the shape of leadership

A House of Prayer

Establishing a God-seeking culture is your church’s most important work

Al Toledo on August 7, 2019

My walk with Christ started with a simple prayer on a baseball field. And some of my first experiences with church took place at a prayer meeting.

As a kid from Brooklyn who didn’t know anything about the Lord or His people, I called out to God at the start of a game my senior year in high school. I didn’t know how to pray, but I knew pro scouts were there to watch me play baseball.

So I nervously whispered, “Lord, if You are real, please help me today. I’ve lived my whole life for this moment.”

I immediately felt the presence of God in a way I hadn’t thought possible. I accepted Christ on the spot, declaring to myself, “Jesus is real.”

That encounter led me on a sincere search for a place to experience more of God.

Little did I know, for most of my life I had lived blocks away from the Brooklyn Tabernacle. Someone suggested I go there, and the prayer meeting blew me away, exposing me to a brand of living for God that I didn’t know existed.

There was a purity and sincerity for which I was desperately looking. Seeing people that hungry and vulnerable in God’s presence made a lasting impression. I guess you could say I had a 1 Corinthians 14:25 — “God is really among you!” — experience.

Even more amazing, I learned that what I felt corporately in the prayer meeting people also experienced individually outside the church gathering. They sought God, and the Lord’s presence descended to comfort, encourage and answer by His power.

I still thank God that the first church I ever walked into was a church where the people really prayed! Had my experience not been so true and genuine, I might have given up on the Lord.

My early days of walking with Jesus ultimately shaped my life and ministry. After more than 25 years in ministry as a lead pastor in Chicago, I’m more convinced than ever about the importance of creating a culture of prayer for people to walk into.

The atmosphere that a culture of prayer brings makes the kingdom of God present and active. The possibilities of God are everywhere, and His grace becomes the persuading force of the people.

Leading the Way

Establishing a God-seeking culture is one of the top priorities of any pastor. God’s desire for us when we gather together is emphatic and clear: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17). It’s not as mysterious as some people make it out to be, but it’s also not easy because the devil hates it. There’s nothing the enemy opposes more than God’s people praying, because he knows there’s nothing more dangerous.

It all begins with the leaders. I learned how to pray from my church’s leaders, and it remains a Kingdom principle that the spiritual values and practices of pastors shape the people. Something powerful happens when a minister sets the tone simply by seeking God.

This is true whether you’re a staff pastor over a few ministries, a senior pastor taking over an established church, or a church planter. My wife, Chrissy, and I have been in all three positions. As a couple, we started every new ministry assignment with a few people praying and waiting on the Lord. The end result was always the same.

Despite low numbers, limited resources or even minimal support, prayer released seeds of hope into our small inner circle. Then joy began to spring up because of an inner conviction that Jesus was about to do something amazing.

That inner circle becomes a united team that has experienced the blessing of God’s presence together. A few prayerful, faith-filled leaders are all the Lord needs to bring about change, breakthrough or turnaround.

Prayer focuses our attention on God, rather than on circumstances and comparisons with other churches. This is where the Lord taught me one of the most important lessons I ever learned as a leader. Early on, the Lord whispered to my heart, “Don’t worry about the numbers, because the faithfulness of a few can secure the blessing for the many.”

What I discovered in various ministry contexts is that the Lord finds worship and prayer irresistible. He blesses even the smallest group with faith, hope and love beyond compare.

During one of our first ministry assignments at a small church, Chrissy led a little choir of about a dozen people, and I led a youth group of just five students. It was amazing to watch God work as we simply prayed.

Chrissy’s choir didn’t have the most talented singers in the world, but their hearts were open to the Lord’s presence. Every choir practice started with a mini prayer meeting. When Sunday arrived and the moment came for them to minister, God’s work among them was evident.

Despite a limited band and singers, a sweet blessing flowed from these people, and our services became exciting and wonderful. The simple anointing on this small group of singers blessed people.

At our first evangelistic outreach — an evening service with a mini choir concert and short testimony — nine people accepted Christ as Savior. The church felt energized, not because of an amazing event but because there was something amazing about a very simple gathering. That is God’s way. A few people seeking God can always bring about a great blessing.

The Inner Circle

Creating a culture of prayer is really a matter of shaping the church’s spiritual identity. Prayer develops in us an identity that says, “We are the kind of people who call upon God and depend upon Him to lead us and provide a breakthrough.”

As we planted Chicago Tabernacle, we made clear choices to establish a prayer culture by prioritizing prayer meetings over small groups (today we have both); staff prayer over more work; and altar calls over convenient dismissals on Sundays, just to name a few examples. It is an identity that grows from the inside out.

This is why staff prayer is so important. (If you don’t have a full-time staff, think of your church’s leadership team.) Staff prayer doesn’t have to be eternal to be effective, but it does have to be consistent.

There’s nothing the enemy opposes more than God’s people praying, because he knows there’s nothing more dangerous.

If we can’t get the inner circle to pray, we can’t get anybody to pray. The move of God has to begin in the inner circle! The Book of Acts reveals that the Early Church started with an inner circle in the Upper Room. If we don’t have a move of God in staff meetings, how can we expect a move of God in prayer meetings, on Sundays, or in our people’s homes and lives? I believe our staff prayer meeting — which serves as both a prayer time and staff meeting — is where our church culture begins.

I had the responsibility of guiding a group of 40-and-under lead pastors at a district council. At one point, one of the group members said, “We have so much work to do, we can’t spend all of our time praying.” I thought of the words of Martin Luther, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”

Obviously, the Church has much to do, but the deep conviction of our hearts should be that our efforts are in vain unless we wait before the throne of grace. It’s so easy to give lip service to prayer and then put our real trust in our human efforts.

We can seem to accomplish much in ministry, but our times of prayer dramatically affect the spiritual quality of what we do and the way we do it. Prayer brings the presence of God and the Person of Jesus into our midst when we really pray before we do ministry.

Without these spiritual realities, ministry in Chicago is simply ineffective. We may be able to draw crowds, but we won’t be able to bring transformation. As the lead pastor, it is my responsibility to remind our staff that Jesus is the only One on whom we should depend.

I talk with so many leaders who share stories about moral failures among their staff members. Almost without exception, they barely pray together as a staff. It’s from an outflow of prayer that a healthy church culture develops.

Setting the Tone

When we planted our church in 2002, we chose to start a prayer meeting instead of small groups. This was a weekly source of tension. People would say, “When are you going to start small groups? I need my community.”

Our response was, “The prayer meeting is our community. And nothing gets people closer than when they pray together. After all, isn’t the Church’s fellowship with one another a result of their fellowship with Jesus first? After we build a culture of prayer through our prayer meeting, then we’ll spill out into small groups one day.”

We felt like we needed not only to do what the Bible says, but also to establish the spiritual atmosphere and environment of our gatherings. I believe nothing grows people and changes them more than face-time with Jesus. The prayer meeting provided that for us collectively.

I noticed that the people loved one another deeply when we prayed together, and that dividing walls fell away as we carried burdens for one another. It sanctified our environment, created a spirit of humility, and consistently sent us home with joy-filled hearts. We’ve never regretted making that decision, because today we receive such wonderful reports from our small groups, where people share, but where prayer also breaks out and God’s presence comes down. It has become our identity and our expectation.

Altar Time

Altar calls on Sundays represent our greatest opportunity to introduce people to an environment of collective prayer. As a church, we sense God’s call to pray together and pray for one another. When people respond to an altar call together, they’re engaging in a prayer meeting.

There are so many expressions of corporate prayer that can take place during altar times. The congregation can stretch out hands and pray for those at the altar. People at the altar can pray together. And as James 5:14 describes, leaders can anoint the sick with oil and pray.

It’s in these times the local church becomes a house of prayer. Worship can break out, and people can linger in the Lord’s presence.

My pastor taught me that good preaching leads people to the throne of grace to have an individual meeting with God. That is what altar calls are all about. When that happens, God’s people slowly but surely begin to believe that God’s house should be a house of prayer.

Prayer Meetings

Prayer looks different at every church, and I’m not insinuating that any specific congregation’s model is superior to another. My prayer is that God will make us effective in leading our people to pray, however that looks in our respective churches.

It’s important to start from where we are, not from where we want to be. That means growing into a prayer meeting, as opposed to immediately trying to launch a prayer meeting that looks just like another church’s.

Your spiritual environment may be ripe to make the change, and that’s great. But if it isn’t, remember that inner circle prayers and altar calls set the tone for what people can expect at a prayer meeting.

If you’re planting a church, you can start right out of the gate with a prayer meeting. However, many churches of varying sizes have started a prayer meeting midstream. One example is James River Church (Assemblies of God) in Ozark, Missouri, which I believe is the largest prayer meeting in the U.S.

Another is Evangel Church (AG) in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. The pastor at this church of 800 took a step of faith and started a prayer meeting, which now regularly draws 200 people.

Then there’s Bethel Assembly of God in Elmhurst, Illinois. One of our former staff members brought this struggling church up to 125 people, with 30 to 40 people coming each week to pray.

Each of these pastors experienced a different journey of faith, courage and the leading of the Holy Spirit. But they all had one thing in common: a desire to seek God.

Here are four practical tips for leading prayer meetings:

1. Spend time in worship, which leads to breakthroughs. Providing the best possible experience from a musical perspective is in your best interest, because worship attracts the presence of God, and our faith grows to petition Him.

2. Pass around the microphone to people with fire in their hearts to pray. This lets people know that everyone should come ready to participate. It confirms to the Body that prayer is something to which God calls all of us, not just the leaders.

3.Consider using prayer cards. Inviting congregants to fill out prayer cards earlier in the week is a way to bear one another’s burdens. It also helps advertise the prayer meeting. Knowing praying believers are bringing their needs before God will attract people.

4. Don’t overschedule. Prayer meetings should be very different from Sunday services. This is the church’s prayer closet, where we speak to God and God speaks to us. Giving the Spirit space to lead in a prayer meeting is what keeps these gatherings from being stale and predictable.

Two sayings have always inspired me as a pastor. One is a quote from D.L. Moody, who said, “Every great move of God can be traced to a kneeling figure.” The other is, “Little is much when God is in it.”

It’s encouraging to know that when we pray, God can take our little and make much of it.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of Influence magazine.

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