectionary does, over a three year cycle, get through a great deal of the Bible and I generally expounded one of the set readings. It is a good discipline making you preach on parts of the Bible you might otherwise avoid. So by honestly expounding one of the three (Old Testament, Epistle, & Gospel) scripture portions set for the day I frequently ended up teaching some aspect of putting our faith in Christ and giving our obedience to Christ.
So I preached for conversion and for growth. Some who we saw blossom as Christians may have believed as much as they knew for many years, and now as they understood more their faith became more conspicuous. Ian was one of these. Ian was a retired dairy farmer. He was not one for reading. He could not, I think, even to his dying day, have parroted off any of the popular evangelical formulas. If anyone had posed to question to him: “Are you saved?” he would have wondered what they were talking about. But Jesus he understood. Jesus he trusted and on Jesus he tried to model his life.
Inez was a representative of the more sudden response to hearing Jesus preached about. Inez was the wife of the doctor in Lang Lang. Innez and Orrie had emigrated from Scotland some twenty years before we arrived. As their children had grown up Innez had been active in many of the social circles of the town from Pony Club to the Agricultural Show Committee. My wife Sue being a doctor had taken to working one day a week with Orrie in Lang Lang and another in the Koo-wee-rup practice.
Because Sue was helping in their practice, Innez became curious about what sort of preacher I might be and came along to church. She heard the sermon and re-committed her life to Christ. From that time on she became one of the most stalwart workers for the Gospel, and also a gift from God beyond price for our whole family.
Blow-ins were an important and unpredictable part of preaching. This is jumping forward in time again, but fits with this topic. I can only say God sent some people along to church to hear and then go. It got to be quite funny – God, as you may have discovered has a tremendous sense of humour. In the middle years particularly, Jan the churchwarden would frequently take malicious delight in pronouncing just before the service was due to begin, with just a handful of regulars were seated in church; “Well looks like that's all you're getting today!” when one or two entire families would come bustling in the door! Sometimes they were people I had met through marriage preparation, or funerals but often they were complete strangers. On those frequent and delightful occasions I always thought I was given something to preach especially for these visitors. So I was not perturbed if the people were strangers who I never saw again. I was just delighted that God had used me as one little bit of his work in their lives. Often ones I have contact with for marriage preparation who came for a while to church did come to faith in Christ, but as I mentioned in the last blog, for many this church was not a welcoming place. God had to, and I believe did, provide the help they needed for the next step with him.