The importance of prayer for the preacher, the hearers, and the community: An interview with Alvin VanderGriend
Editor’s note: Dr. Alvin VanderGriend is a leader in the Christian prayer movement and has written several books on prayer, including Love to Pray: A 40 Day Devotional for Deepening Your Prayer Life1 and The Joy of Prayer: A 40-Day Devotional to Invigorate Your Prayer Life.2 He is cofounder, along with Henry Blackaby, of the Denominational Prayer Leaders Network and a member of the National Prayer Committee in the United States.
Derek Morris (DM): When did you first realize the importance of prayer?
Alvin VanderGriend (AV): I was taught to pray from childhood. My parents encouraged me to pray when I got up in the morning and when I went to bed at night. They led us in prayer before and after each meal. I am deeply grateful for what I learned about prayer through my Christian upbringing. Some important foundations were laid.
But there was a lot about prayer that I didn’t know. I didn’t know that prayer was all about relationship, a love relationship with God. I didn’t know that I had to ask for spiritual blessings in order to receive them. I didn’t know what a difference intercession could make.
When I was ten years old, sitting in the balcony of our church, I was convicted that if I ever became a preacher, I would emphasize prayer. Several years later, when a senior in high school, I entered a speech contest for our church’s youth convention and decided to speak about prayer. During my ministry, I was deeply moved by reading Power Through Prayer by E. M. Bounds. He emphasized that “in every truly successful ministry prayer is an evident and controlling force.”3
DM: I have also appreciated Power Through Prayer by E. M. Bounds. Some have called that the greatest book on prayer ever written. Unfortunately, in my training, there was little or no training in regards to prayer or prayer ministries. Few understood about prayer-saturated lives, prayer-saturated preaching, and prayer-saturated churches. A lot of dangerous assumptions were made. Perhaps that is why Bounds, even in his day, asserted that “a school to teach preachers how to pray, as God counts praying, would be more beneficial to true piety, true worship, and true preaching than all theological schools.”4
AV: I believe that our seminaries should not assume that pastors in training understand prayer or that they are devoted to prayer. We need to lay a proper foundation for prayersaturated ministry by teaching the Scriptures. I was amazed to discover that the Bible is over ten percent prayer. We need to recognize the place of prayer in the Scriptures and in the lives of the great heroes of faith. All of the great heroes of faith were also heroes of prayer.
It’s important to realize that prayer doesn’t start with us. Prayer starts with God. God is the initiator. He moves us to pray. He gives us prayer ideas. He holds out the promises that we claim in prayer. God is at work in all our praying.
DM: You have noted in your writings on prayer that the early Christians, preachers in particular, were devoted to prayer.
AV: Prayer was a priority in the early Christian church. The prayers at their prayer meetings were not short, shallow, bless-me kind of prayers. They were truly devoted to prayer. Their leaders were devoted to prayer. The word devoted literally means “to occupy oneself diligently with something” or “to persist in.” We read in Acts 6:4 that the apostles gave up other duties in order to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. When I first read that passage, I asked myself this question: Where did the apostles learn to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word? The answer is obvious: they had been with Jesus. They learned it from what they saw. They learned it from what they heard. Jesus spent entire nights in prayer. He bathed the key moments of His life in prayer. His words, His miracles, His power all came through prayer. The first Christians simply continued with what they saw in Jesus’ life and heard from His lips. I’m convinced that the amazing growth that took place in the early Christian church happened because of prayer-saturated lives and prayer-saturated preaching.
Bounds was right when he observed that, “God’s true preachers have been distinguished by one great feature: . . . prayer. . . . God to them was the center of attraction, and prayer was the path that led to God.”5
DM: What have you learned about the importance of prayer specifically as it relates to the preparation and delivery of powerful biblical sermons?
AV: The most important preparation is the preparation of the preacher. That has to happen in relationship with God, and prayer is an important part of that love relationship. By prayer, we invite the Holy Spirit to touch our hearts and lives, to impress us with the truths of a passage. The sermon needs to be born of prayer and bathed in prayer. The Holy Spirit knows the needs of my listeners, and He will reveal to me the things that they need to hear. Then when we deliver the sermon, the Holy Spirit comes in response to our prayerful invitation and anoints us with power and freedom.
Bounds puts it this way, “Prayer, in the preacher’s life, in the preacher’s study, in the preacher’s pulpit, must be a conspicuous and an all-impregnating force and an all coloring ingredient.”6 He continues, “The text, the sermon, should be the result of prayer. The study should be bathed in prayer, all its duties impregnated with prayer, its whole spirit the spirit of prayer.”7
DM: That is powerful! Now tell us about the listeners. What is the role of the congregation in prayer-saturated preaching?
AV: Once I realized the importance of prayer for the preparation and delivery of powerful biblical sermons, I encouraged my listeners to pray for me. I agree with Bounds that “it is an absolute necessity that the preacher be prayed for.”8 I came across a quote by Frank Laubach in his book, Prayer: The Mightiest Force in the World, that deeply moved me. This is what he said, “In nearly all congregations where we plead for every listener to pray hard we feel a strange, strong, delightful response from all parts of the room. Always, when congregations pray with great earnestness and unanimity, we feel lifted almost as though an invisible arm held us up; our hearts burn, tears lie close, and ideas come fresh and far better than any written address. Commonplace truth becomes incandescent, and burns like liquid metal. A congregation is three-fourths of a sermon!”9
Laubach continues, “Pastors around the world in ever increasing numbers are testifying that their preaching has been transformed by asking people to lean forward and pray.”10 That quotation just gripped me and confirmed my own experience that a prayer-saturated congregation makes a significant difference when I preach. When people in a congregation pray, something also happens for them! Their own hearts are brought under the authority of the Word. They are transformed from sit-and-soak listeners into giving and reproducing Christians. Their praying helps in that transformation. Prayer-saturated listeners are also impacting the people around them. A lot of good things happen when people devote themselves to prayer during the preaching of the sermon.
DM: So a preacher who is committed to prayer-saturated preaching would want to educate the congregation about the importance of prayer?
AV: Very much so! There is a church in Chino, California, that gives about twenty people who attend the worship service a “pray through” card. This card invites them to be designated prayers throughout the worship service. That’s one way that we can train members. We would like every listener to be devoted to prayer, but by selecting a certain number of designated prayers each week, we can educate our congregation about the importance of saturating the service with prayer.
DM: As you look back over your ministry, both as a local pastor and as a prayer leader, what is it that confirms for you the importance of prayer?
AV: There was a time in my ministry when I was functioning alone. The Holy Spirit led me to four other men; we covenanted to meet together for one to two hours every week to pray for each other. As we prayed for each other, I experienced a huge lift in my whole ministry, including my preaching.
Once I became a denominational prayer leader, I visited churches that were strong in prayer. After I had visited about six of these churches, it dawned on me that every church that was strong in prayer was essentially healthy—impacting its community and growing through evangelism. One pastor gave this testimony: “When we work, we work; when we pray, God works!”
I have also seen prayer impact whole communities. When I was serving as a pastor in Chicago, we prayed fervently that God would show us a way to impact our community. I can still remember the prayer team kneeling in a circle in the living room of one of our members. They prayed passionately for about half of the meeting time and the other half of our time was spent discussing ways to impact the community for Christ. Out of that effort came a ministry to children called Story Hour that brought eighty-five neighborhood children to our church building each week. Then we offered Bible study opportunities to mothers who brought their children. Those mothers brought other mothers, which led to an evangelistic Bible study ministry that resulted in many people coming to Christ. That Bible study ministry has now become an interdenominational ministry. All of that community impact flowed out of prayer.
DM: Tell me about your efforts to encourage other pastors to devote themselves to prayer.
AV: We put together a prayer leadership team. The first meeting we prayed for a couple of hours—and then we worked. The second meeting we prayed for a whole morning—and then we worked. The third meeting we prayed the whole day and then worked the second day. Out of that prayer leadership team came The Praying Church Sourcebook.11 It was one of the first sourcebooks on prayer. It included twenty-seven different strategies that churches were using to grow and strengthen prayer in their churches, along with many stories and illustrations.
DM: That sourcebook is an amazing resource. I appreciate the practical suggestions, such as houses of prayer and the pastors’ prayer team. Since we began a House of Prayer at Forest Lake Seventh-day Adventist Church, our prayer service attendance has grown under God’s blessing. Now, instead of a handful of believers, our church sanctuary is filled with earnest praying Christians and seekers after God. What are other ways that you have encouraged pastors and their congregations to devote themselves to prayer?
AV: We have developed Lighthouses of Prayer, little groups of Christians praying in their homes and their churches. They focused on praying for hurting and unsaved people that they knew in their workplaces, and in their neighborhoods. As a result, the Lighthouse Movement developed, teaching thousands of people to pray particularly for the unsaved. We are continuing that emphasis in our 40 Days of Prayer initiative, which helps a whole church get lifted in its prayer life through prayer-saturated preaching, small groups, and prayer events.
DM: I understand that you were also involved in the formation of the Denominational Prayer Leaders Network.
AV: That started back in 1989 with about fifteen denominational prayer leaders. At one point, we tabulated the number of local churches that were served by the leaders who were present and discovered, to our amazement, that we represented about one hundred forty thousand churches! This group has met at least annually to pray together, encourage each other, and share resources and strategies. We find that each time we gather together we are strengthened in our efforts as denominational prayer leaders as we try to help our congregations grow stronger in prayer and be Houses of Prayer.
DM: Can we expect a revival of prayer in the days ahead?
AV: Peter Wagner once said that the prayer movement was out of control. By that, he meant that the prayer movement is out of our control and under the control of the Holy Spirit. There have been a lot of roadblocks, a lot of resistance, but there is still a growing interest in prayer. I believe that prayer is the key to a revival of the church and the church’s ministry and mission.
DM: What appeal would you make to each reader?
AV: We have to begin with ourselves. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you a holy discontent with the status quo, with maintenance-oriented Christianity. Ask for a spiritual hunger that you might long for the presence of God, the breaking in of God. We must be poor in spirit, beggars before the Lord. If we start there, the Lord is eager to answer that prayer. Beyond that, we have to become part of a praying community. Vital, powerful praying happens in a context with other believers. Jesus, in Matthew 18, encouraged corporate prayer and gave some promises in that regard. In the book of Acts, there are at least thirty-three references to prayer, twenty-six of which are references to corporate prayer. God’s Word pictures a church devoted to prayer, persisting in prayer, and occupied diligently with prayer. That is what Jesus taught. That is what the New Testament church modeled. That is what God still expects today.
1. Alvin VanderGriend, Love to Pray: A 40 Day Devotional for Deepening Your Prayer Life (Terre Haute, IN: Prayershop Pub., 2007).
2. Alvin VanderGriend, The Joy of Prayer: A 40-day Devotional to Invigorate Your Prayer Life (Terre Haute, IN: Prayershop Pub., 2007).
3. E. M. Bounds, Power Through Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1972), 38.
4. Ibid., 25.
5. Ibid., 41.
6. Ibid., 32.
7. Ibid., 40, 41.
8. Ibid., 109.
9. Frank C. Laubach, Prayer: The Mightiest Force in the World (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1946), 33, 34.
10. Ibid., 34.
11. Alvin VanderGriend and Edith Bajema, The Praying Church Sourcebook (Grand Rapids, MI: Church Development Resources, 1990).