The Church’s Power Train
Review of ‘A Praying Church’ by Paul E. Miller
The February 2023 revival at Asbury University aroused anew a hunger for God in the hearts of many Christians. It began when students lingered to pray after a regularly scheduled chapel service. The weeks-long eruption of continuous, student-led prayer and praise that followed was anything but regularly scheduled.
I was reading Paul E. Miller’s A Praying Church at the time. “The American church is functionally prayerless when it comes to corporate prayer,” he writes. “Of course, a remnant does the hidden work of prayer, but in most churches corporate prayer doesn’t function in any meaningful way.”
Perhaps, I mused, that’s why what happened at Asbury was exceptional. It was so prayer-full.
A major reason for prayerlessness is secularism. It divides the world into two domains. The spiritual domain — which includes religion — deals with feelings, while the physical domain deals with facts.
“It’s no coincidence that the prayer meeting has declined simultaneously with the rise of secularism,” Miller writes. “When we relegate prayer to the world of feelings, prayer becomes mere therapy” and “praying together feels awkward.”
Secularism isn’t the only reason churches neglect corporate prayer, however. Miller’s father was a Presbyterian pastor and seminary professor (and mentor to Tim Keller). He once confessed, “I killed the prayer meeting by talking too much.”
Power flows from Jesus, who gets inside us by the Spirit when we pray.
Miller’s father’s confession is not a knock against preaching, or any other ministerial duty, for that matter. Rather, it’s a warning to pastors against the temptation of centering the church around their leadership. Pastor-centered ministry happens so often that Miller calls it the “typical church” model.
A “praying church” model, by contrast, centers its ministry around the Holy Spirit. “An attentiveness to the Spirit of Jesus is the missing key to the church’s prayerlessness.” Reflecting on Ephesians 3:14–17, Miller writes, “The apostle Paul articulates a specific pattern I call the church’s power train: prayer Spirit Jesus power.”
Miller traces this “power train” throughout Scripture, but focuses especially on Luke-Acts. He describes Jesus as a “praying person,” citing Luke 5:16: “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (emphasis added).
Jesus also trained His disciples to be a “praying community.” Miller points out that the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:2–4 uses plural pronouns. It’s a corporate prayer.
Corporate prayerfulness intensified in the wake of Pentecost (Acts 2). Miller comments that “what Jesus has done individually, the disciples do corporately as the Spirit continually makes Jesus present. The praying person has become the praying community. Jesus has gotten inside” (emphasis added).
Jesus inside us is what drives ministry forward. If Jesus is in us, we do what He would do — as He would do it — if He were in our place. Power flows from Jesus, who gets inside us by the Spirit when we pray.
A Praying Church has five parts. To this point, I have focused only on Part 1 because I found the “power train” to be such an important spiritual insight. That said, the book’s remaining four parts brim with additional wisdom and insight about corporate prayer. I enthusiastically recommend it.
I close with this observation: I am a Pentecostal minister. Asbury is a Wesleyan-Arminian school. Miller is a Presbyterian writer. My guess is that there are any number of theological issues on which we disagree. One of them is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Miller speaks of “an unexplored middle” between Calvinist and charismatic Christianity on this doctrine. “On the one hand, my Reformed world is concerned that a misguided emphasis on the Spirit can detract from the authority of God’s word and good old-fashioned holiness,” he writes. “On the other hand, the charismatic world is concerned that neglecting prayer and the Spirit opens the door to rationalism and powerlessness.”
Both concerns are valid, so shouldn’t we look for rapprochement between them? Indeed, isn’t that what the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God, is all about?
If so, let us pray more fervently … but together, both within our congregations and across our denominations!
Paul E. Miller, A Praying Church: Becoming a People of Hope in a Discouraging World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2023).
This review appears in the spring 2023 issue of Influence magazine.