The Priority of Prayer in Revitalization

SBSGThe Priority of Prayer in Revitalization

There is a huge movement for revitalization of churches these days. Books, blogs and more books have been written. There is no shortage of resources to tell you how to revitalize or be an agent of revitalization in your church. When Kenneth suggested we put together a book on revitalization, I told him we needed the chapter that no one seems to include in revitalization or preaching books. The chapter on prayer. The first step in revitalization is prayer. Only a few people will tell you this, but most will not. The recent resources on revitalization give much strategy and assumed prayer. We will give you a resource that is dependent on prayer. Ramping up a revitalization campaign requires prayer in the planning stage (the return stage). Prayer is crucial in the implementation. It’s crucial.

Prayer is crucial. Here is why. The church I serve went through a split seven years ago. Then for the first two to three years we just seemed to never get to a season of health. I say that not because we were not growing numerically. The reality was that we were relationally unhealthy. Part of this is my fault. I failed to mobilize key people and the church to pray. When people pray together, it is harder to be relationally unhealthy. In revitalization, doing the things that bring life back to a church, people will be challenged. It is at the challenge point that health is revealed. When leaders jump to the assessments and procedures, we are convinced not enough praying has gone into the preparation. When the hard stuff of revitalization is addressed, people operate either with limited wisdom, fleshly wisdom, or wisdom from the business world. The wisdom of God is needed to walk through a revitalization process.

We address revitalization because most churches are at a plateau. They not growing or declining, but are on the verge of decline. No offense to others who are addressing revitalization of churches, but something is missing. What is it? Prayer. This is a hard question, but why are we not seeing more revitalization of churches with all the resources we are producing? We make the case here that revitalization must include a real prayer plan that at least includes the leaders of the church. Loyal members who desire revival in the church should be included also.

What is revitalization? Revitalization is bringing life to something on the verge of death. It is making something once vital, vital again. What would a church look like that was revitalized? More numbers? Better health? Kenneth says “spiritual health precedes numerical increase.” . Any measurement of church health surely would start with the Book of Acts. What role did prayer play in the early church? We argue from scripture a prayer priority in Acts. We remind anyone tackling revitalization of a local church, Acts 1:8 power comes from Acts 1:4 praying.

What’s the priority?

Open your Bible and skim these passages just to see the thread.

Acts 1:4; Acts 1:8; Acts 1:14; Acts 2:1; Acts 2:42; Acts 3:1; Acts 4:31; Acts 6:4; Acts 7:60; Acts 12:5; Acts 13:3; Acts 14:23; Acts 16:13; Acts 16:16; Acts 16:25; Acts 20:36; Acts 27:35

The topic of prayer is spread pretty evenly throughout Acts. Early in Acts we see a priority of prayer established in Acts 1-6. Acts 2 is the foundational passage most church leaders would show us as to what a church should be doing, but prayer often fails to make it in the list. It gets swallowed up in worship. The early church prayed. We believe much more prayer happened than Acts records. We would argue prayer is established in Acts 1-6 as a priority and in Acts 7-28 it was a natural practice. While Acts 2 is the main chapter for prayer and Pentecost, Acts 6:4 is actually the anchor verse. The apostles drilled prayer down into the church as a priority not only for them, but for the entire church (Franklin, And the Place was Shaken).

Most churches in need to revitalization rush to the things that bring numerical growth, but forget to sow the things that guarantee a harvest that will last. Prayer paves the way. Prayer changes culture. Pray gets the church body desiring revitalization. Now one thing needs to be clarified. When we say “get your church to praying” we do not mean “pray and do nothing.” Strategy is important. What we are saying is strategy is born from prayer.

Why the hard push for prayer?

– Prayer kept the church unified.
– Prayer acquired the power of God.
– Prayer fills the church with the Holy Spirit

The same thing that happened in the first century can happen in the twenty first century.

“Pastor, when did we start praying?”

I (Alan) had a deacon who asked me “Pastor, when was it that you started focusing us on prayer?” I was excited someone not only noticed the change but was willing to voice the change. It was obvious. Our church culture had changed. Things were better. Better from what you might ask. That leads to more “why the hard push for prayer.” Let me give you a list.

– Those two or three men in the church who are more fleshly than spiritual?
– That little critical rumbling that never seems to go away?
– Those two to three critics in every key area you want to see revitalized?
– The tone set by you mediocre tithes and offering that keeps things stirred up?
– Those classes that are entrenched inward at the expense of an outward focus?
– The spiritual vibrancy that seems to be missing from your worship service?

How will you deal with the negatives that are always barriers? If you start with strategy and procedure, you may be doomed. What happens is leaders start with strategy at a fast pace that leaves behind preparation in prayer. At the same time, leaders who do not prayer are given a voice at the table of revitalization. When this happens, some at the table will treat revitalization as a business endeavor instead of a spiritual issue.

When did we start praying?

About a year from when the deacon asked me that we had started praying. I focused the church on praying after I preached Matt 9:35-39. The Greek work in v. 37 is deomai. It means beg or ask. Literally it would mean, “ask like a beggar because we are desperate.” A desire for revitalization should come from a desperation that churches are not healthy and growing. One of the challenges, the main one, is creating a culture for revitalization that sticks. God prompted me to get our church body praying. Why?

When a pastor sees the church as desperate, he looks for solutions. He, as well as other leaders, wants the church to flourish in Great Commission work. So a pastor will lead change. A meeting will be called. Then a series of meetings. Yet the soil will not be tilled with prayer. So in the revitalization meetings an obligatory prayer will be offered at the start of the meeting. Once the pontificating of expertise is over (a little facetious here but not far off) another prayer will be offered asking God’s blessing. The problem with this approach is that is lacks real praying for gets people involved in a spiritual level. I take a risk in saying this. Usually a church meeting can get by without prayer, which is sad. Revitalization requires a deeper, more passionate prayer. Why?

When revitalization meetings happen they involve evaluation and these meetings open the doors for carnal people to cause trouble. Many a pastor has been sacrificed on the altar of strategizing before leading a season of praying. The amazing fact is no church growth books on revitalizing say this truth. Why? It is easier to have the expert come for $3000 than to get before the face of God and get instructions from Him. Now do not take that statement wrong. We are not saying a voice from outside the church is not good. It is good. Yet the pastor of a church will have to own revitalization at some point. The pastor should start revitalization with prayer. Prayer should permeate the entire process. As a matter of fact, revitalization should insert prayer in the center of the church. Revitalization should make a church prayer driven.

We know what you are saying now – “How do I do that?” Look at the appendix. We are giving you a one page plan for the average church. It is not perfect. You will need to evaluate your own church and make your own contextualized list. Yet we do believe this one page can change your church. I may take a year, six months, or ninety days. The Spirit of God will lead you if you are willing. Use the page in the appendix called “Remember the Prayers!” to start your revitalization process.

Use sermon based small groups to reinforce a 4 week series on prayer. You can use your existing small groups or you can create short term small groups for the series duration only. We suggest off campus options. The staff, elders, or deacons and other leaders could create prayer groups for 4 weeks. Refresh yourself on Jeremiah Lanphier’s strategy for praying during the 1857 Prayer Revival. When you start the series on prayer (or other topics in revitalization) use these sermon based groups to undergird the movement in prayer.

7 things I learned from Black preachers and preaching.

IMG_0749I have been privileged to live in a multicultural neighborhood most of my life. I’ve always had Black friends. I grew up in Florida. Then I was Army. Then as I became a Christian, I was influenced by the Black Church. My first influence was by Pastor Onnie I. Kirk of the Unity Missionary Baptist Church in El Paso, Texas. Then Pastor Elijah Mitchell  of the Grace Missionary Baptist Church in Schweinfurt, Germany, was a huge influence on me. He taught me preaching at the local church level, in a class. When I went to preaching class in seminary, I was not surprised. I was prepared. Then I went Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. Pastor Dwight McKissic is the Senior Pastor. And while there I ran into the legend – Dr. Lloyd C. Blue. It was at Cornerstone that I was exposed to some of the best preaching in the world. We expected good preaching, but we brought in some of the big preachers of African-American culture.

What did I learn and what can you learn?

  1. Black preaching is an experience. The great Henry Mitchell once said, “The Black Bible is a living epistle, and the elaborations never take the form of coldly abstract formulations” (Black Preaching: The Recovery of a Powerful Art). He was right. In a Black preaching experience, the event is just that, an experience. It’s rarely, if ever, a lecture. If it is a lecture, experience will leak out even then. There is always an expectation of “what will happen today when the preacher preaches?” White preaching is often too didactic. It’s a lecture devoid of experience and application in listeners real lives. To my White preaching friends, put some experience in the preaching. Be yourself, as no one likes a White preacher trying to be something he is not. But take a risk. Get outside the box.
  2. Black preaching is rooted in the Exodus experience.
    The Exodus experience is simple: “let my people go.” Cleophus LaRue (The Heart of Black Preaching), Preaching Professor at Harvard confirms the symbol of oppression is the single symbol that illustrates the Black preaching experience best. It’s a church message that the Black Church has lived within America for not yet two hundred years. This is in part the social gospel, but it is more than that. Black Preaching ultimately includes the oppressions faced by anyone oppressed. The White Church and preachers can take a lesson here. Preach to those who have problems and lift them above those problems with the gospel. Tell them there is a better way. There is hope.
  3. Black preaching is emotional and passionate. When I first heard Black preaching, I thought to myself, “Is someone in trouble? Should we leave? What’s the preacher so angry about?” Then I came to realize Black preaching is rooted in the face that the church is often the only safe place for the Black message to get out. It’s also rooted in cultural fact that African culture is a singing culture. So it is not uncommon for a song to break out during the preaching. In Black preaching, the preaching “whoops.” It celebrates at the end of the sermon. When I first saw Pastor Kirk do this, I was blown away. He would run down the aisle celebrating Jesus waving a handkerchief. White preaching needs to add some passion through delivery. Yet passion and emotion alone can never make up for content.
  4. Black preaching is scripture driven. Narrative. Black preaching is narrative. It’s story. Even when a Black pastor preaches using the letters of Paul, rarely will he just go line by line first. There will be a wrapping of the exposition into a larger contextual story from scripture, then the lives of listeners. Haddon Robinson teaches us to know the big idea. I’ve seen the old school Black preaching by outline that actually searches out the big idea in the pulpit. To preach out of context would never be acceptable in Black preaching. While there are times I’ve seen Black preaching more emotion than scripture, it’s rare. And it is usually done by the younger, inexperienced preachers. White culture preaching would do well to learn to preach not only the context of scripture, but the grander narrative of God’s story in our own lives.
  5. Black preaching is as much art as it is science. There are tools to preaching. Those tools in a preaching course can be tools. They can come across as mechanical. The exegetical idea, the preaching idea, sermon purpose, outline or movements, illustrations, applications, introductions and conclusions. These all are tools. Yet in Black preaching the homiletical is as much art as science. There is much more exploring with the tools. I first learned first person narrative preaching from Black culture not White. Haddon Robinson showed us how to do it with his many sermons, but EK Bailey was the first pastor I saw do it. It was art and science.
  6. Black preaching is influenced by White preaching. The African context is often left out of the academy of preaching especially because Christianity became much more academic and educational. The European Christianity from the third century to the 1500s set the stage for Western Christianity. Of course in many ways that was good. God chose to do it. Much of European Christianity is now dead, dark and detrimental to the Great Commission now. But the influence of Black Christianity by White is good. It’s not just an educational influence. It’s a content influence. It’s a melding of cultures. My Pastor at Cornerstone, Dwight McKissic is an excellent example of what I’m trying to say. He is an excellent preacher. I’ve seen him light up a room. But he is not just a preacher who uses passion and force. He is also a teacher who can give amazing content. He realized like many Black preachers, African-Americans today do not just want emotion. It’s an interesting topic. They want content also. And while content does not originate from White preaching, White culture is a partner and conduit of content. In other words, the White preaching style is appealing to Black people. Today, they listen to John MacArthur, Charles Stanley, David Jeremiah and the like as well as their own preachers.
  7. Black preaching is influencing White preaching. More and more White preachers are taking the natural things of Black preaching into the pulpit. The ideas of creativity, passion, emotion, force as well as hermeneutic and homily of the academy are found in the White preaching context. Steven Furtick is a good example. White people desire emotion. We are often too cognitive. And lecturing does not meet real life on the street. The best story of Black preaching changing and influencing White preaching is found in Dr. Joel Gregory. He is what I call the darling of the Black church. After his departure from FBC Dallas, it was EK Bailey who started the Black Church journey for Gregory. Joel Gregory embodies the best of Black and White preaching. He masters content and delivers like a Black preacher. Dr. Ralph West does the same but with a unique, God given giftedness. These two men have modeled for out culture what White and Black preaching can give each other for the cause of the Great Commission.

There can be no writing on this subject without the mention of Dr. Lloyd C. Blue. This man started out as my boss, mentor and example at Cornerstone. He soon became a friend, fishing partner and adopted father. He’s an amazing man, but for this topic an amazing preacher. I’ve personally watched him preach. He has the style of both Black and White preaching styles. He knows how to be who God needs him to be in any culture. He taught me how to outline a passage with unique, precise ability to see the text’s meaning quickly. That meaning became the bridge to the hearts of men and women in the audience. My relationship with Dr. Blue is irreplaceable.. My relationship with Black culture so unique. Most White pastors and people never get these experiences and education from Black culture. These are 7 things I have learned from the academy of Black preaching. Go … and do likewise.

Sharing the gospel in preaching – What? Why? How?

I recently took a weekend off to attend a wedding of a great friend. When Sunday came of course we went to worship. My daughter and I went early to a prominent reformed church in Albuquerque. Then we went to the hotel and picked up my wife and my daughter’s friend who came with us. We  all went to another church. An even larger church. As a matter of fact I could definitely live my life out of this local church. I’m not sure about the first one. Anyway ….

At both churches the hospitality was good. The music was good at both, but the second would be my preference. The preaching and teaching was good. Excellent. Without going into a full critique, one thing unsettled me at these churches. Everything at both churches was good, biblical, and done with excellence. I was in awe. And I sensed the Spirit. But one thing was glaringly missing for me.

At both of these churches the simple gospel was not shared.

Let me be clear in what I’m saying. First the gospel itself was not shared. Second, there was no invite for people to cross the line of faith, receive Jesus, ask questions, or sign up for baptism.

Is it because I’m a Baptist? We seek to share the gospel in every service. Our preaching would include the gospel in every message. A pastor who knew I had gone to Gordon-Conwell asked me once, “Do they teach you to interpret Old Testament narratives without including Jesus?” I said, “Yes, they taught us to let the story of the Old Testament stand on its own first. Then, think Christ Centered Preaching.” But that depended on the professor.

The gospel needs to be shared in the preaching of God’s word, not matter what the text. Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of all the word of God.  What I’m targeting here may be different than what Bryan Chapell deals with in his Christ-Centered Preaching, but it has to be closely connected.

What is the gospel?

  • The simple gospel can be included in every message of the Bible by looking for the redemptive factor in the text (Chapell). Black preaching does this so well.
  • 1 Cor 15:3-4 is probably the most concise, easiest way to state the gospel. This is the content of the gospel.
  • Mark 1:15 gives the pathway – repent and believe. Change direction for the best – Jesus Christ death, burial and resurrection.

Why include the gospel?

  • The nature and mission of the church demands it. We exist for no other reason. Any other reason given still has to find its birth in the gospel. Without the gospel, we have no message.
  • The brevity of life demands it. Life is short. It’s brutal.Then comes the end. Heaven or Hell. Grace or judgement. And on any given Sunday someone either may not get another week or they may not come back to church. This situation is high risk.

How to share the gospel?

  • In preaching. The two churches I attended are growing, have a lot of people and momentum. Maybe they are doing something I can’t see. Probably so. But in many churches the people will take on the attitude of the pastor. If the pastor does not share the gospel in preaching and teaching (and his personal life), then how can he expect the people to do it?
  • In worship. The gospel can be explained in the worship service parts that are not preaching. Testimony, song transition, scripture reading, video. It’s possible to do it and not be vague and not be a salesman.
  • At the beginning of the message, or at the end, a simple gospel statement and call for response is always appropriate. It doesn’t have to be an altar call (I use a variety of methods), but can simply sound something like this:

As we end today, for those of you who have questions about the gospel, the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have a few leaders waiting for you if you would like to talk over coffee.

or

Where is the redemptive factor today? (you might state the text’s redemptive purpose first, but then…) For some of you it means you need to cross the line of faith. You are ready. If you are ready for a change of direction (repentance) and believe Christ died for your sins, was buried and rose again (Mark 1:15; 1 Cor 15:3-4), we are ready to celebrate with you. As we end the service, our team will be here in the front to celebrate with you and get you connected to the next steps. Come and let them know of your desire to move forward.

I’m not saying every service in a church has to be an evangelistic event. What I am saying is the church should not lose its urgency. The two churches I attended probably don’t have to worry about it. And I’m glad for that But most other churches might ought to think through how the gospel is shared.

I make a simple appeal. And let there be no doubt. I’ve preached the Old Testament before and not included the gospel in the message, and hated myself for it. It’s not complicated. So I’m not meaning to judge. I’m guilty also.

I’ve used many different connections for people to make a spiritual need known. Inquiry room. Full blown altar call. Cards. They all work. But what works best for us is ending he service with a holy moment. We sing just two verses of a song. I have leaders in place to meet anyone with any need. After preaching and including the gospel, I give a call for discipleship, but also for ministry; prayer. After the second verse of the song, I pronounce a formal blessing on the people. I tell them the music will keep playing and we will still be here for those who have needs (think introverts here). We almost always have people who have prayer needs, requests for baptisms, and some want to just encourage others.

I hope you preachers and teachers will share the gospel somewhere along the line in your Bible teaching. The stakes are high. It’s not that difficult. Why not? That would be my response.