“When it comes to dependence on God and the blessing that comes in weakness, there’s a practice of prayer that’s going to teach you in a way that’s better than any sermon could.”
John Onwuchekwa delivered a message in a breakout session at TGC’s 2019 National Conference titled “How Praying Together Shapes the Church.” Prayer both teaches and displays dependance on God in the most practical manner possible.
Using the story of Christ’s interaction with his disciples and with the Father through prayer in Gethsemane, Onwuchekwa delineated Jesus’s prayerfulness as a regular practice and his desire to invite the disciples into his weakness—his full dependance on God.
Facing the greatest adversity he would ever encounter, Jesus showed his followers the necessary way of preparation. Onwuchekwa encouraged the church to prioritize the practice of prayer so that we might also be strengthened for the adversity ahead.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
John Onwuchekwa: Heavenly Father, we come to you because at the end of the day, that’s all that we know how to do, Father. We’re grateful that as we present our requests to you, Father, we don’t have to be those that try to coerce you into answering, Father. We don’t have to twist your arm to get you to answer favorably to our prayers. You’re too strong for that anyways, God. Thank you for the unique gift that you’ve provided for us in prayer. I pray that as a result of this time spent in your word, we would be those that have a greater vision for what we have, so that we’ll use what we’ve got in the right way. It’s in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
A great philosopher once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” The philosopher was Mike Tyson and he said it on the eve of a big fight. He’s getting ready to go into a fight and the reporters are interviewing him and they say, “What are you going to do about your opponent? He’s big, he’s fast, he’s strong. He can move to the left, he can move to the right.” And what he said is, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Everybody thinks that they are stronger than they are until adversity hits, and then they find out that they’re not quite as strong as they think they are, and they find out that their resolve isn’t quite as strong as they think that it is.
TGC is a special place for me because four years ago, this month at this conference, I got punched in the face in a way that I never thought that I would. Four years ago, the conference was in Orlando and it was on heaven. I woke up that morning and the only main session that I got a chance to go to was Mark Dever’s. And from 1 Thessalonians 4, he talked about how we don’t have to grieve like the rest of the world grieves, as those that don’t have hope. And he painted a glorious picture of heaven, and I left out bold and encouraged with more faith and confidence than I have ever had in the Lord.
We go to dinner that night at 5:00 PM. And I get a phone call from my mom, and she can’t track down my older brother. She just can’t get ahold of him. So she asked me to call around and try to find him. And I call around and I face what is the second biggest surprise of my life. And that was after five minutes of phone calls, I basically found out that my 32-year-old brother died suddenly in his car. No causes, a pastor, Memphis, Tennessee, a wife, three kids, five, three, and one. Just gone.
I say it was the second biggest surprise of my life because in the months to come, I would face the first biggest surprise of my life. And that was how quickly my faith crumbled. Six weeks out from a church plant, getting ready to lead a group of folks into the vision that we felt like God had laid for us, I found myself on the inside like C. S. Lewis said when he wrote about the death of his wife. He said, “When we find ourselves in these situations, what we find is that the temple that we thought was our faith is nothing more than a house of cards.”
I’m here today to ask you, how are you going to respond when you get punched in the face? Because listen, you will get punched in the face. And when we face these hard times, nobody’s prepared for it. It all comes like a pop quiz that we didn’t study for. When the titles of adversity come our way, nobody feels like an Olympic swimmer. Everybody does all that they can to barely stay above water. How you respond in the midst of hard times is going to be the most important thing about the way that you live your life.
And I’ll just say this, in a room like this, there’s going to be very few of us that have to fight the battle of wrestling, the idols of prosperity into submission. There’s going to be few of us that get everything that we hoped for and find that we’re going to have to work, “Lord, how do I stay content in you now that I have all that I hope for?” All of us are going to face adversity and the question is, when you face it, how are you going to respond?
Instead of daydreaming about prosperity, I want to use this time to prepare us for adversity. I think the best place I know to do that in the scripture is where Jesus does the same thing. And he’s going to use a tool that so many of us have, but we don’t use it like we should. You’re probably here in this room because like me, you don’t pray like you know that you should. And I just want you to know this, listen, our behavior will never rise above our vision. If you don’t know what you have, you’re always going to misuse what you’ve got. So I’m trying to help you see what you have.
Turn with me to Mark 14 and I’m going to set a little bit of the scene for those of you that don’t know where it is. It’s right after Mark 13, right before Mark 15. This is on the eve of Jesus’s betrayal. We find him at the Last Supper. This instance right here that he talks through, it’s sandwiched in-between the Last Supper and the betrayal. And here’s what takes place. Jesus looks at the 12 and Jesus gives them an invitation to be weak. He looks at them and he tells them, “You all do not have the strength, the fortitude, and the resolve to stay with me. A hard time is going to come and all of you are going to turn and abandon me.”
But he doesn’t say this as an indictment, he doesn’t say it to tear them down. He says it to let them know, “Yo, listen, I know all about your failures. And part of the reason why I’m getting ready to go to the cross is because you’re failures.” What a blessing that you and I have a savior that knows all of our weaknesses and there are no new discoveries that he makes about us that disillusions him the way that you and I are disillusioned about ourselves. He gives them this invitation to be weak. But Peter, James, and John do not return the RSVP. Peter sees it as an indictment, as an insult. And so what he says is, “Maybe the rest of them, Lord, but not me. I’m stronger than that.”
James and John in Mark 10 on their way to Jerusalem, they pull Jesus off to the side and they said, “Hey, Jesus, do you mind if when you ride into glory me and John can ride shotgun.” And Christ says, “You all don’t know what you’re asking.” Jesus gives them an invitation to be weak. They do not return the RSVP. So what Jesus does is he’s going to demonstrate this through prayer. He’s already taught on prayer, but demonstration does something else. When it comes to the word hot, a stove can teach you the definition better than any dictionary can. When it comes to dependence on God and the blessing that comes in weakness, there’s a practice of prayer that’s going to teach them in a way that better than any sermon could.
Mark 14 starting in verse 32. I’m going to read it all through the end. And it says this, “Then they came to a named Gethsemane and he told his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took Peter, James, and John with him and he began to be deeply distressed and trouble. He said to them, ‘I’m deeply grieved to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake.’ He went a little farther, fell to the ground and prayed that if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Take this cup away from me. Nevertheless, not what I will, but what you will.’ Then he came and found them sleeping and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, You asleep?’ That’s what mine says, ‘Simon, are you sleeping? Couldn’t you stay awake one hour. Stay awake and pray so that you won’t enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.'”
Once again, he went away and prayed saying the same thing. And again, he came and found them sleeping because they couldn’t keep their eyes open. They did not know what to say to him. If you have ever fallen asleep when somebody is trying to talk to you and you wake up and you don’t know what to say, that’s right in here. I feel like that the Bible is so honest. Then he came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough. The time has come. See the son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let’s go, see my betrayer is near.”
I want us to take the rest of this time. And there’s so much that can be said about the actual prayer that he prayed, the content of that prayer. And it’s good and it’s great. We’re brought into the life of Jesus and what he prays. I want to say that is important, but what I think is more important than the content of the prayer is this context of prayer fullness, what the fact that he prays and not just what he prays. So let’s take this like we’re getting ready to paint a wall. The first part is going to be primer, which is going to get things set. Then we’re going to throw the paint on the wall and then we’re going to stand back and be proud of the paint that we put on the wall, primer.
Versus 32 to 34, “Jesus is going to help them see.” Listen, you are not as strong as you think that you are. The first thing that we all have to learn is that nobody is as strong as they think that they are. Look here at verse 32. It says this, “While he was sitting on the mount…” Ah, that’s chapter 13. Chapter 14, “Then they came to a place named Gethsemane, and he told his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” Look here at verse 33, “He took Peter, James, and John with him and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled.” First thing, Gethsemane, literally means olive press. So the oil that was so valuable that came from olives only came after the olives endured a time of intense pressure. And Jesus is going to lead them into this time of intense pressure so that we know everything that feels bad to you isn’t bad for you.
So he takes them and he takes them all. But look at the three that he takes with them, who are the three? Peter, James, and John. What do they have in common? These are the three that are mentioned that profess their strength. And he’s trying to bring them along so that they see you are not as strong as you think that you are. I’ve got a daughter and she’ll be two on Saturday. We adopted her two years ago. She was a preemie little video thing, three and a half pounds when she was born. We bring her home from the hospital. She’s four pounds, tiny, barely fits in a car seat.
I’ve got a two-year-old nephew at the time, Jackson. Jackson comes in, sees my daughter in the car seat and what Jackson starts to do at two years old is he starts to talk to her, but not in his voice, in what he thinks is a baby voice. You say uh-uh. You all think that that’s cute, I thought it was condescending. So I take Jackson and I go off to the side and I say, “Jackson, you are in fact a baby. I know you can talk, but you still wear diapers, your subject verb agreement is always wrong, you’re a baby. I had to pull him aside and help him seat. No, no, listen. She may look smaller, but she’s not a different class of person than you are. She is a baby just like you are.
And as Jesus is getting ready to go, what he does is he takes Peter, James, and John and says, “I know that you think you’re a different class than them, but you’re not.” So he brings them along and he is what I love. In any story, a narrator gives you what the characters are feeling. So the hidden feelings of the character, even if nobody else knows them, the reader knows. Look here at verse 33, “He went a little…” verse 32… 33, I’m sorry. “He took Peter, James, and John with him, look, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled.” 34, “He said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake.'”
Do you notice what he did there? Jesus, God in the flesh, full of all faith, perfect, in this moment, where he’s getting ready to face adversity, he doesn’t… While everybody else is professing how strong they are, he’s inviting them into his weakness. He’s sharing it. He’s letting them know it’s okay. And then he’s going to show them what to do with it. I think that he knows what you and I should know and that’s this, people are often more impacted with the weaknesses that we share with them than with the wisdom that we try to hurl with them. He’s not going to stay weak, he’s going to show them what to do with it, but he’s going to say, “You all have been trying to deny this. Look, I have it in an abundance.”
When he’s saying, “I’m grieved to the point of death,” I don’t think it’s hyperbole like I tell my wife, “Sweetheart, I’m starving. I’m going to die. My stomach it’s touching my back.” It’s not hyperbole. It’s him sitting with the weight of, “I’m getting ready to go to the cross and take the full cup of God’s wrath, not just for my sin, not just for your sins, but for the sins of the whole world across all space and time for all those that will put their faith in me.” It’s agonizing. And he shares it with them. He helps them know you’re not as strong as you think that you are, but the good news is that’s going to be some of the best news that you’ve heard all day.
I think the main point of this is he helps them see the true strength, the strength that we need to face the adversity that is certain and is coming. True strength does not come from resolve. True strength comes from total and complete surrender. Verse 35, “And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Take this cup away from me. Nevertheless, not what I will, but what you will.’ Then he came and found them sleeping. He said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you still sleeping? Couldn’t you stay awake one hour? Stay awake and pray so that you won’t enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ Once again, he went away and prayed saying the same thing. And again, he came and found them sleeping because they could not keep their eyes open. They didn’t know what to say to him.”
Primer, you’re not as strong as you think that you are. Here is the paint, true strength comes from total surrender. We’re not as strong as we think that we are, so we can cry out to somebody who is stronger than we think that he is. I don’t want to spend a bunch of time on the prayer, but I do at least want to break it down. I think there’s at least two components to every prayer. Without these two things, I don’t think you have prayer that will bring lasting peace. The very first thing is this, help. Somebody that needs help. The first component of prayer is you have to believe in God’s ability that He can do the impossible. There is no prayer without a belief and faith that God can do the impossible. He starts off and says this, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you.”
In the Sherlock Holmes novels, they’re written from the perspective of a guy named John Watson. John Watson is Sherlock’s homie. He sees him do all this great stuff. And there’s this one story where Watson says this about Holmes. “So accustomed was I to his invariable success that the very possibility of his failing had ceased to enter into my mind.” He’s like, “I’ve seen him do so much stuff that whenever we found ourselves in a case, I wasn’t curious about if he could solve it. I sat back and I would marvel at about how he would solve it.” Yeah. I had a prof in school that would put it like this, “What God Has done in the past is both a plan and a model of what He’ll continue to do in the future although He’s too creative to do the same thing the same way twice, or because God doesn’t change His past faithfulness is really a future promise.”
This is Jesus who didn’t have the same boxes that you and I have got. Our vision of God grows and expands as we see Him do things. Lord, I never thought that you could sustain me after a divorce, but you did. God, I never thought that you could sustain me after infertility, but you did. God, I never thought that you could sustain me after being paralyzed, but you did. God, I never thought that you could heal the blind, but you did. And with everything that God does, our categories for Him grow. Jesus didn’t have those boxes. So as he’s praying, he says, “God, I know all things are possible for you. If there’s any other way, take this cup.” He’s praying in faith knowing that God can do the impossible.
And let me help you see this. All true prayer has to start there. But although true prayer starts there, peace is never found there. Here’s what I mean by that. He has a confidence in God’s ability. But if you are ever going to leave the presence of God with a smile on your face, you have to have not just confidence in His ability, but you have to have a contentment with His activity. Here’s the quickest way to discontentment. The quickest way to discontentment is holding God hostage to an outcome that He’s never promised. It’s like waiting in a Minneapolis winter for a bus that is never coming.
So Jesus starts off as, “God, I know you can do the impossible. I’m crying out for help. But my hope is in the fact that regardless of what you do, I’m going to trust that it’s the right thing.” Now, did Jesus get down on the ground and mutter these 23 words and stand up and go? I don’t think so. I think the text tells us that he’s persistent in the things that he prayed for. It seems like he was there for a literal hour, praying those same things. And I want you to hear this. It is not a lack of faith to pray over and over for the same things. Persistent prayer is actually the presence of faith because you know that unless God moves, you have no hope when you get up from off of your knees. So Jesus prays and prays and prays.
I think that the point of this story, here me, is not so much about just the content of this prayer, but the context, the concept of his prayer fullness versus their prayer listeners. Here’s what I mean by that. I told you that the story was sandwiched in-between the disciples’ aspiration to stand firm for Christ and an actual environment where they could stand firm for Christ. In the middle of this sandwich, Jesus prays and he’s faithful until the end. But the disciples are like… They’re not like a real sandwich. They’re like a vegan sandwich. It’s surrounded by promise with nothing but sadness and disappointment in the middle. So the disciples have an aspiration. They have an aspiration to stand firm for Christ, and they have an actual opportunity to do so, and they run away from people that aren’t even chasing them.
Look at Jesus, through the primer on the wall, you’re not as strong as you think that you all guys. I’m going to show you where true strength comes from. Look here at the end of the story, how he proceeds. Verse 41, “Then he came a third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough. The time has come. See the son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let’s go, see my betrayer is near.'” One of the tough things about prayer is that you and I contend to not really know when God has answered that prayer. It feels subjective, “Am I waiting for prompting? Am I waiting for word to drop from the scrum? Am I waiting to read something from the text?”
Do you know what’s often unmistakable in the way that God answers prayer? Providence. Jesus prays, “God, if there’s any other way, not my will but yours be done. God, if this any other way, not my will but yours be done. Father, if there’s any other way, not my will but yours be done.” He gets up and looks and sees people coming at him with pitchforks and torches and clubs and he says, “I guess God said no. Let’s get up and go and meet them.” What he doesn’t do is sit back and wait on them to come. He says, “Get up. Let’s go because I know the safest place for me to be is in God’s hands, in God’s will, even if it’s in a place that I don’t want to be.”
And what you see through the rest of the gospel is fascinating, especially as you think of crucifixion and the horrendous form of torture and shame that it was designed to be and how it existed in the history of the world for a relatively short period of time. And Jesus comes not just to die, but to die that kind of death. You look at all of the gospel writers, who the reason why we have the gospels that we do, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and not like gospel of Thomas and all of those is because Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the ones where it seems like the passion and the cross is the main thing, is the climax of the gospel and all the rest of the stuff is a prologue and epilogue. It’s central to all of their gospels and all of these guys that are writing about this horrendous form of torture.
Do you know where they paint Jesus doing the most agonizing? In the garden, on his knees, not on the cross. Now, here’s what I mean by that. The cross was absolutely agonizing. I am positive that anybody that saw that could never unsee it, but read the crucifixion accounts in your gospels. And do you know what picture you’ll see of Jesus after he gets up from agonizing on his knees? A man who’s like cool, calm and collected enough to respond back in a snarky way when people slap him when they shouldn’t. What you see is a man, who after he’s been beaten and scorched, is on his way to the cross and he has enough presence of mind to look at his mother and John and say, “John, yo, would you take care of my mom? Mom, would you take care of John?”
While he’s being nailed to the cross and people are hurling insults at him, he’s using his breath that he knows is getting ready to run out, not to cry for help, but to pray that God would forgive the people that are actively murdering him. With his final breaths, he’s giving assurance to a repentant, yet guilty criminal on his right side. Where does strength like that come from? I think it comes through total and complete surrender. And if you think that I’m making too much of this point, I want you to go and read Acts. And do you know what you’ll find? You will find the same people that ran when nobody was chasing them, boldly proclaiming the gospel, being thrown in jail, being broken out of jail.
And what’s the first thing that they do when they break out of jail? They go to a prayer meeting and they pray and it follows the same pattern. Sovereign Lord, not take us out of this, give us boldness. And then they go back into the streets, get thrown back into jail, get beaten on the way out, and they’re rejoicing. And they follow that pattern until it’s the source of their death. You tell me what changed? Everywhere you go through in the book of Acts, what you’re going to find is that when prayer is mentioned, it is a collaborative effort. What you’ll find is that Acts mentions the church. When it mentions the church together, it mentions them praying as much as it does them doing anything else. True strength comes from total surrender and we have the ability, or we have that same ability here now, anywhere that we are.
So here’s what I want to do as we close out. I want to offer six ways practically that we try to do this in the life of our church, things that you all can put into practice right now, even if you are not the pastor of the church, and then two parables from marriage that hopefully will encourage you. One, establish a prayer meeting. You’ve got to start one. People learn to depend on God by practice, not by propositions. You do not learn how to ride a bike by reading books. You do not learn how to depend on God only by reading books. We have to pray. That’s the easy one. Here’s the hard one. So one, start a prayer meeting.
Here’s the hard one, two, cement that prayer meeting. Do not cancel it for anything. Something will come up, something always comes up. And I think the flexibility that God gives us in prayer is meant to make you and I ferocious prayers. But instead, it makes us fickle because we think because we can do it anytime we’ll do it when it’s the most convenient. But Christianity was never meant to be convenient. I’ve got a friend that says that the cross doesn’t fit nicely into your back pocket. Pray is not something that you and I should put in the margins of our lives. Prayer should be at the center. So cement it.
Permanence communicates importance. And so what we’ve done in life for our church is at least once per month, since we started to talk about planting a church, we’ve prayed. So our church is not quite four years old, but we have right now an unbroken streak of 56 prayer meetings. Tomorrow will be our 57. And I won’t be there because I’m here. Out of the 57th, for those of you that are pastors, I may have missed four. There’s a lot of other things that I’ll miss in the life of our church. Our prayer meeting is not one because I want our church to know how important than it is. Christian don’t miss a prayer meeting, pastor don’t cancel one.
Three, populate your prayer list with ordinary things. It’s very easy for us to look at the things that God tells us to pray for in the Lord’s Prayer, the food that we need, forgiveness for sins, protection from temptation, as things that come about as a result of our hard work and our grit, the things that we’re tempted to get ourselves. And once we get them for ourselves, we tend to keep them to ourselves. When you start to pray for the ordinary things, that God would you not just give me the food that I need, but would you give us the food that we need? Put five people in a circle and tell them to pray the Lord’s Prayer like the Lord tells us to with plural pronouns.
And what you’ll find is this. And that group of five, they could pray, “Lord, give us the bread that we need for the day.” And the next week could come through and somebody in that group could have lost their job and not have the means to pay for food. And somebody else could have gotten a promotion and have more than what they need. And now, that group comes back at next week and says, “God answered our prayer. We asked that we would have what we needed to thrive, and in the same week, you got let go, I got bumped up. And now, we see these ordinary things we’re tempted to get to ourselves and spend on ourselves, we see that they’re not ours, they’re God’s. And that takes places you and I pray for very ordinary things. The list goes on and on.
I’ve got five minutes. So I’m going to move on. Four, be an ardent historian. Keep track of the things that you pray for. If you keep track of the things that you pray for, then when God answers those prayers, it starts to build faith in the minds of people as you call those things to mind. And as you keep track of those things, it’s a trail of breadcrumbs that leads people back to the bread of life when they feel like their faith is starving. I know that I doubted that God would do this, but do you remember that time that we prayed for this and this and this and this and this and this and this? Oh, I guess God’s faithful. Let’s keep on praying.
Five, don’t be discouraged by lack of attendance. I’ll say this briefly and move on. Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered, I am there in their midst.” I think he does that because he knows how hard it is to get people to come to a prayer meeting. Do not think of the group that you see. Don’t look at the immediate fruit, think of the eventual yield. Every oak tree starts off as an acorn. If you’ve got an acorn, the way you turn it into an oak tree is you put it in the ground and you water it for 50 years and you get a tree. If you’ve got two or three folks who have all that you need for it to technically be considered a meeting, start a prayer meeting.
Six, take the prayer meeting on the road. If people won’t come, which they probably won’t because we tend to think we’re stronger than we are, take the meeting to them. And here’s what I mean by that. Any way that you have two things, brothers and sisters and burdens, you have all the ingredients that you need to bake a cake of prayer meetings. So next time you find yourself in a room and people share what’s wrong with them, say, “Let’s pray,” and you’ve just taken the prayer meeting on the road. You don’t even have to be a pastor to do that. And you do that enough and people start to see you going through the most hellish things, even if it’s not a smile, with your head above water, they’ll just look and say, “Where does it come from? Where does that strength come from to endure such adversity? From completely surrendering to a God who I know loves me and has me in His hands.
All right, two parables from marriage. The very first one is this. What prayer does for us as a church is it gives us permission to leave things and people undone. Here’s what I mean by that. I’m terrible at baking cookies. I know the package says, “Put them on the sheet 10 to 12 minutes until they are golden brown.” I don’t know if I just don’t know what golden brown is. But when I put them in the oven, I take them out too soon or too late. So it’s somewhere in-between soup and bricks. I just don’t know how to do it. Sometimes I’ll put them in there, somebody will ring the doorbell, I’ll go and I’ll talk to them. And there’s lots of things that I have to do. But then I try to do too much. I try to watch those while I entertain and I just find it’s too much for me to do. I don’t do a good job with them and I burn the cookies.
I’ve learned that I can call my wife and say, “Hey, sweetheart, you’re much better at this than I am. You know what golden brown is, you know how long to leave it in the fire. I’m going to start this. Would you watch it and take it out when it’s time? I’m going to trust you and I’m going to do what I should do.” When we pray, we say, Jesus, the hearts of those that are part of our church, you know how long to leave them in the fire, you know when it’s right to take them out. Lord, would you do what I’m not good at? And would you watch them and just put me at ease and it becomes okay for you and I to leave people undone?”
Last parable from marriage as I close. And here’s what I mean by… All the things I gave about behavior are great, but your behavior will never rise above your vision. And so I want you to hear this, how you pray, I think even more so than how you preach, how you pray serves to reaffirm or undermine your belief in the resurrection. Here’s what I mean by that. My wife and I have been married 12 years and I do not know where anything is in my house. So there’s some days where I’m getting ready to bake cookies and I say, “Sweetheart, where’s the three-fourths cup?” And she starts to say things like, “We’re married 12 years and you still don’t know it.” When she’s been reading her Bible and she speaks the words of Christ, she says, “I’ve been with you 12 years and you still don’t know where to find the cups.”
My favorite is when she says this, “John, what would you do if I weren’t here? That, my friend, is a rhetorical question. And what I’ve learned is that rhetorical questions are more fun to answer than they are to ask. So what I think in my head is, I’m like, “All right, well, if you weren’t here, then I’d have to go and look for it. But if history is an indicator of the future, I think that I’m just going to look and get frustrated and not be able to find it. And more than that, that would be trouble for me. Why would I trouble myself when I can trouble you?” I say all that in my head. I don’t say that out loud. But then I tell her this, “Yo, yo, sweetheart, you are here, you’re here. You literally just… You’re here.”
I think the reason why the disciples prayed is because they knew that Jesus was there. What would you do right now if you left and you found out that a pastor at your church who you trusted betrayed the life of your church, or what would you do if your lead pastor died? You got the phone call that he was just gone. Do you scramble and try to search for a new guy? What would you do if your church is growing and people just don’t really know what to do and they’re having a hard time trying to connect? Would you call a meeting and start to plan and process for how to connect? What would you do if the city that you live in starts to become so hostile to anything traditionally Christian? Would you strategize and go to workshops about how to share your faith? What would you do if ethnic and racial struggles started to flare up in your church so much so that it threatened the very lifeblood of your church? What would you do? Would you have a racial forum and try to talk things out, or would you pray?
All those things that I brought up, all I did was walk you from Acts 1 through 6. Jesus died, Judas betrayed. The church was growing leaps and bounds. Peter and John get thrown in jail. The Greek widows feel slighted. And do you know what takes place when every one of those problems? The church has a prompt and impromptu prayer meeting. I think they find themselves face-to-face with all those hard times and they think to themselves, “What should we do? Christ isn’t here. How do we fix this?” And I imagine that they think in their heads, “Man, if history is an indicator of the future, then we’re going to work and do all of this work and it’s not going to work out.” But then I think that they think, “Why should we trouble ourselves? Why not trouble him? He’s here.” And what he’s saying is that it’s no trouble at all.
Let’s pray. Heavenly Father, we come to you and we ask that you would just make us people that have an awareness of our need and that our awareness wouldn’t drive us to depression, but to dependence. So would you increase our vision? Would you help us to be those that walk out of here confident in your power and ability as seen in your risen son? It’s in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen. All right. We’ve got about 15 minutes. Any questions, comments, maybe things weren’t clear, practically how you’d like to see things work out, if there’s anything, I’m here for 15 more minutes. Yeah?
John Onwuchekwa: Yes, yeah. All right. What she said is what do our prayer meetings look like? And so here’s what we do. First week of each month, we say from 7:00 PM until 8:00 PM we will be here. We start at 7:00 and we end right at 8:00. For the first five or so minutes, we just have a brief devotion or a reorientation from God’s word. And then what we’ll do is I’ll populate the list of things that we should pray through and I’ll have things that specifically affect City of Atlanta, folks that are within our church. But then I have five things that for the past 56 times we’ve prayed for those five things. So we’ve prayed for the faithful preaching of God’s word that God would keep us tethered to his word as a church. We’ve prayed that God would give us boldness and evangelism, and we pray that God would bring us fruit and conversion. So we’re constantly praying for all of those things.
Fourthly, we’re praying that God would provide for the needs of our church so that we can support the life of the church, care for the poor that are among us, and contribute to the advancement of the gospel in the world. And then fifthly, specifically for where we are, we pray that God would give us grace in being hospitable towards our LGBT neighbors in Atlanta, in the West End. And so there’s a variable list that we have of things that change, but those five things are constant and we pray for them every time. And then what we do is we let people fill in the margins. So we just say, “Hey, is there anything that we’ve missed?”
And sometimes folks will add to those things, sometimes these things are going on in the West End that no one pray about, and then there’s sometimes where folks will present a need or concern that’s there. And so it’s very ordinary, unimpressive, no lights, no bells and whistles. But yeah, most of our meals are like that as well and we know how important it is to eat. Yeah, right there and then here. How do I decide or discern when to stop talking about prayer and when to pray?
John Onwuchekwa: In the meeting? Yeah. It’s a sign or an art and it’s just a… We’re talking too much. Let’s pray. Yeah, I just try to be as direct as I can. Sometimes folks have to talk, but it’s like, you all, if we’re here and we talk for 45 minutes and pray for 15, those proportions are off. So I’m constantly trying to push folks to just talk less and pray more. So I don’t know if I have a hard rule or anything that may be helpful other than be as direct as you can. If you have the sense that folks talk too much, then say, “I think we’re talking too much. Let’s pray.” So he said, “Do we have a way to encourage our folks to pray and highlighting what we do?” Yeah.
Sundays when we gather, we spend a significant amount of time in our Sunday service praying. So every Sunday, we’re probably praying at least 10 minutes, sometimes 15, sometimes more than that. So we’ll start off, we’ll read from God’s word, and we’ll do an extended prayer of praise, where we thank God or we praise God from who for who He is. Don’t ask Him for anything. We just praise Him. And so it’s a time for us to meditate on the attributes of God and just reorient the folks in the life our church to whose presence that we’re in. And once we get that high view of God, I think it gives us a right view of ourselves, and then we’ll lead into a time of confession after we sing. And so we’ll pray and confess. And the goal with that is we want people that are out there that are unaccustomed to confessing their sins to be able to say, “Me, too.”
So we want to pray in such a way where somebody can say, “Ah, me, too. I didn’t know that was wrong. Me, too. Me, too, man, I didn’t feel sad about that, but I should have felt sad about that.” Me, too. When we want them to say, “Me, too,” so that when we’re done and we read the assurance of pardon, that for all of us that confess our sins, he’s faithful to forgive us of our sins that folks in the crowd can say, “Me, too. Yeah, I just did that. Me, too.” And then we’ll have prayers of thanksgiving and then we’ll have a prayer of petition, where we’re praying for things in the West End, things in our church, things for Atlanta, things in the US, churches in our city, nation and the world, and then for our world as a whole. So just concentric circles where we’re trying to pray. And all of them are a little lengthy, lengthy enough to bother people that don’t like praying.
Yeah. You right there and then you. If you would stand up, yep. You sir, yeah. Yeah. Do I have a way that I encourage that amongst our staff? With every meeting or anything like that that we step into, we pray. One of the things that I do and the life of our church and I’ve just shared with my staff and try to bring it in and I got this from Mark Dever and it’s so helpful, we’ve got a directory of folks that are a part of our church, 305 names that are right there in my phone. Every morning I wake up and as I’m reading God’s word, I’m praying for two letters of the alphabet, so the last two names.
This morning it was M and N. And so as I’m reading Psalm 3, Luke 4, the things that are there, I’m praying, “God, I pray you do this for Manny Major. I pray that you…” and just on down the list. And so it helps me pray for everybody in my church at least twice per month. And so I try to get my staff to do the same thing. And so just trying to say, hey, I think that if we do the ordinary things extraordinarily well and consistently, that we’ll see God do some great things. Yes, yes?
John Onwuchekwa: Anything that helps to refocus my mindset when I lean towards despair because I’m discouraged by the lack of attendance. I think there’s a lot of times where when it comes to prayer, and there was this one event that took place in the City of Atlanta, where they try to organize like 30,000 people to get around Stone Mountain and praying, it was this big thing, trying to get folks there to pray. I think that’s a fine thing to do, but I think that undermines, I think, what the Bible gets at by prayer. If God doesn’t hear us based on our many words, I don’t think He hears us based on many voices. All of the prayers that we give, they are weak prayers. It’s a willing savior that makes all the difference and the life of Christ.
You talk about the people that came to his prayer meetings. He’s getting ready to die the next day, and he can’t get people to stay up and he’s praying by himself. But God uses and God used those prayers I think of a church that has been pivotal and faithful and just what they’ve done and being able to help so many other churches, Capitol Hill Baptist in DC. You are all here in this room right now in part because of the ministry that took place there. And that church started over 100 years ago because one old lady started a prayer meeting and she wanted to see a church put on that block. And it’s like we just do not know the outcome of our prayers. So we just say, “All right, Lord, I’m going to plant this seed and my encouragement is going to be the fruit that I hope to see in eternity. So I’ll take that by faith here and now.”
Yeah. Do I ever incorporate fasting to our prayer times? Yes. So the first month of each year, what we do is we pray for Wednesdays out of the month. And each of the Wednesdays, we fast as a church. And then when folks come, we pay for the meal and they eat. And the highest attended prayer meetings are those four. So in a pragmatic way, that’s a good way to get folks to come. Starve them and then pray and say that you’ll feed them. Are there better times to do prayer meetings? Because what I heard is it seems like you’re starting to feel like maybe we chose the wrong time.
John Onwuchekwa: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So for the first year of our church, we said, “Hey, prayer meetings, Sunday nights at 5:00 PM.” When our church first started, we probably had 100 adults and probably 80 kids that were 10 years old or younger. So for the first year, people didn’t come. And so at first, we’re like heathens. You need to learn, “Oh, prayer is important. We’re charging and charging and charging.” And it’s like, “Ah, my kids have nap time and it’s school and it’s so hard with young kids.” And so after the first year it’s like, “All right, maybe let’s try to switch things up.”
Wednesday nights was a time that was already free in the life of our church. We would do Bible study every Wednesday. And so we said, “Hey, let’s just take the first one and turn it into a prayer meeting, night and day.” So it may be the case that it’s just the day or bad time or rough time. Have we tried conversational prayer in the life of our church? Have we found success with that where it’s free flowing and people can talk back and then two… your next ones, right. Yeah.
So for the first one, I live in Atlanta and we have lots of folks that believe lots of wacky things about God and gifts and theology and social set. They believe things that if I were to try to do that in my church knowing the amount of folks that come that aren’t Christian or folks that I think are off, I think it would cause a bit of chaos in my church for where I am. So we haven’t tried that out as much. And we’re starting to work through right now what it would look like not just to lead from upfront and congregational prayer, but to have time where we stop and people get a chance to pray with one another. But we’re still just starting to work through how that looks in the life of our church. Excellent. All right. I think it’s four o’clock. Yeah. You all been great. Thank you so much. Yeah. I hope you all enjoy the rest of the conference.