CITY TO CITY NYC Blog

Four Reasons We Can’t Forget the Work of Prayer

I underestimated the role of prayer when I planted my church. I was told about the huge effort it would take to plant a church but I didn’t anticipate that effort might subtly crowd out a reliance on God through prayer, over time. I led prayers and organized prayer meetings, but I found that it was possible to leave those meetings satisfied that I had checked a box, rather than spoken with almighty God about the church he was planting.

Here are 4 reasons why we can’t afford the risk of forgetting prayer again: 

To trust his might: Church planters are always taking inventories of their resources. What gifts do the people in the launch team have? How many prayer and resource partners have we raised? Who do we know in the community? What are the hopes and dreams of my neighbors? They have to do that in order to figure out how to love their neighbors well. They are soaked in this data.

Therefore planters are often optimists who go into a plant thinking they know how it can be done. Their gifts of analysis, strategy and raw hope in hard work are indeed assets. 

But the dark side of these gifts is that we never fully grab hold of the prayer life of Psalm 20: “We trust not in chariots or horses, but we boast in the name of the Lord.” 

We never fully take an inventory of God’s assets: his power, his will, his providence, his favor, his wisdom. This leads to discouragement and paralysis when our plans don’t work. It leads to relevant preaching and teaching, but not ourselves being electrified by it.

Prayer is to take inventory of God himself. Face to face with him we remember his infinite might, unchanging grace, unsearchable wisdom. We rehearse his attributes again, and measure his might against our challenges. We even measure them against our own assets. To come face to face with him in prayer puts everything in perspective so that we may approach our work trusting him and not ourselves. 

For a lightness beyond metrics: Many church planters work 75-hour weeks but think they think they have nothing to celebrate.

Ordinarily, I see new planters who smile on the outside but are quite desperate on the inside. As they look at the attendance and giving goals in their ‘plan’, they are not only busy working a hundred relationships, but also busy hiding discouragement. The stated ‘metrics’ actually blind them to the meaningful things that God is doing in people every day. 

One of the surprising features of the 2020 COVID lockdown in New York was how encouraged first-year church planters were. They’d say that they are having a blast and share all the amazing things God was doing. 

During lockdown no one knew how many people they should have. No one knew how much money was reasonable to raise. So every meeting you had with someone felt like a miracle. 

A couple people praying together on Zoom in the middle of the disconnected city was a blast. If you were able to help someone to the hospital, there was no nagging voice in the back of your head saying, “Why aren’t you helping 25 people? How are you gonna get this person to service on Sunday?”  It was easier to see that God was in the simple acts.

But we don’t have to wait for another lockdown. Prayer can open your eyes to his work beyond metrics. Paul prayed that the eyes of the Ephesian church would be opened not only to the hope of the Gospel, but to the riches of God’s inheritance in his holy people (Eph 1:18). He prayed that they would see Gospel power not just at a far-off consummation, but right now “in this present age.” Therefore we don’t have to wait to hit the metrics target to celebrate what God is doing. Seeing God at work beyond metrics requires the work of the Spirit, and therefore we ask God for this capacity in prayer.

To see the neighborhood as God sees it: At City to City we teach planters to study their neighborhoods – to get the deep sociological pulse of their neighbors so that they can love them well. Every neighborhood has brokenness that the Gospel wants to subvert. Every neighborhood has something beautiful that that Gospel brings to fullness.

Seeing these things as God sees them takes prayer. In my neighborhood, the local high school has a 19% graduation rate. Anxiety rates among teenage girls is upwards of 70%. Even for a long-time Chrisitian, it is hard to see the broken things here as anything else but chronically lost. It is hard to see the beauty as well. In prayer, God restores his vision for the renewal of all things, and to begin to partner with his power. It is to appeal to someone who is outside the broken systems to intervene. God historically has both corrected the despair of his people and called them to action through prayer. 

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

For what to do next: Church planters will have several dozens of things on their to-do list for the day, many of them outside their natural gifts. It is often difficult to decide what to do first, strategically. Two or three years into a plant, leaders can find that the people God has sent to their congregation are different than the demographic and culture they set out to reach. They’ll have to decide: Will I press on with the original vision because God gave that to me? Or will I adapt the vision to serve the people that God has actually put in front of me? Both might seem to be faithful.

The church in Antioch (Acts 13) had lots to do too. It was a hub of teaching and mission. God out many different kinds of people in front of them, from many different places. And yet they took the time to pray, wait, and even fast. While they did, the Holy Spirit told them to set apart Barnabas and Saul for the next step of the work. Any number of options could have been godly and wise. But the church united in prayer. We should not ignore God’s ability to cut through decision fatigue, and show us the next step even if it is only clarity for a day.

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