By Reuben Archer Torrey
THE CHURCH PRAYER MEETING
I. IMPORTANCE AND ADVANTAGES.
The prayer meeting ought to be the most important meeting in the church. It is the most important meeting if it is rightly conducted. Of course the church prayer meeting in many churches is more a matter of form than a center of power. The thing to do in such a case is not to give up the prayer meeting, but to make it what it ought to be. There are five reasons why the church prayer meeting is of vital importance.
1. IT BRINGS POWER INTO ALL THE LIFE AND WORK OF THE CHURCH. If there is any real power in the church it is from God, and God has given it in answer to prayer. The prayer meeting is the real expression of the prayer life of the church. Of course all the living members of the church are praying in private, but it is in the prayer meeting that they come together and pray as a church. God delights to honor the prayers of the church as a whole (Acts 12:5, Acts 1:14). If the prayer meeting of a church runs down, it is practically certain that all the life of the church will run down, and its work prove a failure so far as accomplishing anything real and lasting for God is concerned.
2. IT DEVELOPS THE MEMBERSHIP OF THE CHURCH. In the regular services of the church, but few members of the church are developed; the minister plays the leading role; but in the prayer meeting there is an opportunity for the exercise of gifts on the part of the whole body. Altogether too little stress is laid in modern church life on the development of the gifts of the church. The whole organization is conducted on the idea of the work being done by one man or by a few men. It was not so in early church gatherings. Here the people came together for mutual benefit, and every member of the church was allowed to exercise his gifts (1 Corinthians 14:26). About the only place where this is possible in modern church life is in the prayer meeting. A real prayer meeting is one of the most apostolic meetings that we have in our modern churches.
3. IT RESULTS IN MANY CONVERSIONS. If a prayer meeting is conducted as it ought to be, many people will be converted in the prayer meeting. In not a few churches the presence of the Holy Spirit is much more manifest in the prayer meeting than in any other gathering of the church, and unconverted men and women and children coming in there feel His presence, and are convicted of sin and oftentimes converted to Christ. Of course there is nothing in many prayer meetings to convert any one, but if a prayer meeting is conducted as it ought to be, conversions may be looked for at every meeting.
4. IT PROMOTES THE LIFE AND FELLOWSHIP OF THE CHURCH. In a large church it is quite impossible for people to get very close to one another in the Sunday services. Everything conspires to prevent it, but in the prayer meeting not only do people get in closer physical contact, but heart touches heart in a way that is unknown in the more formal service. People warm up toward one another, and come to understand one another in the prayer meeting as in perhaps no other service. Love is increased and multiplied. There has perhaps never been a time in the history of the church when this was more important than today. People belong to the same church, and sit under the same minister, and look into one another's faces once a week for years, and scarcely know one another's names, but in the prayer meeting people learn to know and to love one another.
5. IT PROMOTES THE HOME AND FOREIGN MISSION WORK OF THE CHURCH. It is very difficult, and in many cases altogether impossible, to keep up a strong missionary interest without a church prayer meeting. Not only does the prayer meeting afford opportunity for missionary intelligence, but it also affords an opportunity for the many in the church to pour out their heart in prayer for the missionary work. When Jesus wished to promote a missionary interest among His disciples, He set them to praying for missions (Matthew 9:38; 10:1). If we wish to promote the foreign missionary interest in any church, we must get the church to praying for missions.
II. HOW TO CONDUCT.
I. REMEMBER THAT THE PRAYER MEETING IS PRIMARILY A P R A Y E R MEETING. Do not transform it into a lecture course or into a Bible class. It would be going too far to say that the prayer meeting should be only a prayer meeting. There are, of course, times when this should be the case, when the whole hour should be given up to prayer, but this is not wise as a universal rule; but at least it ought to be pre-eminently a prayer meeting. Many of our modern prayer meetings are so only in name. There may be a prayer by the minister at the opening of the meeting, and a prayer by some one else in closing, but the meeting is largely given up to talking, and oftentimes very desultory and unprofitable talking at that. Let prayer be the prominent thing in the prayer meeting. It may be that the major part of the time is not taken up by prayer, but see to it that the Bible comment and the testimony has something to do with prayer, and leads naturally to prayer.
2. DRAW OUT ALL THE MEMBERSHIP OF THE CHURCH IN THE PRAYER MEETING. The prayer meeting is the place for the cultivation of the gifts of the membership of the church. In many churches it is only the chosen few who exercise their gifts and get the fullest measure of blessing. It will not do to say that every member should take part in every prayer meeting. In a large church this is impossible, and furthermore it leads to a certain mechanical way of taking part that is unprofitable and vain; but the pastor should see to it that all the membership take part some time. If there is any attendant at the prayer meeting who never takes part, make a study of that person and find out what his gifts are, and give him an opportunity for their exercise. Assign backward ones something definite to do; it may be nothing more than to read a verse of Scripture. It is not wise, however, to allow people to be content with simply getting up week after week and quoting some passage of Scripture. It is better to give them some suggestive verse to study during the week, and then let them bring some thought that has come to them in meditating upon that verse.
3. ASSIGN PORTIONS OF SCRIPTURE TO STUDY. For example, one of the most helpful series of prayer meetings I ever conducted took up the book of Psalms; about seven Psalms were given out each week, and the people were requested to read these Psalms over and over again, and then to come to the meeting prepared to give some thought that had come to them in the study of these Psalms. When this request was made, one of the most experienced members of the church went to a public library and got down all the leading commentaries on the Psalms and began to study them. He confessed afterwards that he had gotten far greater blessing from the comments made by some of the plainest and most uneducated people in the church than he had gotten from all the commentaries that he had studied. A prominent minister who dropped in during these meetings was so impressed by the interest and power of the meeting, that he afterwards adopted the same plan in his own church. He said that it gave him an entirely new idea of the possibilities of the prayer meeting.
4. HAVE A WELL CHOSEN LIST OF SUBJECTS. It is not well always to have a list of subjects that is followed week after week in the prayer meeting. It is quite possible to get into a stereotyped and formal way in doing this, but lists of subjects are oftentimes helpful. Usually the best list of subjects is the one you make up for yourself. Get as many lists of subjects as you can for suggestion, and then make your own. Usually it is not wise to have a list of subjects that extends over too long a period. A list of subjects extending over an entire year oftentimes gets to be a great nuisance.
5. HAVE DEFINITE REQUESTS FOR PRAYER. There is a discouraging vagueness in the prayers at many prayer meetings. When something definite is presented for the meeting, it goes far to give life to the meeting; the prayers no longer wander all over creation, but aim at a definite object. It is well when the requests for prayer are read to have the people bow their heads in silent prayer. Do not read the requests so rapidly as to make it impossible for each one to be remembered definitely. After a few requests have been read, it is well to have some one lead in prayer, then read others and have some one else lead in prayer, and so on through the list. It is well oftentimes to have the requests made verbally from the audience, but there is a great advantage in having them written out. If people are not interested enough to write the request out, it is doubtful that there is much good in asking for the things desired; furthermore, if the request is written out, it can be read so that everybody in the room hears it.
6. HAVE A DEFINITE OPPORTUNITY FOR THANKSGIVING AND PRAISE. Thanksgiving should always go hand in hand with prayer. The Apostle Paul said, "In nothing be anxious; but in everything by prayer and supplication WITH THANKSGIVING let your requests be made known unto God" (Philippians 4:6). This is a good rule for the conduct of a prayer meeting. Giving definite thanksgiving and praise for blessings already received will increase our faith in asking for new and larger blessings. There is nothing that seems to promote the presence of the Spirit more than true thanksgiving; indeed a large share of the testimony and the talk in prayer meeting should be along the line of thanksgiving and praise.
7. MAKE MUCH OF MUSIC IN THE PRAYER MEETING. Of course the prayer meeting ought not to be a song service, but it should be a service in which there is much song. Every one should be encouraged to sing. See to it that all do sing. The singing should be in the Spirit, but should also be with the understanding. Dwell on the meaning of the words. Have verses sung over and over until they are sung from the heart. A prayer meeting should be one of the brightest, cheeriest gatherings ever held on earth. If it is made so, there will be no need of urging people to come out to the meeting, and scolding them for not coming; they will want to come. It will be the brightest spot in the whole life of the week.
8. TRAIN THE PEOPLE TO FEEL THE IMPORTANCE OF THE PRAYER MEETING. To do this it is not necessary to scold people for not attending, but often drop a word that emphasizes the importance of the prayer meeting. Let people know of the good time that you are having. Speak to people personally about coming out. Have people go after them and bring them out, and keep after them until they come. Make the meetings so interesting that when they do come once they will want to come again.
9. MAKE PEOPLE FEEL AT HOME. About the stiffest thing on earth is a stiff prayer meeting, but if the prayer meeting is made a homey place, people will want to come again and again. It is well to stand at the door to welcome people as they come in, having a smile and pleasant word for all who come. It is not at all necessary that the pastor be behind the desk during the opening moments of the meeting; he can oftentimes do more good down by the door than he can in his seat of honor.
10. SOMETIMES MAKE THE PRAYER MEETING LIKE A SOCIAL. Do not have the people sit in stiff rows, but have them stand up and move around. Then the meeting can be begun in an informal way, and you are in the midst of the meeting almost before you know it.
11. ALWAYS AIM AT, AND LOOK FOR, CONVERSIONS IN THE PRAYER MEETING. If the prayer meeting is conducted as it ought to be, many unconverted people will come, and the whole atmosphere of the place is such as to prepare people for a personal acceptance of Jesus Christ. There is no place where it is so easy to speak to people about their souls as after a good warm prayer meeting. Oftentimes when the opportunity is given for requests for prayer, the question should be put, "Is there not some one here tonight who wishes us to pray that they may be saved tonight," or some question of that character.
12. STAND AT THE DOOR AND SHAKE HANDS WITH PEOPLE AND SPEAK TO PEOPLE AS THEY GO OUT. There is oftentimes untold good in a hearty handshake. I stood one night at the door of our prayer meeting shaking hands with people as they went out, and a lady said to me, "I have been in Chicago for a long time; I have gone to church again and again but you are the first Christian that has shaken hands with me." I believe another said that the only reason she went to the prayer meeting was to get a good handshake.
13. MAKE THE PRAYER MEETING A MATTER OF PRAYER. Ask God to teach you how to conduct the prayer meeting and make it what it ought to be. Ask God definitely to bless every prayer meeting that you conduct or attend; do it expectantly. Always go to the prayer meeting expecting that you are going to have a good time. I always do and am never disappointed.
14. MAKE THE PRAYER MEETING A MATTER OF STUDY. Do not make it so much a study as to what you will say, but as to how it can be improved. Avoid getting into ruts. It is not well to keep in a rut even if it is a good rut.
III. SOME SUGGESTIONS.
1. DON'T TAKE UP ALL THE TIME YOURSELF. The prayer meeting is not so much your meeting as the meeting of the whole church. You have your opportunity to air your views on the Lord's Day; be fair and give the other people an opportunity on the prayer meeting evening.
2. DON'T LET ANYONE ELSE TAKE UP ALL THE TIME. There is liable to be in every community a prayer meeting killer, a man given to making long prayers or long speeches, and as stale as they are long. Everybody looks blue as soon as he gets up to speak. This must not be permitted, but just how can it be stopped? First of all, look to God to give you wisdom, in the second place don't lose your temper, in the third place watch for your opportunity. Sometimes he will say something that will enable you to break in with a remark; then ask somebody else his opinion, and some one else his, and then propose a song. Sometimes it will be necessary to say to the member, publicly and plainly, but kindly, that you are glad his heart is so full, but the time is getting very short and there are many who want to speak. Sometimes it will be wisest to go to the man privately and tell him that it is not wise for him to take up so much time in the meeting. If you have tact, you can generally do this without hurting his feelings, but at any cost he must be stopped.
3. DON'T BEGIN LATE. If a prayer meeting is announced to begin at a certain hour, begin at the very tick of the clock. This encourages more people to attend than most people suspect.
4. DON'T RUN OVER TIME. If the prayer meeting is announced to close at a certain time, close at that time. It may be wise to have a second prayer meeting, but close the meeting at the time announced.
5. DON'T LET THE MEETING DRAG. If it begins to drag, ask some one a question that will draw him out, or say something yourself that will set other people to thinking and talking. Oftentimes the best thing to do is to propose a season of silent prayer, but do not urge people to "fill up the time." That leads to unprofitable talking. People ought not to speak merely to fill up time; they ought not to speak unless they have something to say that is worth listening to. Far better a season of silent prayer than a season of vain talking.
Sometimes it is well to bring the meeting to a close before the announced hour comes. Some leaders make the mistake of thinking that it is necessary to carry the meeting through to the announced hour, no matter how it drags.
6. DON'T HAVE BAD AIR. The air in the room has more to do with the excellence or dullness of the meeting than most people suspect.
7. DON'T BE STEREOTYPED. The fact that a prayer meeting conducted in a certain way was a good prayer meeting does not prove that every prayer meeting should be conducted in just that way. It is well to do unexpected things; it wakes people up; but be sure that you do not do foolish things in your desire to do unexpected things.