“The church started to grow when we killed the midweek prayer meeting.” Those words might seem anathema to some, but this was the sentiment of the pastor of my youth. The late Dave Long looked back on three decades of ministry in one congregation with those words. His assessment was true because more people participated in the small group Bible studies that replaced the Wednesday prayer meeting. The small groups always included prayer, and the net result was a more prayerful congregation that prayed more specifically and personally for one another and others to whom we were ministering. For that to happen, a long-established tradition had to go.
Church leadership often laments a lack of participation in midweek prayer meetings because we know the power God gives through prayer. Perhaps we can overemphasize one good-but-not-required way of doing things. The one divinely ordained corporate prayer meeting is public worship on the Lord’s Day. On that appointed day, the congregation calls on the name of the Lord (Genesis 4:26, Psalm 65:2-4, 1 Corinthians 1:2), and God’s people gather at the house of the Lord which is a house of prayer for all nations (Isaiah 56:7, Mark 11:17). Paul and Silas supposed that on the Sabbath they would find a place of prayer by the river in Philippi where there was no synagogue. Even where there was no formal house of worship, the faithful knew they should gather to pray (Acts 16:13).
In addition to the biblical record, we see the idea that the worship service is understood to be a prayer service in history, for example, by the name of the Anglican liturgy The Book of Common Prayer. Certainly, the worship service it is more than a prayer meeting, but it is the time when God does call his people to corporately call upon his name.
Dave Long simply observed that when the man-appointed prayer meeting was canceled for the sake of more effective ministry and prayer through the week according to the needs of people, the God-appointed prayer meeting grew all the stronger.
God’s people have their reasons for missing midweek church activities due to their other callings from the Lord in life. Yet, in my experience, everyone shows up for the regular Lord’s Day service. It’s as though attending the weekly meeting on the first day of the week to call on God’s name is woven into the DNA of the child of God. I’m then reminded as a pastor to rejoice that God’s people are so committed to meeting him corporately according to his command to adore him, to thank him, to confess their sins to him, and to lay their petitions before him.
We as leaders must not burden people with more than what the Scripture requires or browbeat and shame them for lack of participation in non-essentials. The saints do not exist to support midweek programs of the church. Even good things like midweek prayer gatherings.
Yet, any Christian knows from experience that God works most vividly when there is a spirit of fervency in prayer among his people. How do we cultivate a desire to be praying continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17), praying through the night at times (Luke 6:11), gathering for special times of prayer (Acts 4:31), assembling to repent (Joel 1:14), seeking the Lord in desolate places (Matthew 14:13), on beaches (Acts 21:5), or in upper rooms (Acts 1:13-14)?
People always pray most fervently when they are praying from their callings in life. The more leaders can creatively find ways to enjoin the saints in prayer in concert with their regular callings in life, the more effective the prayer times will be. In some churches, that might be a single midweek prayer meeting. In other churches or parts of the same church, that might be a midweek small group where people are connecting personally in a life-on-life way so that they really know what to pray. For others, the prayer time might come with another believer in the breakroom of their workplace. My freshman year in college, another student compelled me to pray each evening before going to the cafeteria. I was reluctant at first, but God did mighty things in our lives and in the lives of those around us as we prayed for ourselves and others personally. How can church leaders encourage these kinds of prayer times? Barry York’s model of prayer societies serves as one good pattern in helping a church grow together in prayer.
Even if we do not yet see robust prayer groups meeting through the week as we labor creatively to see them established, let’s remember that God is faithful to gather his people weekly to call upon his name and rejoice that his people are so faithful to call on his name.