The prayer meeting is almost universally the most poorly attended service of the church, and is considered the most difficult to conduct. In many churches it has ceased to function, and in others the pastor would be happy if this weakly and monotonous service could be gotten rid of gracefully by some face-saving method. The small attendance does not seem to justify any special preparation on the part of the pastor or elder, and even when something worthwhile is given it seems to make but little if any difference.
The prayer meeting has been called the dynamo, or powerhouse, of the church, but in most cases it fails to generate enough light and heat to influence the spiritual life of those who attend. Recognizing that something is drastically wrong, ministers have tried all sorts of innovations and experiments, but generally with no permanent results. The reluctance of the people to pray has gradually but surely reduced this holy exercise of the soul to a minimum so that the term "prayer meeting" has become a misnomer. After 'begging in vain and in embarrassment for testimonies, and on being informed that some are staying away because they do not relish this part of the service, many pastors have dropped the praise service from their program for weeks or months at a time.
The prayer meeting has largely become just another preaching service, in which the pastor takes practically all the time in merely informative discourses which resemble in nature and content the other services of the church, and the members seem to love to have it so. This method requires little or nothing of them. The prayer meeting is no longer the service of the laity, in which they play the leading role. All they have to do is to listen, and what they hear seems to go in one ear and out the other. We need a Joshua to lead modern Israel out of this desert of dry bones into the valley of green pastures and still waters, so that this midweek service may become a delight and a more definite contribution to the life and progress of the church.
A connected series of studies on an interesting topic somewhat new to the congregation will increase the prayer meeting attendance, but only as long as the series lasts. A good Bible student and interesting speaker may keep this special interest going for some time, but sooner or later the stimulus wears off, the preacher runs out of audience-drawing material, and in the end suffers the pangs of frustration and defeat.
One pastor of my acquaintance has had considerable success by making Wednesday rather than Sunday night the evangelistic service of the church. To Seventh-day Adventists, Sunday night meetings for the public are considered an extra burden on the members because of their not being a part of the regular program. On the other hand Wednesday night is the time of a regular service which they are at least supposed to attend. This minister has succeeded in getting the co-operation of his members in attending this evangelistic service and bringing their friends. It is at least a noble experiment worth trying, especially in those churches where both the Wednesday and Sunday night services are virtually a failure.
There are certain fundamentals that are absolutely necessary to a successful prayer meeting. In the first place, the leader must see that the service begins and closes on schedule. Under no circumstances should he wait for the tardy, even though there be but two or three present to begin with. Giving "meat in due season" should apply to time as well as to subject matter. Delay in opening the services will soon dull and eventually kill the interest of those with well-ordered lives and symmetrical characters. Habitually running overtime is no less fatal.
One of the Chief Causes of Failure
There are a few in almost every church who feel that unlimited time in a public service not only gives the Spirit a chance to operate, but is also an evidence of superior piety and religious zeal. The long, dry, spiritless prayers and testimonies of such wear on the patience of God as well as of the saints of the most High. To them the ideal service is "where congregations never dismiss and Sabbaths never end." They are entirely out of step with this modern streamlined age. Ours is a generation of "digests" and information in condensed form. Brevity is the order of the day. This fact cannot be ignored with safety.
The wise leader will see that prayers and testimonies are unselfishly brief, and loud enough to be heard and understood by all present. Failure on this point is the chief cause of the sickly nature and final death of many prayer meetings.
I will not soon forget my first prayer meeting in a new pastorate. Two or three long and lifeless prayers followed by two emotional testimonies of the sermon variety monopolized the entire time, and left the rest of us cold in more ways than one. Nothing was done at the time to change the situation, but the subject announced for the next week was "How to Make the Prayer Meeting a Success." Because of the reading of the following statements from the Spirit of prophecy with appropriate comments, the experience of that first meeting was never repeated.
"The prayer-meetings should be the most interesting gatherings that are held; but these are frequently poorly managed.... Wisdom should be sought of God, and plans should be laid to conduct the meetings so that they will be interesting and attractive. The people hunger for the bread of life. If they find it at the prayer-meeting, they will go there to receive it. Long, prosy talks and prayers are out of place anywhere, and especially in the social meeting. Those who are forward and ever ready to speak, are allowed to crowd out the testimony of the timid and retiring. Those who are most superficial generally have the most to say.. Their prayers are long and mechanical. They weary the angels and the people who listen to them. Our prayers should be short and right to the point. Let the long, tiresome petitions be left for the closet, if any have such to offer. Let the Spirit of God into your hearts, and it will sweep away all dry formality."—Testimonies, vol. 4, PP. 70, 71.
"There are some, I fear, who do not take their troubles to God in private prayer, but reserve them for the prayer-meeting, and there do up their praying for several days. Such may be named conference and prayer-meeting killers. They emit no light ; they edify no one. Their cold, frozen prayers and long, backslidden testimonies cast a shadow. All are glad when they get through, and it is almost impossible to throw off the chill and darkness which their prayers and exhortations bring into the meeting. From the light which I have received, our meetings should be spiritual and social, and not too long."—Ibid., vol. 2, pp. 578, 579.
Factors Which Detract and Mar
Another weakness pointed out is that of mumbling prayers and giving testimonies with voices so weak they cannot be heard or understood.
"Satan rejoices when the prayers offered to God are almost inaudible. Let God's people learn how to speak and pray in a way that will probably represent the great truths they possess. Let the testimonies borne and the prayers offered be clear and distinct. Thus God will be glorified."--/bid., vol. 6, p. 382.
"Do not bow down and cover up your faces as if there were something that you desire to conceal; but lift up your eyes toward the heavenly sanctuary, where Christ your Mediator stands before the Father to Present your prayers, mingled with His own merit and spotless righteousness, as fragrant incense"-.--Counsels to Teachers, p. 241.
"In the social meeting there is special need of clear, distinct utterance, that all may hear the testimonies borne and be benefited by them. .. . Let those who pray and those who speak pronounce their words properly, and speak in clear, distinct, even tones. . . . Do not fall into the habit of praying so indistinctly and in so low a tone that your prayers need an interpreter. . . . A prayer uttered so hurriedly that the words are jumbled together, is no honor to God and does the hearers no good."—Gospel Workers, pp. 87-89.
Reading and commenting on these and other statements will do much to correct prayer meeting killers, and it is best for the pastor to do this at his first prayer meeting in a church, so that the guilty who need the reproof will not feel that he is making personal thrusts, and thus become offended. However, if he neglects this duty and finds later that he has a problem on his hands, it is better to offend a few than to let that few ruin the service.
Some ministers have learned from experience that the secret of successful prayer meetings is in conducting the service in harmony with its name, and omit sermons, talks, and even most of the testimonies, and confine the service almost wholly to songs and prayer. This method has revived many a dying prayer meeting, and made it one of the most attractive and best attended services of the week. Although the services should be conducted with variations, the following general pattern is followed. After one or two spiritual hymns, the leader reads one of the exceeding great and precious promises of God's Word, and makes a few appropriate comments, not exceeding five or ten minutes. He then asks for a definite number of requests for prayer, not more than three. Two or three volunteers are asked to offer short prayers centering on those requests, and the others are urged to focus their minds and silent petitions on the same. After another song or two, the same program is repeated, until the hour has expired.
With each succeeding meeting the requests come more readily and the prayers become more fervent and prevailing. Soon prayers begin to be answered, and these experiences are eagerly related; thus the services become more and more interesting. The leader may suggest that all bring notebooks and keep a record of the requests and answers, urging them to remember these requests in private devotions during the week. The only testimonies given are the relating of thrilling experiences of answered prayer. When the entire group center their prayers on a few definite objects, something is sure to happen.
The entire church soon hears about what is happening at prayer meeting, and more and more members bring their unanswered petitions to the praying group, who are getting results through united effort. This increase is on a safe and permanent basis because the service is all that the name implies, a prayer meeting. It is truly the service of all the members, in which each has an equal part, and thus it accomplishes the very object intended by its founders. It then becomes in truth the dynamo and powerhouse of the church, where the fires of revival and reformation are kindled, until all in the church are directly or indirectly affected for good.
A live prayer meeting means a live and growing church, with an increasing attendance at all its services. It is hoped that this plan will be given a fair chance in many churches.
The very conditions now prevailing in the world constitute a call to prayer. "The end of all things is at hand, be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer." I Peter 4:7. The church of Pentecost was born or reborn at a prayer meeting in the upper room, and the soldiers of the cross went forth conquering and to conquer. The fires of spiritual power that light the earth with gospel glory and finish God's work and cut it short in righteousness will be kindled in the assemblies of praying saints who have learned through experience the joys of answered prayer.