Regent's Park College Principal Rob Ellis in his book, Answering God
Our faith is an incarnational one: God became part of everyday life, and the everyday things are made holy by his presence in and with them. It is better to pray for something and risk it being inappropriate rather than not pray at all. God will forgive us, though God hopes we will learn and grow. But not to pray at all is to be thoroughly secularised, too lacking in expectation and hope. It is to have capitulated to the principalities and powers.
He is speaking about intercessory prayer
Recently I’ve been visiting churches of differing types and denominations and noticed the different ways of prayer and praying for others.
There has been plenty of prayer; from spontaneous to well-prepared. Not as much praise and thanksgiving as I expected and plenty of fellowship prayer. But consistently prayer for others went no further. There was little or no prayer for the world. Petition seems to be the extent of prayer for others.
Intercession seems to be a least favoured focus of prayer. I am wondering why this is so. In addition I am wondering what effect it might have on someone who was giving the church another chance or is a first time visitor; like I was. What effect does lack of prayer for the world beyond the Church have on a stranger in our midst?
Of course first impressions mean everything and they mean nothing. The consumer in all of us likes to think we know what we want and have been conditioned to find this out quickly by our ‘first impressions count’ retail society. So what I saw at a church on one Sunday may not have been typical. I need to remember that and so does anyone else looking for a church or ‘just visiting’ because we are on holiday.
Intercession seems to be a least favoured focus of prayer
So plenty of prayer, but one type of prayer seems to have gone missing. Here’s what I mean? Let me give you two examples:
In one place there was prayer for the world but it amounted to prayer for Christians being active in the world. So we prayed for Bangladesh because the BMS is there but only in terms of certain locations and pieces of mission. There was little awareness of the country, its needs and tensions which draws mission workers there in the first place. There is plenty such information on the BMS World Mission website.
One Sunday in another church we were led by someone who had prepared carefully and took us through the various needs of individuals (one in Singapore). We prayed for various Christian organisations and that was it.
Am I wrong to think there could have been some expression of concern for the plane crash victims in Ukraine or the conflict in Gaza and certainly the forced exile of Christians from Mosul? But there was nothing, not even a general invitation to share our concern for the world in a moment of silence.
There has been petition; prayers of deep asking on behalf of people we know and so on, but little intercession, standing with people whom we do not know but belong to in common bonds of humanity, as well as people for whom God so loved the world he gave his one and only Son.
This has been my regular experience on these visits and I am left wondering: what has happened to prayers of intercession?
Here are a few possible answers:
We don’t need to pray because Father knows best.
We don’t believe in the power of prayer.
We find prayers of Intercession are difficult to express. The words don’t come easy. They can make us face our helplessness and lack of vision. Other people’s response to them can be quite judgemental. We cannot intercede without giving something of our own perceptions away and not everyone might agree.
We feel more comfortable with praying for Christian action in the world because we can approve of that and know that Christians are doing something about it.
We are selfish. Our prayers are ‘family and friends’; ‘me and mine’.
We are not really concerned for the stranger at our door or in our midst.
That stranger has been me. The impression I was left with was that if I belonged to most of those churches, I would be able to say I felt I was uplifted by their prayers for me. However, as a visitor I did not belong on those morning visits and they just seemed an in-group sharing their concern for each other.
I hope this wasn’t really the case and not typical, for it is about how we welcome people into the Church as well as our vision of God as Rob Ellis was pointing out.
On those mornings I could have been someone who worked for an airline regularly flying over war zones; or a father worried that his daughter was leaving Heathrow that morning bound for East Asia and so on. I’m dramatising the point.
I believe that if we are going to be inclusive then we have to ask of our worship: how will this come across to the stranger?
Prayers of Intercession demonstrate that we are concerned enough about what is going on that we place that expression of seeking justice and loving kindness in the depths of our worship. We have not left the world behind just because we are worshipping God.
Whatever else the casual visitor may think, heartfelt prayer for a world tormented by conflict, evil and despair will at least reveal a desire to be connected with what is going on outside the doors of the Church.
What is more; prayers of intercession are the start of being a mission-centred church. It is reaching out through the love of God. They are a response to the work he began in Christ, whose Spirit is present in all places.
They show where our heart really is and when absent may be a sign of an unhealthy church; indifferent to the world and not wanting too much involvement with God either.
Rob Ellis again:
In prayer, we may be praying in our self-centred way for a parking place right now, and maybe even for the car to park in it; or with relatively more other-centeredness for John’s recovery after his accident, for our son’s job interview, for our church’s revival, or for the peace of Jerusalem but all prayer is ultimately being caught up by the Spirit in creation’s eager longing for deliverance and the perfect fellowship of the Triune God.