Well, I thank God for the privilege of addressing you all today. I wish that I could be with you in person, but I trust that the Lord will use our time together even though it is mediated through technology.
The Role of Prayer in Pastoral Ministry
The topic that I have been asked to speak about is the role of prayer in pastoral ministry. I believe this is a crucial subject, one that is very close to the heart of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus. If we just take a tour of Luke’s gospel, we see this very clearly: In Luke 3:21, we read that Jesus was praying when the Holy Spirit descended on Him at his baptism. And in Luke 5:16, we are told that it was Jesus’ regular habit to withdraw to a desolate place to pray. In 6:12, we see Jesus praying all night before he chooses his twelve apostles. In 9:18, we’re told that Jesus was praying right before Peter confessed that he was the Christ. Later in that chapter we see that Jesus takes three disciples up on a mountain to pray. As he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told the disciples to pray and then woke them up a little while later to tell them to pray. And that commitment to prayer clearly was meant to carry over to his followers: He obviously expected that his disciples would pray a lot. He said things like “when you pray” and “when you fast”… he assumed that it would be part of his followers’ daily lives.
As you read the book of Acts, as you read Paul’s letters, you see that the early church prayed like crazy. Paul explicitly instructed them to do so. The disciples were praying when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, they were praying for Peter’s release from prison, they were praying all the time. Prayer is obviously important and expected of disciples. A healthy and faithful church will be a church that prays… together when the body gathers, and also privately as individual members. And so an important part of pastoral ministry will be our personal ministry of prayer… and also the way that we lead our churches to pray.
So, with the time that we have together today, I’d like to think about a few aspects of the Bible’s teaching on prayer. I’m not going to think so much about what prayer should look like practically in your daily life or in the life of your church… I’m not going to give tips and schedules and methods to pray.
Instead, I’d like to think more about the nature of prayer. Specifically, I’d like to examine three things together:
- First, the need for prayer.
- Second, the foundation of our prayer.
- And finally, the priorities of our prayers.
The Need for Prayer
Why is it, exactly, that pastors need to pray? Well, we could answer that question in any number of ways. But I think that, on some level, they all boil down to this: pastoral ministry is an exercise in the impossible. Think about the things that we are called to do: We are to call spiritually dead people to life… using nothing but our mouths and the word of God in them. We are called to heal marriages, to bind up hearts that have been broken by sin and suffering, to return wayward sheep to the flock, to keep the souls entrusted to our care faith-filled and hopeful until the day when he returns or the day that they go to be with him. I don’t know about you, but just thinking about it makes me feel weak and inadequate. This is why the apostle Paul described his ministry and was left asking “who is sufficient for such things?” (2 Cor. 2:16). The answer is clear – not Paul, not me, and not you.
And so pastoral ministry is absolutely dependent on the powerful working of God through the Holy Spirit. Without God’s intervention, no one ever comes to Christ. Without the work of the Holy Spirit, the preaching of God’s Word will clang uselessly to the ground of our churches… unheard, unloved, and unheeded by our people. Unless God sustains you and protects you, you will never be able to persevere in the ministry. You will burn out, give up, or disqualify yourself. And so prayer is what we do when we realize how dependent we are on God for absolutely everything for desire. And that’s rather the point, isn’t it?
Do you realize that God could accomplish his purposes in his life without us praying? He doesn’t need us to pray before he goes to work. But prayer is an expression of desire for the coming of God’s kingdom and the glory of his name. It’s an expression of humility and inability. And so God calls us to pray so that we will recognize our need and know who exactly it is that deserves all the praise and glory when our prayers are answered. The late J.I. Packer mused on the enormity of our task and our utter dependence on God… and he said that these facts… ought to drive us to prayer. It is God’s intention that they should drive us to prayer. God means us, in this as in other things, to recognize and confess our impotence, to tell him that we rely on him alone, and to plead with him to glorify his name. It is his way regularly to withhold his blessing until his people start to pray… But if you and I are too proud or too lazy to ask, we need not expect to receive.
If you don’t sense that you aren’t in control, you won’t seek God in prayer. Why should you? You’ll just keep trying harder, working up new strategies and giving it another go. But seriously, what control do you have over your life? Think about just how little in your pastoral ministry, how little in your church is really under your control. And so friend, do you see your need for God’s help? If you struggle to pray, could it be that you are somehow dulled to your need for God’s intervention in your life and in the lives of the people that you serve?
John Calvin said that all prayer is born of inadequacy and desperation. Any lack of prayer in your life might be born of a failure to be desperate, a failure to see your inadequacy. You should never preach a sermon over which you have not labored in prayer.
Charles Spurgeon used to walk up to the pulpit, and each step he would say: I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe in the Holy Spirit. And then he would declare God’s word with power and unction.
There’s a story about a time that the congregation was gathered to hear John Flavel, the Puritan minister, preach. But he wasn’t there… 15 minutes they waited for him… until finally an elder of the church was sent to look for him. They came to his study and heard through the door that he was talking to someone… saying, “I’m not going out there without you. I’m not going out there without you.” Finally, the elder opened the door and saw Flavel on his knees, praying: I’m not going out there without you. Brothers, we dare not go out to our flocks, to preach or disciple or counsel or evangelize… we dare not go without him… and so we must pray. That brings us to the second thing I want us to think about it – the foundation of our prayer.