Prayer as praise: Towards a theology of prayer for mission engagement
Prayer is one religious discipline that has received much attention through the ages. Christians have placed a great deal of emphasis on the necessity of prayer for maintaining a close relationship with God. But another function of prayer that needs more attention is the primacy of prayer to the task of mission. Historically, no great revival or missionary advancement has occurred without having been preceded by intense prayer.1 For John Piper, “the reason the Father gives the disciples the instrument of prayer is because Jesus has given them a mission.”2 If the goal of mission is the glory of God and prayer is the tool to accomplish this, then prayer rightly conducted should result in praise.
This article outlines a few vital elements from Scripture about prayer that should lead to praise in mission contexts of Arts missiology programs, Adventist University of Africa, Nairobi, Kenya.
The Scriptures are replete with accounts that depict the fact that persistent prayers bring great rewards. A classic example involves the prophet Elijah, who, after a period of drought that lasted for three and a half years, prayed for rain. After each prayer session, he sent his servant to search the western horizon for a sign indicating that God had answered his prayer. Not until seven prayer sessions later did he receive a confirmation (1 Kings 18:41–44).
In several gospel accounts, Jesus taught His disciples about the need for tenacious prayer. One of the most well-known passages states: “‘Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you’ ” (Matt. 7:7, NLT). The emphasis focuses on a state of continuous requesting.
In addition, Jesus illustrated the lesson of persistence through a parable after His disciples requested that He teach them to pray. It told of a man who received a late-night guest but had no meal to present to him (Luke 11:1–8). Concluding the parable, Jesus explained that the reason the needy man’s neighbor finally got up and provided him the bread he requested was because of his persistence. Actually, the original word in Greek, anadeia, is unique in Scripture. It is a composite of two words—“shamelessness” and “audaciousness.” In other words, audacious, persistent petitions in mission endeavors will find their mark.
One of the principal reasons Christians do not persist in praying is the tacit conviction that prayer does not really change anything. It is interesting to note, however, that “believers who live in contexts where they have few human resources for ministry are forced to rely on God alone for protection and proclamation. That reliance is often demonstrated through a robust prayer life.”3 Our persistence in prayer reflects how much we trust that God is able, willing, and ready to answer whenever we call on Him for help.
Petitionary prayers should portray rebellion. For Rob Wells, rebellion “is the absolute and undying refusal to accept as normal what is completely abnormal.”4 Such was the situation with the widow whose case reached the court of an unjust judge who feared neither God nor any human (Luke 18:1–8). The widow in Christ’s story displayed blatant rebellion and rejection of her allotted social status. She recognized that if the judge took up her cause, it could make her situation better. Concluding the parable, Jesus declared that God has no problem with transforming the conditions of His elect if, like the widow, we would come to Him in faith. Similarly, God’s people need to envision what could happen when He intervenes on our behalf as we rebel against our present mission status quo, whatever that may be.
Despite the nature, duration, and condition of the enslavement of God’s children, we need to pray and then proclaim with conviction to the Pharaohs of this world—in physical, spiritual, or whatever form—“Let God’s people go!” Such an attitude of rebellion was evident in the prayers of the apostles as they took the gospel into the hotbeds of paganism. Similarly, this attitude motivated Paul to take on the scholars, institutions, principalities, and powers with the settled conviction that the status quo would change— and truly it did.
The imagery of prayer as aggression is undoubtedly one that would leave certain Christians uncomfortable because many regard praying as passive rather than active. But Christians often forget that they are engaged in warfare (Eph. 6:12). It is important, therefore, to remember that “prayer is the decisive weapon to this struggle—and is often aggressive and violent.”5
This warfare paradigm is particularly evident in the writings of the apostle Paul. Theologian John Piper observes, “Life is war because the maintenance of our faith and the laying hold on eternal life is a constant fight. Paul makes clear in 1 Thessalonians 3:5 that Satan targets our faith for destruction.”6
The language of warfare is not unique to Paul, for Jesus Himself alluded to this in a cryptic statement recorded in Matthew 11:12:7 “‘And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force’” (NKJV).
Although many different forms of prayers exist, many regard intercessory prayers as the loftiest of all. Intercessory prayers entail standing “in the gap” (Ezek. 22:30), pleading on behalf of others rather than for oneself.
Through the powerful agency of intercessory prayers, mission shall advance all across the world. Such prayers have facilitated and sustained church planting in unentered regions and among diverse people groups. Resistant settings include regions where government legislation or,cultural, religious, and philosophical strongholds hostile to the spread of the gospel restrict mission activities. Only through the power of intercessory prayers can we overcome such strongholds.
In mission contexts, Christians develop a better sense of their helplessness and powerlessness, and, therefore, their greater need to rely on divine might and resources to accomplish their given tasks. The greatest requirement for the church’s mission advancement, therefore, is intercessors— mighty prayer intercessors.
Because mission is first and foremost the initiative and supreme task of God, participants in His work for the salvation of others must approach it with an attitude of humility and submission to His will. It was such a mindset that Christ had that resulted in His incarnation and that characterized His entire earthly ministry (Heb. 10:5–7; Phil. 2:5–8). His daily prayers for effectiveness in His Father’s mission were ones of submission.
A cursory study of the biblical book of Acts reveals throughout it the sovereignty of God in the church’s mission activities. The apostles’ mission success totally depended upon their submission to the divine will. They recognized that they were merely colaborers with the Lord of mission. Consequently, their prayers reflected their surrender to God’s will. In similar fashion today, if the work of mission in any field is to be successful, it must begin with prayers of submission. As E. Stanley Jones perceptively remarked, “Prayer is surrender—surrender to the will of God and cooperation with that will. If I throw out a boat hook from the boat and catch hold of the shore and pull, do I pull the shore to me, or do
I pull myself to the shore? Prayer is not pulling God to my will, but the aligning of my will to the will of God.”8 Our alignment to God’s will through prayer is what brings significant results in the mission field.
EarnestnessThe question of the importance of prayer to mission is not whether the church prays but how it prays. Even though the length of a prayer does not determine its efficacy, nevertheless, the intensity or earnestness that accompanies it indicates its value in the challenging contexts of mission.
“But what have millions of Christians done? We have stopped believing that we are in a war. No urgency, no watching, no vigilance. No strategic planning. Just easy peace and prosperity. And what did we do with the walkie-talkie? We tried to rig it up as an intercom in our houses and cabins and boats and cars—not to call in firepower for conflict with a mortal enemy but to ask for more comforts in the den.”10
To conclude, prayer is effective and powerful when applied for the purpose that God designed and intended it for. Also, when mission agents follow scripturally-derived principles, the result shall bring glory to God’s name and produce praise from the lips of His people. It is time, therefore, for the church to reengage in the task of mission, filled with the power it obtains through the weapon of prayer.
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1 Charles R. Gailey and Howard Culbertson, Discovering Missions (Beacon Hill, KS: Beacon Hill Press, 2007), 196.
2 John D. Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 69.
3 Craig Ott, Stephen J. Strauss, and Timothy Tennent, Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 250.
4 David Wells, “Prayer: Rebelling Against the Status Quo,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, ed. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2009), 160.
5 John D. Robb, “Strategic Prayer,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement—A Reader, 4th ed., ed. Ralph D. Winter and Stephen C.Hawthorne (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Press, 2009), 165.
6 Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad, 66.
7 Regarding Matt. 11:12, The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary states, “Suffereth violence. . . . Opinions differ as to the precise meaning of the statement.” Francis D. Nichol, ed., Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 5, rev. ed. (Hagerstown, MD: Reviewand Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), 384.
8 E. Stanley Jones, A Song of Ascents (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1968), 383.
9 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers 1892 (Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1892), 297.
10 Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad, 69, 70.