Prayer fuels mission
“Prayer does not fit us for greater work; prayer is the greater work.”
I recently attended the remembrance celebration of a godly saint who was a cherished prayer warrior in the church I once pastored. Let’s call her Hailey. Hailey’s family recounted what everyone who knew her could affirm, she prayed for the gospel to be advanced in the city where she lived and around the world, especially among unreached peoples. Her first request of me as I started my pastorate was if I would support advancing the gospel amongst a specific unreached people in Burkina Faso. I said that I was all in! Seventeen plus years later, as I concluded my ministry, several growing indigenous churches had been planted in Burkina Faso by workers we supported, the gospel was being proclaimed daily, people were being baptized, and disciples trained.
How is the gospel advanced? By passionate and capable ambassadors of Christ? Yes. Through a clear proclamation of the gospel? Yes. By demonstrations of love and miracles? Yes. With good strategy and robust financial resources? Yes. But how is the gospel best advanced? Hailey, this devoted and humble saint from the church I once pastored, claimed it was upon our knees, praying.
The place of prayer in the work of evangelism and missions is well documented. Consider, for example, the Haystack Prayer Meeting of 1806. Five Williams College students gathered in Sloan’s Meadow near the Hoosac River in Massachusetts to pray about the spiritual needs of unreached people in Asia. The story tells that a thunderstorm struck, and the group took shelter next to a haystack and, despite the inclement weather, continued to pray. This meeting was the genesis for a missionary movement among American protestants. It was said that after 150 years of operation, the organization the arose from this meeting, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, had sent out nearly 5000 missionaries.1
The great spiritual revivals of history also give testimony to the central place of prayer in gospel advancement. For example, Evan Roberts, the central character of the 1904 Welsh Revival is said to have prayed every day for thirteen years leading up to the event. The past president of the Evangelical Theological Society, Sam Storms, writes:
“If it be asked why the fire of God fell on Wales, the answer is simple: Fire falls where it is likely to catch and spread. As one has said, ‘Wales provided the necessary tinder.’ Here were thousands of believers unknown to each other, in small towns and villages and great cities, crying to God day after day for the fire of God to fall. This was not merely a ‘little talk with Jesus,’ but daily, agonizing intercession….One thing is clear: the revival was not the product of someone’s personality or of another person’s preaching or of anyone’s planning, but of God’s gracious response to the prayers of his people!”2
One could also point to William J. Seymour, a Pentecostal preacher, who is said to have prayed seven hours a day for months leading up to the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles (1906-1915).
When it comes to prayer and advancing the gospel, consider the testimony of Scripture. Jesus, for example, instructed his disciples to pray to the Heavenly Father: “May your will be done on earth…” (Matthew 6:10b NLT). What is the Father’s will? The Apostle Paul gives us a clue: “Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure” (Ephesians 1:4-5 NLT). Here we have the Father’s will revealed to us as being the gospel. And, we are to advance the gospel through fervent prayer for the Father’s will to be done.
Later in his ministry we witness Jesus advancing the gospel of the kingdom in the following directive: “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields” (Luke 10:2 NLT).
After Jesus’ disciples Peter and John were released from prison for proclaiming the good news of Jesus for salvation, they gathered the believers and prayed: “And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word” (Acts 4:29 NLT).
In a very real sense, prayer opens the doors for the gospel, doors the powers of darkness are fighting to hold shut.
The church’s greatest evangelist, Paul, taught that prayer was absolutely vital for advancing the gospel because of who wanted it squelched: “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 NLT). The ultimate enemies of the gospel are spiritual in nature. As such, our greatest weapon is prayer. In a very real sense, prayer opens the doors for the gospel, doors the powers of darkness are fighting to hold shut. Prayer advances the gospel to the gates of hell so that souls might be brought from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the Son (Colossians 1:13-14). Singer and songwriter, Phil Wickham’s work, Battle Belongs, proclaims: “So when I fight, I’ll fight on my knees. With my hands lifted high. Oh God, the battle belongs to You.”
We further see Paul counseling disciples about prayer as a means of advancing the gospel: “Devote yourselves to prayer with an alert mind and a thankful heart. Pray for us, too, that God will give us many opportunities to speak about his mysterious plan concerning Christ. That is why I am here in chains” (Colossians 4:2-3 NLT).
“Finally, dear brothers and sisters, we ask you to pray for us. Pray that the Lord’s message will spread rapidly and be honored wherever it goes, just as when it came to you.” (2 Thessalonians 3:1 NLT).
One of the helpful ways I suggest disciples can pray to advance the gospel is by practicing a threefold missional approach to prayer – pray for three unreached people groups in the world, pray for three unchurched people in your circle of influence and finally, pray for three efforts of your church to reach people in your community who do not know Jesus.
“Prayer is the mighty engine that is to move the missionary work,” wrote A.B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance.”3 Jerry Conner, pastor of global outreach and church planting at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church in Liberty, Missouri wrote the following in an article titled 4 Reasons Churches Must Pray For Missions: “The mission of advancing the gospel is the great work of the church, and prayer is the engine that moves it. One of the greatest resources the church has for advancing the gospel is the ability to come before God in prayer and plead for what is already on his heart—the growth of his kingdom in the world.” E.M. Bounds, author of at least eight books on prayer writes, “The key [to] all missionary success is prayer.”4 Evangelist James Sidlow Baxter claimed that, “Men may spurn our appeals, reject our message, oppose our arguments, despise our persons, but they are helpless against our prayers.”5 A key figure of the first great awakening revival in England and the colonies, John Wesley, once said, “Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen; such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on earth. God does nothing but in answer to prayer.”6
I have a friend and colleague who is a genuine prayer warrior. Let’s call him Alex. Alex’s ministry of prayer has become for me a significant example of the primacy of appealing to God for advancement of the gospel. He has experienced years of ministry in settings where persecution and battles with demonic forces were common. He has lived and served in refugee camps where situations were desperate. He is the most persuasive advocate I know for the power and impact of prayer in seeing people come to Christ. It is not uncommon for him to pray through the night for a single soul he is seeking to reach. Alex would testify that through prayer he was drawn into God’s amazing love for the world. The outcome of such an encounter transformed him, compelled him, emboldened him to make disciples. Prayer is the most powerful internal catalyst for advancing the gospel among the people of God. God’s Son was a missionary and the more we spend time with him in prayer, the more we want to become like him.
There are countless well-intentioned voices in Canada describing the best way to reach our nation for Christ. Most are solid, biblical and have substantive merit. However, we advance the gospel best, not by human strategies, as necessary as they are, but on our knees appealing for the Father’s will to be done in us, and through us, on earth as it is in heaven.