I want you to turn in your Bibles to Matthew's gospel chapter 18, and we have another two portions of Scripture to read - brief ones - but I want to speak to you this morning, because it is the beginning of our week of prayer, on the subject 'Prayer Meeting Practicalities', prayer meeting practicalities. I want to deal with, first and foremost, a challenge as to why you are at the prayer meeting, or perhaps, as the case may be, why you are not at the prayer meeting. Then moving on, I hope quite quickly, from the challenge; I want to come to not only the importance of the prayer meeting, but the practicalities of a prayer meeting - and some points, hopefully being as practical as I possibly can, and as biblical as I can, bringing some practical points that may help us this week even in our week of prayer, and right throughout the year in the prayer meetings that we have within the assembly.
The first portion is Matthew 18 verses 19 and 20 - and let me say that people often misunderstand and confuse the promises of Scripture with the facts of Scripture, and I believe there is a subtle - not a great, but a subtle - difference. A promise is something that God says He will do for you, and the inference is that you may have to claim it by faith. But there are certain things in the Scriptures which are fact, whether you believe it or not, or how much, to what extent you believe it is irrelevant - it is still a fact. Now this is not a promise, as we often hear in prayer, it is a fact: "Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven" - here's the fact - "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them".
It is one thing to know the consciousness of the presence of the Lord, but the fact of it is certain: He is here - if only two of us were here in His name, He is here. What a fact that is! Acts chapter 1, our second verse, just the one verse, telling us of the practice of the early church with regards to prayer meetings, Acts 1 and verse 14. Speaking of the early disciples and Christians: "These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren". Then in Hebrews chapter 10 and verse 25, telling us that this practice continued within the church, of meeting for prayer: "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is", or as some people do, "but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching".
There's a couple of things that we need to lay down as a foundation when we consider prayer meeting practicalities. The first is the prominent place that the prayer meeting had in the primitive church, the prominent place that the prayer meeting had in the primitive church, the early church that we find recorded for us in the Acts of the Apostles. If we were to turn back to the Acts and chapter 2 this time, we would see in verse 42 again the prominent place that prayer had: 'they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine', that's teaching, 'and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers'. We've broke bread this morning, we're fellowshipping now, we will be praying right throughout this week, and this is the practice right from the very beginning - the inception and birth - of the church. Whenever there were problems that arose in the early church, the first and foremost thing they did was to pray. They didn't have a committee meeting, they didn't even have an elder's meeting, they prayed.
In Acts chapter 12 and verse 5 we see that Peter was shut up in prison, and we read there that this is what the church resorted to: 'Peter therefore was kept in prison', verse 5 of chapter 12, 'but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him', and if you know the subsequent story, you will know that the Lord miraculously delivered Peter and he was let go from prison. In Acts chapter 2 we have the account of the Holy Spirit of God coming in pentecostal power on the church, as the Lord Jesus promised that He would come - and it is no coincidence, I believe, that it happened in a prayer meeting. Pentecost, the birthday of the church, happened during a prayer meeting in that upper room where the disciples were met together.
So I want you to see first and foremost, very clearly, that there is a prominent place given to the prayer meeting in the primitive church. Also, if you're familiar at all, no matter how casually, with church history and even secular history, you will know that there has been a prominent place for the prayer meeting in the histories of revival right throughout our world. When God moved in blessing, He moved his people to pray to bring down a blessing. I haven't got time to go into all the instances, but many of you will have heard me mention frequently the Moravians, who were a community in Herrnhutt in Germany and Saxony, and when the Spirit of God came powerfully upon them in August 1727, they evolved this prayer fellowship where adults covenanted to cover each of 24 hours of every day in prayer. They did it for a month, and then they held it on even more, until they held this prayer meeting for almost 100 years, 24 hours a day! Even the children prayed, they met in their own fashion in prayer meetings, the account is that there was praying, singing and weeping. In our own land of Ulster in 1859, that great revival we enjoyed, the fact of the matter is that the beginning of it all, the embryo seed, was found in four men that agreed in a country house in Kells to meet together and to pray for God's blessing. Prayer meetings are always found where revival is.
So we see that a prominent place is given to the prayer meeting in the primitive church, there is a prominent place for prayer meetings in periods of revival in this world, but what I want you to notice is the lack of prominence of prayer meetings in the present day church in our modern age. The prayer meeting is not seen as the most, or at least one of the most important works of the church of Jesus Christ today in our contemporary modern age. I want to bring an inference from that, which I believe is logical and reasonable, and I hope that you will agree with me, that the lack of prominence of prayer meetings in the present day church subsequently and directly is related to the demise of spiritual power and spiritual blessing experienced today in the church.
E.M. Bounds, whose writings I encourage you to read regarding prayer, said these words - very simple but very true: 'Much prayer, much blessing; little prayer, little blessing; no prayer, no blessing'. It is the same today as it has ever been - now we never want to oversimplify the matters of spiritual blessing or in the spiritual realm, because we believe that God is sovereign and God's ways are not always our ways, and at times God's ways are beyond understanding. But even the casual observer of Scripture, and of history, and of today's church will have to agree and witness that the health of the prayer meeting is directly related to the testimony of power and experience of blessing in the church in any age. C. H. Spurgeon, who enjoyed great blessing in the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London during the 1800s, was showing some guests around the Tabernacle. After taking them to the main part of the building, the sanctuary if you like, he said: 'Come with me, and I'll show you the heating apparatus'. Imagine the surprise of the people when he took them down to a room where there were 400 people gathered at that moment in prayer, praying to the Lord for God's blessing - and that was the secret of the ministry of the prince of preachers, not any gifts that he may have had, but the power of God that was upon him in his own prayer life and the prayer life of the believers in his church. We ignore this to our peril in this modern age, where we have everything at our fingertips in a time of technological foresight - we can almost do anything! But we need to pray, because the prayer meeting is in ill-repute today, it is the Cinderella of the church!
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: look at the number in the morning service this morning, and you'll see how popular the church is; look at the evening service and you'll see how popular the preacher is; but look at the prayer meeting and you will see how popular the Lord is! People who really want to get down to business with God. There was once a preacher who laboriously read his sermons verbatim, word for word, he was tied to his manuscript. One night, as he was in full flight preaching, the lights went out - and he thought that somebody at the back, knowing his ailment of not being able to preach without words in front of him, thought that they were playing a joke on him. He said: 'Turn the lights on right away!', and the voice came back: 'No sir, the lights are really out!'. When he contemplated this, and couldn't preach extempore, he decided: 'Well, there's only one thing for it', and this is what he said, 'If the power is off, it's time to pray'. If the power is off it's time to pray!
Now listen friends, if we lack spiritual power in our private personal worlds, and in the corporate existence of our local assembly, the witness of Jesus Christ in this area and in this land, in this particular nation and continent, we need to pray! It's time to pray! You can plan, you can have all the programmes you like, you can have the projects that you want and dream of - but if there's no prayer, there's nothing! We will go forward only on our knees! The question is: are you at the prayer meeting? It's not just your - excuse the expression - bum on the seat that we're looking for, it is your heart with you - a heart filled with passion and prayer! If you have a heart for prayer, at all costs, reasonable costs, you will be at the prayer meeting.
A crowded gathering of distinguished scientists on one occasion were listening spellbound to the masterly explanations of a scientist - many of you will have heard of him, Michael Faraday. They all were sitting in this theatre for an hour, and he held all these brilliant scientists in their own right enthralled as he demonstrated the nature and properties of the magnet. As he brought the lecture to a close with an experiment so novel, so bewildering, so triumphant, that some of the people just had to sit in awe and wonder, and there was a time of exuberant praise afterwards, clapping and standing upon their feet - he didn't realise that there was the Prince of Wales present, that is the Prince of Wales who afterward became King Edward VII. After the great applause, the Prince of Wales stood to his feet and proposed a motion of congratulations to Faraday - the resolution having been seconded, it was duly passed, and renewed with thunderous applause from the audience around. Suddenly the uproar ceased, and there was a deadly silence settled over the audience, and the assembly waited for Faraday's response to the Prince of Wales, but he wasn't there. He didn't appear. Now some may have thought that it was rude, but only his intimate friends knew what had become of him - because he was an elder in a Sandemanian church that had only 20 members, and the hour at which he concluded his presentation to all and sundry in the scientific world and the Prince of Wales was also the commencement of the hour of prayer in that assembly - he was gone.
Can I ask you: what's your excuse for not being at the prayer meeting? Let me go on further and say: lack of attendance is not the only problem with prayer meetings today, because many of you who will remember great days of blessing in our past can remember prayer meetings that were just electric - and I use that statement advisedly. You would have to admit that it is not just attendance that is our problem today, but the actual standards of prayer in our prayer meetings, it is greatly declined. Now that I've challenged you upon the subject of the importance of the prayer meeting, and I hope to see all of you this week, but apart from that let's consider some practicalities of the prayer meeting - and I want to be absolutely, maybe more practical than some would like in a Sunday morning service, but we have to be practical if there are problems within our prayer meeting and with some of our prayers. Hopefully this is going to benefit our week of prayer, and benefit our prayer meetings in the days that lie ahead.
I want to give these practicalities for the prayer meeting to you under four points: one, brevity; two, reality; three, clarity; and four, positivity. Now if you have a pen, write those down, and if you don't get the tape - because these are important. First of all: brevity. The briefness of your prayers, now let's think about that for a moment. I remember a few months ago, I think it was, maybe even after the week of prayer last year, I give out sheets of what C.H. Spurgeon had to say on how prayer meetings were and how prayer meetings had become in his day, and the way prayer meetings needed to be. One of the chief points, I'll be bringing out some of his points this morning, but one of the main ones was the need for briefness among those who were praying. We're not just talking about our normal prayer meeting, but even when the women meet to pray together, brevity is so important.
Spurgeon speaks of what used to happen in his day, and I quote: 'A brother would fix himself against the table pew, and pray for 20 minutes or half an hour, and then conclude by asking forgiveness for his shortcomings, a petition', he says, 'which was heartily sanctioned by those who had undergone the penance of endeavouring to join in his long-winded discourse'. He goes on to say: 'Let us many as possible take part in the utterance of the church's desires, the change of voice will prevent weariness' - ever been wearied by long praying? 'The variety of subjects will excite attention, better to have six pleading earnestly than two drowsily. Far better for the whole meeting that the many wants should be represented experimentally by many intercessors, than formally by two or three'. In other words, six people that are praying short, but praying real and praying to God, and pouring out their heart and touching the throne of God experimentally; rather than two or three formally. I'll tell you, formal prayers are the bane of any prayer meeting.
On one occasion D. L. Moody, that great evangelist, felt so blessed of God and encouraged by the blessings that God had lavished upon him; he was walking down, I think it was a street in New York, one day, and he just was so overwhelmed by the great volume of God's blessings in his life that he had to cry out to the Lord after falling into a hotel room: 'Stop Lord!'. Stop Lord! Your blessings are too much! Can I ask you: when was the last time you heard a prayer like that in any prayer meeting? I'm talking about the brevity of it, but not just the length of it, the weight of it! That is spontaneous praying, isn't it? It's a beautiful change from: 'Our loving God and eternal heavenly Father...' - now don't think I'm poking fun for the sake of poking fun, I'm not. Some people who pray the same prayers all the time, are the very same people who would fault the liturgy of the Church of England and the prayer book. It would do us all good, and them good as well, if they took the prayer book of the Church of England - and I'm not agreeing with written prayers, but there's a lot more variety in it than there is in some of our prayers!
My friends, we need to realise, as Proverbs chapter 10 verse 19 says: 'In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin; but he that refraineth his lips is wise'. Do you ever walk away from a prayer meeting and ask the question: 'I really enjoyed that prayer meeting, I wonder what was so special or so different about it'? Can I tell you, it's not rocket science, you don't have to have the gift of prophecy or speak in tongues to understand what the reason is, it's as simple as this: as a general rule, if no one exceeds praying more than 10 minutes, and most of those prayers are under five minutes, and those prayers under five minutes exhibit fervour and life; in that hour of prayer if there have been ten men praying, and intermittently singing songs unto God and psalms and prayers, we will be in the Spirit's blessing - and it's so practical! Giving way - if you want a verse for it, 'forbearing', giving way to one another in love and allowing others to pray, and only praying things that are on your heart not in your head, and pouring out until the burden is discharged, and until you know that God has answered. That might be only a few words. Brevity in our prayers is needed.
I hope you're getting all this: reality is required. Reality from two perspectives, first of all from our perspective and also from God's perspective. Reality in prayer is important because there are some people who preach in their prayers. Praying is not preaching, but in a roundabout way they're telling others, maybe, how spiritual they are. This is how you can do it: you can recite your own spiritual experience. You can be saying: 'Lord, I was up this morning at half past two', or 'Lord, I've been fasting now for 120 days', or 'Lord, I spoke to five people this week, and this is what I told them, and this is what they said to me' - and really what you're doing is, let's be honest, you're telling other people how spiritual you think you are. That is not prayer, reciting your own experiences, neither is prayer preaching in order to expound or propound your particular basis of belief. I hear people almost debating in prayer meetings! Maybe you believe this particular truth about salvation, and another person believes the other, and it's almost as if they're in conversation with one another trying to get one over another. I'll tell you, there's nothing that will confound a prayer meeting and spoil it more than controversy - because one of the reasons why God's Holy Spirit has ordained us to meet together in prayer is for unity, and if you bring disunity into the prayer meeting the blessing will not come.
Do not preach in your prayers, even though some engage in an exposition of a Psalm or a passage from the Gospels, as if God didn't know why He inspired it in the first place - it's ridiculous, isn't it? The fact of the matter is, the only reason you could possibly be telling others of your spiritual experiences, or propounding your particular basis of belief or spiritual hobbyhorse, or in any way preaching upon the word of God in your prayers, is not for the ears of God but for the ears of men! It's the only reason.
Then there is the use in prayer of insincere religious cliches. Now we're talking about reality here from our perspective: insincere religious cliches. Now I'm not going to go through a list of them, but here is a principle for us all, and I believe this - and you can argue this with me if you like - but we shouldn't pray in any different language publicly than we pray to God privately, because if we are we're a bunch of hypocrites. That's what the Pharisees did - I'm not talking about over familiarity with God, I'm not talking about bringing God down to our level - I hope you don't do that in your private prayers - but what I am talking about is a different standard when you're before men than when you're alone with God! Are God's ears different in the prayer meeting than they are in the closet? I'll tell you, God's ears aren't different - but whose ears are different? The other people that are listening to you!
I hope that you don't preach in your prayers, I hope that you don't use insincere religious cliches - Spurgeon, in that article that I mentioned to you, said that in his day this, as well, was the bane of his prayer meetings. One of the favourite expressions in his day was this one: 'Thy poor unworthy dust, I am coming to Thee, Lord, as Thy poor unworthy dust', based on the words of Abraham in the Old Testament. This is what he said: 'We have heard of a good man who, in pleading for his children and grandchildren, was so completely beclouded in the blinding influence of this expression 'Thy poor unworthy dust', that he exclaimed in the prayer meeting 'Lord, save Thy dust, and Thy dust's dust, and Thy dust's dust's dust' - you're allowed to laugh you know! There are times in an attempt to be more holy and to make our prayers more special, and more special than the last prayer, do you know what happens to some of us? We get tongue tied! We forget what we've said, and we trip over our words. We end up offering up what is nothing but absolute - and I say this cautiously - absolute nonsense!
Exodus 33 verse 11 is a verse for our consideration: 'The LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend'. Now I know you'll all come and say, 'The Lord spoke to him as He speaks to a friend, he didn't speak to the Lord as a man speaks to his friend' - I know that, but the fact of the matter is that he was talking to God in an intimate fashion because he knew God as his friend. What did the Lord Jesus say? We are to come unto God as young children! Little children aren't engaged in this exercise of trying to impress other men, they're real, they pour out their hearts. From our perspective we need reality, but also from God's perspective we need reality - we need to realise the God that we're coming to. Now that will give reverence, but there's a few other things it will give as well. 'Daddy', said one boy on one occasion, 'does the Lord know everything?'. 'Yes son', replied the father, 'Why do you ask such a question?'. 'Because', replied the boy, 'our preacher, when he prays, is so long telling God everything that I thought he wasn't posted'. Telling God of things that He already knows! He is the all-knowing God!
I heard a story a long time ago that a man was up praying in a particular fellowship that needed a new hall because the train kept going up and down outside the building, and he stood to his feet and said: 'Lord, we need another hall to meet in, the noise of the train is really disturbing our meetings - and Lord, if You just wait a minute, You'll be able to hear it Yourself'!
A good rule that Watchman Nee gives, and none of these people are modern, in fact all of them are probably dead, a good rule for prayer is this: 'Say only as much as is in your heart, and not to stretch what you do pray beyond reality'. Isn't that wonderful? Pray only as much as is in your heart, and do not stretch what you do pray beyond reality. Brevity, be short and to the point; secondly, reality from your perspective, don't preach, don't recite your own experiences, don't give your basis of belief, don't expound a passage, don't use all these insincere religious cliches, and from God's perspective realise that the One who you have come to knows what you're going to ask before you ask it!
Then thirdly, clarity. Now clarity in speech is important as some will tell us, but the fact of the matter is: clarity from the heart is what is really important. It's important that we are honest with God, and straightforward with God when we speak, and simple - not simplistic, but simple with God - because that will encourage other believers, particularly the lambs among us, to pray to God. One has said: 'The cries of the lambs must mingle with the bleating of the sheep, or the flock will lack much of its natural music'. Beecher said these words, listen carefully: 'Humble prayers, timid prayers, half inaudible prayers, the utterances of uncultured lips, may cut a poor figure as lecture room literature; but are they to be scornfully disdained? If a child may not talk at all, till it can speak fluent English, will it ever learn to speak well? There should be a process of education going on continually by which all the members of the church shall be able to contribute of their experiences and gifts, and in such a course of development the first hesitating stumbling ungrammatical prayer of a confused Christian may be worth more to the church than the best prayer of the most eloquent pastor' - because it's from the heart!
Now we need to speak up, there's no doubt about that, and we need to be clear in what we say - but the fact of the matter is this: if we're not brief, brethren, in our prayers, and if we're not real in our prayers, do you know what we could be doing? Discouraging others from praying, and the lambs among us starting to pray! We need clarity also in the specific nature of our requests. One of the reasons I arrange the week of prayer the way I do, taking a specific subject each night, is because you're better concentrating on fewer things than on many things, and then missing the mark completely. Spurgeon put it like this: 'It would be better for a petitioner to drive one nail home with repeated blows, than to deal one ineffectual tap to them one after another'. Driving the point home, driving the prayer home - in the old prayer meetings, do you know what they used to do? They used to take one thing, one specific thing, and drive it home until, as they put it, the burden had been discharged and they felt that God had answered prayer - and if it took 15 minutes they all went home, and if it took two hours they stayed.
We know nothing of this today: brevity, reality, clarity - but fourthly and finally: positivity. I love that Psalm, because sometimes I get downhearted and it speaks to yourself, in fact the Psalmist is speaking to himself in it. It goes like this: 'Why art thou downcast, O my soul? Hope thou in God, for thou shalt yet praise Him'. He's saying: 'Would you wise up? Why are you so downcast? You've so many blessings in God, hope in God, because there's going to come a day when you will praise Him'. I was thinking as I was reading this Psalm recently, 'Why art thou downcast, O my soul?', and I have to be honest with you - and I'm not being facetious, though I am being a bit mischievous - but I had to answer: 'Sometimes my soul is cast down from attending the prayer meeting'. Criticise me if you like, but I'm just being honest - because all we get at times are prayers that would depress you about the sick! We've got to pray about the sick, but we're praying about the sick to a God who can heal the sick, or a God who can give grace to those who are sick to bring them home to glory - and we all sound so depressed, so dejected! There's not a spirit nor an attitude of prayer or praise, and there's nothing that will pull down a prayer meeting like that! Negativity never gives way to faith, never!
We need to study some hymns, as well as the word of God, hymns that I quoted during the week and last week:
'When all Thy mercies, O my God,
My rising soul surveys,
Transported with the view, I'm lost
In wonder, love and praise'.
Another one is:
'Come, my soul, thy suit prepare:
Jesus loves to answer prayer;
He Himself has bid thee pray,
Therefore will not say thee nay.
Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For His grace and power are such,
Thou canst never ask too much'.
I know that some of your hearts are breaking, and some of the burdens that you have weighing on you are massive at this moment, and I'm not underestimating them, and I'm not saying we shouldn't pray - we should pray for these things - but what I am saying is this: if you don't pray for them from a heart of praise and faith, you might as well not bother at all!
Prayer meeting practicalities: do you value the prayer meeting? Are you at the prayer meeting? If you're not, why are you not? Because there is little else more important in the life of the Christian and in the life of the church than prayer, but listen to these practicalities: brevity, reality, clarity, and positivity.
Can I finish with a little somewhat sarcastic allegory that illustrates for us the state of the health of the prayer meeting today in general? Maybe you've heard it before, but listen anyway: it's an obituary. 'Mrs. Prayer Meeting died recently at the First Neglected Church on Worldly Avenue. Born many years ago in the midst of great revivals, she was a strong, healthy child, fed largely on testimony and spiritual holiness, soon growing into world-wide prominence. She was one of the most influential members of the famous Church family. But for the past several years, Sister Prayer Meeting has been failing in health, gradually wasting away until rendered helpless by stiffness of knees, until her death was caused through lukewarmness and coldness of heart. Lack of spiritual food, coupled with the lack of faith, shameless desertion of her friends and non-support, were contributing causes of her death. Only a few were present at her funeral, sobbing over memories of her past beauty and power. Carefully selected pallbearers were asked to bear the remains tenderly away, but failed to appear. Her body rests in a beautiful cemetery of bygone memories and glories, awaiting the summer from above'.
Can I tell you, as I close this morning, we don't have anything that any other generation didn't have. We've got a Bible and we've got the Holy Spirit, but we need to pray. We can have all the mod cons and best facilities that you like and we can buy, but if we don't have prayer and the God of prayer we have nothing. I hope to see you at the prayer meeting this week.
Lord, we love Thy word and we love to preach it. Lord, we love music, and we love to sing the songs and the Psalms of Zion - but Lord, the disciples came to the Saviour and asked: 'Teach us to pray' - not 'teach us to preach', or 'teach us to study'. Lord we come to you today as an assembly embarking on a week of intercession, and we pray: 'Teach us to pray as the Saviour prayed', for His sake, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the tape, titled "Prayer Meeting Practicalities" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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