I labor in the midst of a stream that desires to establish corporate prayer and worship from the rising of the sun to its going down. I love it. I am gripped with it. I’m sowing the majority of my time, my energy, and my resources in the prime of my life to this end: that the Church in our generation would be a praying Church with a high vision for the glory of God in the face of Christ and committed to serving the nations through intercession and a bold witness to the Gospel.
CRITICS OF CORPORATE PUBLIC PRAYER
Often critics of our stream point us to Matthew 6 saying that Jesus never asked this of His people. They argue that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus openly discouraged corporate public prayer. Having been ‘swimming’ in this particular stream for almost a decade, Matthew 6 has been the passage I’ve heard cited the most as evidence against the prayer movement that is currently emerging in the nations. And so I wanted to give a brief response.
PRAYER IS NOT THE ISSUE, HYPOCRISY IS
Matthew 6 is hardly a proof text to discourage corporate prayer. Jesus was addressing the issue of hypocrisy; not praying together.
Here is what Jesus said:
5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:5-8)
When we read these verses in context to the whole chapter we see that praying in secret is not the only issue He addresses. He addresses praying in secret, fasting in secret, and giving in secret. So to tackle corporate public prayer as a faithful exegete, one must tackle corporate fasting (which shouldn’t be a problem for too many churches in the West), and corporate giving (which will be a big problem for the church in the West).
CORPORATE PUBLIC PRAYER IN THE EARLY CHURCH
But that isn’t the biggest problem for those who use Matthew 6 as evidence for the illegitimacy of corporate prayer. The bigger problem is the fact that there are numerous examples of all three activities (prayer, fasting, and giving) being done corporately and in public in the early Church in the book of Acts. In fact, these three activities defined the early Church. These were the foundational cultural values that the apostles promoted among new believers as the Gospel penetrated Jerusalem and spread to Antioch and beyond.
The issue in Matthew 6 isn’t about “praying in public” versus “praying in secret.” The issue is doing it to gain the attention of man versus doing it because you already have the attention of an affectionate “Father in heaven who sees and rewards.” This is why Jesus speaks of “losing your reward.” If you pray to impress men you will gain no reward. So the issue is of the heart, not practice.
The early Church was born in a culture of corporate public prayer and was sustained in a culture of corporate public prayer. Every significant event in the first 13 chapters of the book of Acts happens on the way to a corporate prayer meeting (ch. 5), in a corporate prayer meeting (ch. 2), or after a corporate prayer meeting (ch. 4). If you were to cut out the events that occurred before, during or after a corporate public prayer meeting the first 13 chapters of the book of Acts would be reduced to a handful of sentences.
Pentecost followed a corporate public prayer meeting (ch. 2). And it produced a corporate public prayer meeting. New believers embraced daily corporate public prayer as a lifestyle (ch. 2-5). In fact, the literal translation of Acts 2:42 is that new converts “devoted themselves” to “the times of prayer;” that is, still attending the scheduled times of prayer at the Temple, the “house of prayer for all nations.”
When the Church was growing exponentially to the point where practical needs weren’t being met, ministries were suffering infrastructure problems, and the community was being adversely affected, the apostles said (my paraphrase): “We will not abandon the place of prayer. Appoint others to fulfill the tasks. Prayer takes priority over every other ministry.” (see Acts 6)
The man chosen to speak to the apostles about transitioning from ministry to the Jews in Jerusalem to the Gentiles in the nations was an Italian man whose “prayers ascended before God as a memorial” (ch. 10). He was sent to connect with Peter who was prepared for this encounter in a trance while he was “on the rooftop in prayer.”
Paul himself was nurtured and commissioned from a corporate public prayer meeting where the community was fasting together (ch. 13). Antioch was a praying community. And as a result, Antioch was responsible for sending forth the most consequential minister in Church history after Jesus himself into the nations.
In both Jerusalem (Acts 1-8) and Antioch (Acts 11-13) the distinguishing mark of the early Christian community was that they were a people of prayer; and not just private prayer. They championed corporate public prayer. It was foundational to the early Church with regards to form, expression, and methodology.
Corporate public prayer meetings brought about the outpouring of the Spirit, apostolic commissioning, the release of leaders from prison, the death of blasphemous government leaders, earthquakes and more. After the dispersion from Jerusalem in Acts 8 when they planted Antioch in Acts 13 the foundational practice of the community was corporate prayer and fasting. And from that city emerged a mighty missions movement that shook Rome; that no doubt spread a culture of corporate prayer across the map.
Whether the contemporary Church in our day is willing to recognize it or not, corporate public prayer defined the expression of the early Church. It was at the heart of the ethos of the people of The Way. The Lord will see to it that the Church who completes the task of the Great Commission will resemble the Church that began it.