How’s the prayer meeting doing?

I suspect that my opening question will split my readership roughly down the middle. Half of you will have a strong opinion on how your church prayer meeting is doing and that may well be negative.  The other half will be asking “what is a prayer meeting?” Your church won’t have such a meeting at all.

So, it is first of all worth talking about what we mean by “the prayer meeting.”  This is the practice that many churches developed, specifically set apart for prayer.  It seems to me to be primarily a free church phenomenon as Anglican Churches would instead have had “Daily Offices” marking the start of the day, evening and close of day with Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and Compline.  The prayer meeting therefore leans into a culture of extempore rather than liturgical prayer.  The practice in many free and independent churches up until the middle/late end of the 20th Century would have been to hold two services on a Sunday and then at least one midweek meeting for everyone to gather together for prayer and Bible study, or sometimes, two separate meetings, one for prayer and one for Bible study.

During my lifetime, the midweek prayer meeting has substantially declined both in terms of the number of churches running a specific meeting identified as such and attendance at such a meeting when it does happen.  A lot of people see this as a matter of regret and every so often I’ll see some discussion start about how we can resurrect The Prayer Meeting and get people attending.

Very rarely do I see people pause to seriously ask two questions:

  1. Do we know why the prayer meeting has declined
  2. Is it necessarily a bad thing if a church doesn’t have a prayer meeting/if most people don’t attend?

The presumption seems to be that if people are not attending a prayer meeting then it indicates something wrong with them spiritually.  In fact, one serious solution proposed in one discussion was that church leaders should start “calling out” people, confronting them for failing to live out their faith in the week.  Non-attendance at The Prayer Meeting was seen as evidence of backsliding and being satisfied with just attending as consumers on a Sunday morning.

However, there may well be a number of other factors at work and the prayer meeting may not be a measure of spiritual health.  First, it is worth remembering that it is possible to keep people busy and visible attending church events, twice or even three times on a Sunday, two or three times in the week and yet that may not say anything about what is going on in their hearts or in their daily lives. In fact, time at church may be better spent witnessing to neighbours and caring for your family. 

Second, we might want to consider how life has changed for many people over the years in terms of busyness for both husband and wife, often working long hours.  They may not be both home in time to get out for a meeting, let alone have the energy for it. There may still be work to do at home, whether for their employer or simply household chores.

Thirdly, church life has changed and that affects how we encourage people to be involved in fellowship, discipleship and using their gifts.  A prayer meeting as the sole/primary opportunity to gather in the week and the sole opportunity for people to pray publicly with others, Sunday being one hour with all of the praying and speaking coming from the pastor at the front, is one thing.  However, many churches don’t function like that. Instead, a lengthy Sunday gathering may include lots of opportunities for people to pray out loud and contribute in other ways.  Meanwhile, in the week, small groups meeting in homes have replaced the single gathering for prayer and an additional sermon. Those groups will include Bible discussion and hopefully lots of prayer too. Adding another meeting onto this may be placing an unnecessary and unachievable burden on many.

Before we go any further, it’s worth highlighting that our church has a prayer meeting.  Currently we have a weekly prayer meeting on Zoom, in addition to a life group in person.  Once a month, we replace both with an in person prayer meeting.  At our previous church, we tried different things including having a weekly prayer meeting on a Sunday evening which then became part of our café style Sunday Night Church.  We also had an in person monthly prayer event as well as encouraging the whole church to come together for a Saturday of prayer at the beginning of the year.  I value prayer and believe the local church should too. We want to be encouraging as much prayer as possible and we should be seeking to encourage people to come together to pray. There’s something important about the whole church being in agreement and saying “amen” together.

However, I cannot find anywhere in Scripture which comes close to suggesting that we must have a prayer meeting or that attendance at such a meeting is a measure of the prayer life or spiritual life of the church.  All you measure by counting numbers at your prayer meeting, is how many people are willing to attend something.  That’s all!

So, rather than worrying about how a specific meeting is doing, I would encourage churches to take a step back.  The question we should be asking is not “How can we get people to attend the prayer meeting?” but rather “how can we become a praying church?”

The answer may include providing an additional meeting where people can come together. If that’s so, then think practically.  When is the best time for people to gather? How can you help remove obstacles and barriers (an obvious example might be that you align the prayer meeting time with when you run kids clubs so that both parents can attend whilst their children are cared for).  You will also want to think about having clarity and purpose for why you gather. People are more likely to come out if there’s a clear and pressing reason.

But, before we assume that the answer is another meeting, we do better to ask that bigger question “How do we encourage more prayer?” It may not be about the number of meetings after all but rather about how we make best use of the time when we already gather. 

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