Photo: Paul's dad, Jack, in dark jacket at far right, preaching the gospel on Wall Street in NYC
With the contemporary church so relatively prayerless, it can be hard to imagine what it looks like to be a praying community. You can get a glimpse of it in this story from my friend Dennis, who remembered a moment with my father, Jack Miller, on a Sunday morning in 1987:
I was helping to count the offering in the office between services, and I had my son Matthew with me. He was only 4 at that time. We didn’t realize that Jack was laying down on a nearby couch. He got up, walked over to Matt, got down to his level and asked him to pray for him to have strength to deliver his sermon for a second time. Matt said a simple, childlike prayer and Jack thanked him without saying a word to either me or the other deacon. He was so sincere, and real. Jack didn’t speak to me that day, but his actions still reverberate with me some 35 years later.
You can see, in that simple act, how a praying community works. First of all, it prays simply, without a lot of complexity. Secondly, it prays because it is corporately dependent. It needs help. It needs Jesus. Thirdly, it values the saints, the least of these, even a four-year-old. It’s a flat kingdom that lives down low. Fourthly, it opens the door for the Spirit to do surprising things, like a senior pastor taking the time to ask the help of a four-year-old.
Dad’s “spirit of prayer” began in 1970 as an awakening to the real presence of the Spirit in the church. As a 17-year-old teenager, I saw Dad’s faith grow as he realized that the Spirit had been poured out now, in the present. Consequently, God’s new normal is that rivers of living water flow out of the church. The end times had begun at Pentecost.
Jill and I were at the church my dad started, New Life (PCA), from its founding in 1973 to 1994, when we moved north to get better schooling for Kim. During that time, in one way or another, we experienced what it was like to be in a praying community that experienced almost continuous revival. Tim and Kathy Keller (Tim recently passed to glory), were at New Life from 1984-1989. Collin Hansen writes about their experience at New Life in his new book Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation:
As an elder at New Life, Keller got a front-row seat to a pastor who didn’t think twice about canceling Sunday school so everyone could pray together for an hour over an urgent need. After Keller preached one Sunday, an elder asked to speak to the congregation. The elder repented publicly for sin and asked the entire congregation to hold him accountable. No wonder, then, that Kathy Keller’s sister said after a visit, “I’m not sure I can attend this church. The Christianity is too real.”
A lifestyle of repentance is what the Spirit of Jesus brings when he begins to possess a community. I remember one elder standing towards the end of the service (maybe 400 people were present) asking prayer that his eyes be kept from lust because he was going to the Jersey shore for vacation. The following week he thanked the congregation for praying for him. That kind of honesty and vulnerability is the hallmark of the presence of Jesus by his Spirit. In 1983, a different elder ran off with another elder’s wife. Sunday morning, the elders announced this to the entire congregation, and we went to prayer. Nothing was hidden, gossip was shut down, and people’s energy went into divine, not merely human, conversation. Everyone who was there remembers the real presence of Jesus in that service.
When we talk about a church becoming a praying church, we don’t just mean that it prays more, we mean that the Spirit of Jesus breaks into the layers of leadership of the church in new ways.
So when we talk about a church becoming a praying church we don’t just mean that it prays more, we mean that the Spirit of Jesus breaks into the layers of leadership of the church in new ways. That’s what we are aiming for in all of our A Praying Life work.
I’m giving a 50-minute talk on a praying church at an event we’re hosting at the The Gospel Coalition Conference in Indianapolis on Monday, Sept. 25. Over 1,000 people have registered to attend! I covet your prayers for humility, clarity, and simplicity as I share how “The Church Runs on Prayer.”
P.S. If you’re interested in tuning up your imagination for a praying community, check out the seminars and cohorts (online and in person opportunities) at seejesus.net/pray2023!