Have you ever considered the implications of Christ’s startling words when He tells His disciples in John 15:5 “Apart from Me you can do nothing”? Are we really so spiritually helpless that nothing can be accomplished without God?
My wife, Carol, and I made that discovery in the autumn of 1971 when the little inner-city New York church I was pastoring was struggling to keep the lights on. Carol and I had frankly admitted to each other that unless God broke through, the Brooklyn Tabernacle was doomed. We couldn’t finesse it along. We couldn’t organize, market and program our way out. The embarrassing truth was that sometimes I didn’t even want to show up for the service. And our weekly Tuesday night prayer meetings were sparsely attended and less than powerful.
We had to have a visitation of the Holy Spirit, or bust.
I remember praying, “Lord, I have no idea how to be a successful pastor. I haven’t been trained. All I know is that Carol and I are working in the middle of New York City, with people dying on every side, overdosing from heroin, consumed by materialism. If the Gospel is so powerful … .” I couldn’t finish the sentence.
Quietly but forcefully, I sensed God speaking: If you and your wife will lead My people to pray and call upon My name, you will never lack for something fresh to preach. I will supply all the money that’s needed, both for the church and for your family, and you will never have a building large enough to contain the crowds I will send in response.
I knew I had heard from God, even though I hadn’t experienced some strange vision, nothing sensational or peculiar. God was simply focusing on the only answer to our situation—or anybody else’s for that matter.
The next Sunday, I came back to the church and told the tiny congregation, “I really feel that I’ve heard from God about our church’s future. From this day on, the prayer meeting will be the barometer of our church. … If we call upon the Lord, He has promised in His Word to answer, to bring the unsaved to Himself, to pour out His Spirit among us. If we don’t call upon the Lord, He has promised nothing. No matter what I preach or what we claim to believe in our heads, the future will depend upon our times of prayer.”
In the weeks that followed, answers to prayer became noticeable. Unsaved relatives and total strangers began to show up. There were junkies, prostitutes and homosexuals. But lost lawyers, business types and bus drivers turned to the Lord there, too. We started to think of ourselves as a “Holy Ghost emergency room” where people in spiritual trauma could be rescued.
I knew that a lot of churches gave lip service to the idea that God can do anything. But we needed to have real faith that anyone who walked in, regardless of his or her problems, could become a trophy of God’s grace.
The story of our church’s growing dependence on Christ is such a vivid reminder to me of how God uses praying believers to draw the lost to Himself.
As someone who’s spent more than 25 years pastoring a church, I have seen many new believers repeatedly make futile attempts at victorious living in their own strength. But as they mature spiritually, they start to see their need for divine assistance and are driven to a deeper prayer life.
Unfortunately, when it comes to evangelistic outreach, we often overlook this discipline. We discount the truth that for us to be effective in our efforts to expand Christ’s kingdom on earth, the Holy Spirit’s power must be our source.
Do we really believe that God can bring anyone to Himself?
Carol and I have seen countless lives transformed through prayer at our church, but several years ago in answer to believers’ prayer, Ricardo Aparicio—known on the street as “Sarah”—walked into our doors and our lives.
The whole outreach that touched this man was born in prayer. At our church, most ministries do not begin with a bright idea in a pastors’ meeting. Over the years, we’ve learned to let God birth something in people who are spiritually sensitive, who begin to pray and feel a calling. Then they come to us and say, “We want to start this ministry.”