We wrongly assume that prayer is somehow akin to procrastination—putting off the work. The truth is, prayer is a necessary part of the work.
Many men, especially in the global West, are addicted to work. It’s understandable— productivity offers a cleaner high than any drug, and without the hangover. This can be equally (even especially) true for pastors, because we are rightly careful about not being lazy or unfruitful in ministry. We want to prove ourselves hard workers in the Lord’s vineyard, so that we hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Prayer, though, doesn’t always feel as productive to us as chaining ourselves to the computer, leading a board meeting, counseling a troubled member, reading a good book with an aspiring pastor, or getting out there and doing the work of an evangelist.
The overcorrection, then, is to neglect or shortchange supplication because we wrongly assume that prayer is somehow akin to procrastination—putting off the work. The truth is, prayer is a necessary part of the work. Prayer shows our dependence on God. It honors him as the source of all blessing, and it reminds us that converting individuals and growing churches are his works, not ours (1 Cor. 2:14–16; 3:6–7). Jesus reassures us that if we abide in him, and his words abide in us, we can ask anything according to his will and know that he will give it to us (John 15:10, 16). What a promise! I fear it is so familiar to many of us that we are in danger of hearing it as trite. Yet we must hear it as that which rouses us from our sleepy prayerlessness and drives us joyfully to our knees.
What then should we pray for as we begin to work for the health and holiness of the church? (1) What more appropriate prayers could a pastor pray for the church he serves than the prayers of Paul for the churches he planted (Eph. 1:15–23; 3:16–21; Phil. 1:9–11; Col. 1:9–12; 2 Thess. 1:11–12)? Allow these prayers to be a starting point for praying Scripture more broadly and consistently. This is another way you can unleash the transforming power of the gospel on the lives of church members. (2) Pray that your preaching of the gospel would be faithful, accurate, and clear. (3) Pray for the increasing maturity of the congregation, that your local church would grow in corporate love, holiness, and sound doctrine, such that the testimony of the church in the community would be distinctively pure and attractive to unbelievers. (4) Pray for sinners to be converted and the church to be built up through your preaching of the gospel. (5) Pray for opportunities for yourself and other church members to do personal evangelism.
One of the most practical things you can do for your own personal prayer life, and for the prayer lives of other church members, is to assemble a church membership directory (with pictures, if possible) so that everyone in the church can be praying through it a page a day. Our church’s membership directory has about twenty-seven people on a normal page. We also have sections for members in the area who are unable to attend and for members out of the area; one page for elders, deacons, deaconesses, officers, staff members, and interns; and sections that record the children of church members, supported seminarians, supported workers (like missionaries), and former staff members and interns. We usually encourage people to pray through the page number that corresponds to the current day of the month (e.g., June 1, page 1; June 2, page 2; etc.).
Model for your congregation faithfulness in praying through the directory in your own devotional times, and publicly encourage them to make praying through the directory a daily habit. Your prayers for people don’t have to be long—just biblical. Perhaps choose one or two phrases from Scripture to pray for them, and then pray a meaningful sentence or two from what you know is going on in their lives at present.
Get to know the sheep in your flock well so that you can pray for them more particularly. And for those you don’t yet know well, simply pray for them what you see in your daily Bible reading. Modeling this kind of prayer for others, and encouraging the congregation to join you, can be a powerful influence for growth in the church. It encourages selflessness in people’s individual prayer lives, and one of the most important benefits is that it helps to cultivate a corporate culture of prayer that will gradually come to characterize your church as people faithfully pray.