A recent article in the newspaper of my denomination's local conference was advertising an upcoming Prayer Leader's Summit, which appears to be a very good event. I'm certainly thankful that it's happening and the leadership I serve under is putting it on. Therefore, I don't want this blog post to come across as belittling this prayer conference and others like it; it's certainly a good thing whenever people involved in doing "God stuff" can be intentional about talking to him about it.
So now that you understand I'm in favor of it... One sentence in the article caught my attention because it represents what I've come to believe is a mistake about how we usually look at the relationship between prayer and ministry: "This Summit is not about praying for the Conference as a whole. Instead, it's about encouraging and equipping prayer leaders to support their local ministries."
Innocent enough, right? I'll see if I can explain my picky-ness with the wording.
I've been involved in church all of my life, and in church leadership all of my adult life, and have used phrases myself to describe prayer in ways similar to the newspaper quotation above. We often say things like,
"this needs to be covered in prayer,"
or such-and-such is done on "a foundation of prayer,"
or as the article said, that a particular "ministry is supported by prayer."
We say such things for good reasons, because we are involved in doing a multitude of kinds of things for others, and we realize that if we try to do them only according to our own abilities rather than dependently on God's ability, the results will be limited to what we can accomplish by ourselves. We all know ourselves far too well to get very excited about that. We certainly want to welcome God into these things that we're doing. We serve others, care for the sick and the poor, lead worship services and Bible studies, etc., and all of these things are ministries that have to be based on, supported by, and enabled by prayer.
But what if that's wrong? What if it's the other way around? What if prayer is the ministry and all of the things we do for others are the supporting and enabling forces? What if prayer is where God and we really get things done, and the ways that we serve others are just how we can come along for the ride?
This is a lesson I began learning a while ago, but still have lived into very little. If I can really start to think this way, I will certainly approach ministry differently than I do by habit. It would lead to a way of ministry with much less pressure on me and those around me. My title indicates that I am Pastor of Discipleship in a large church, but how in the world am I supposed to help a large congregation of people connect with God? It's an intimidating job description, and I can't do it. But, if prayer is the ministry rather than the activities, I can pray. Then I can act, doing things for others that will support and be a part of what happens when I pray. This helps something become practical that we talk about a lot but have difficulty enacting: rather than leaving results up to me, they are left in the much abler hands of God.
When I pray, I become more aligned with who God is. I become more who he wants me to be in the world. That simply matters more than all of the other kinds of things we do. It is where things get done, and it is how God's kingdom comes. It is ministry.
Then, when I work and act by serving others, caring for the sick and the poor, leading worship services and Bible studies, etc., I'm simply jumping in on the work God is doing in the world (or putting my hand on the load God is carrying).
So while the aim of the newspaper article is more than admirable, this one sentence reinforces our misconception that prayer and ministry are separate things. We need to stop trying to support our ministries with prayer. Instead pray, then find ways to be a part of what begins to happen.