We had Bill Dyer, recently retired pastor of Pontefract Evangelical Church speak to us at today's Westcountry Reformed Ministers' Fraternal. He based his address on Acts 6:4. It was a very challenging and most encouraging talk. Here are some notes.
1. The absolute priority of personal, private prayer
In Acts 6 we see that the apostles delegated the task of aid distribution in the early church to the first deacons. The reason for their actions is given in Acts 6:4. They wanted to make prayer and the ministry of the word their great priority. Robert Murray M'Cheyne said, "If you want to embarrass a Christian, just ask about their prayer life." The Scottish preacher also stated, "What a man is before God on his knees, that he is and no more." We all know that prayer is vitally important, but sometimes Reformed believers are better at theorising about prayer than actually praying. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was of the opinion that "everything is easier than prayer." Of course he was right and pastors struggle with this just as much as any other Christian. In fact the first duty of a minister is to be a good Christian - a man of God.
Prioritizing prayer will mean that other time consuming activities like being involved in endless committees should be avoided. Busyness is the enemy of fruitfulness. We need to discipline ourselves to make time for daily prayer. Beginning the day in prayer will help to ensure that that our activities are directed and sustained by the Lord. Not that we should only pray in the mornings, all our work from pastoral visits to sermon preparation should be bathed in prayer. The effectiveness of everything we do is entirely dependent upon God's blessing.
Bible reading and meditation will help to stimulate a prayerful frame of mind. We can use other aids like 'The Valley of Vision', a collection of Puritan prayers and devotions complied by Arthur Bennett, Banner of Truth Trust. We should pray until we have a felt sense of the presence of God and be content with nothing less. Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey once astonished an audience by telling them, "This morning I spent one minute in the presence of Jesus - it took me twenty-nine minutes of prayer before I knew his presence."
Pulpit prayer demands thoughtful preparation and meditation. It is easy to become stale and predictable in public prayer. We should try and avoid using stock phrases and cliches. Our pulpit prayers will never be higher than our private prayers.
We should pray for all our people regularly and systematically. This is more easily accomplished when pastoring a smaller church. But even in larger fellowships, a certain number of members can be prayed for each day so that the pastor will pray for his whole flock once a month. We should bring special prayer requests before the Lord. If we have promised to pray for someone, we should do it! Also we must intercede for the unconverted who come along to church, that they might be saved.
Preachers encounter various difficulties when it comes to prayer. We can feel guilty because of the poor quality of our prayer lives. We should avoid only praying for our own church. Prayer for mission and the persecuted church aught not to be neglected. The living God whom we serve delights to hear our prayers. It is not so much that "prayer changes things", but that "God changes things in answer to the prayers of his people." In the realm of experience there is often a conflict between spontaneity and systematic prayer. We should aim at nothing less than communion with the Father through the Son in the presence of the Spirit when we pray. While petition is important, prayer must not be reduced to a "shopping list" of our people's needs.
2. Corporate prayer
The early church engaged in corporate prayer, with the result that they were filled afresh with the Holy Spirit, Acts 4:23-31. The task of pastors is to lead the churches they serve to be more prayerful. We need to seek God's guidance on how best to reach our communites with the gospel. We should pray for his blessing on the ministry of the Word, for spiritual growth in the church, for new leaders to be raised up etc. The importance of the Prayer Meeting needs to be stressed. Beyond the weekly Prayer Meeting we can encourage our people to meet at other times to call upon God for the outpouring of the Spirit upon all the activities of the church.
3. Prayer is wedded to the ministry of the Word.
Note the link in Acts 6:4. If our preaching is to be Spirit empowered and fruitful, the whole church needs to pray that pastors will be filled with the Spirit. Our preaching is an expression of our spiritual lives. If we would preach in the Spirit, we must walk in the Spirit and seek the Spirit's anointing on our ministries. A black preacher once said, "I reads myself full, I thinks myself clear, I prays myself hot, I lets myself go." Bethan Lloyd-Jones said of her husband, "He was first of all a man of prayer and then an evangelist". For many today, preaching is little more than Bible teaching. Information is imparted, but lives and not changed. What we need is Spirit enlivened preaching that will be the means of saving lost sinners and transforming believers.
Bearing in mind the state of the world and the weakness of the church, we need God to work mightily among us. We must give ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word.
See here for a Minister's Prayer from 'The Valley of Vision'.