The Glorious Inefficiency of Prayer

Has there ever been greater pressure not to pray?

Not just in private but even in church life, the pressure not to pray is approaching fever pitch. We’re all watching the clock. Our overbusy, overcommitted lives pressure us to get down to business in our Sunday services and gatherings, in our leadership meetings and small groups. When do we linger together in God’s presence? Do we ever wait together for him to work?

What Do We Do Next?

Inauspiciously, a prayer meeting in Antioch in Acts 13:1–3 became one of the most important moments in the history of the world. With their prayers and fasting, the church leaders said, God, we want your provision, not our small plans. We want your abundance, not our small-mindedness. We want more than we know how to ask, more than we can think, more than we could expect, more than we can dream. We want you, God. We’re not satisfied with our abilities and experience and what we can plan on our own and do apart from you. We want you and your leading. We don’t want to lean on our own understanding.

The Antioch church had been founded by nameless Christians who ventured to share the gospel with Greek speakers (Acts 11:20). Mass conversions followed (Acts 11:21, 24), the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to help with the pandemonium, and soon he needed help from Paul (Acts 11:25–26). “For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people” (Acts 11:26). The movement became so vibrant that others took notice and gave it a name. Here in Antioch “the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26).

“We want more than we know how to ask, more than we can think, more than we could expect, more than we can dream. We want you, God.”

In fact, fed by Paul’s and Barnabas’s teaching, these Christians soon become healthy enough to think beyond their own locale. They hear a famine is coming and “send relief to the brothers living in Judea . . . sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:29–30). Not only are they healthy enough to care for others, but they have become secure enough to release their grip on Barnabas and Saul. Once Barnabas and Saul return after completing their journey (Acts 12:25), the leaders begin to ask, “Now what?” Antioch is thriving as a light to the Gentiles. Antioch now has an embarrassment of riches in its leaders, and then two great leaders return. They wonder, “What do we do now?”

Why Did They Fast?

What might we do today at a juncture like this? Perhaps form a planning committee or bring in a consultant. Get our best minds in a room and come up with a plan. But what do we find them doing in Antioch? “They were worshiping the Lord and fasting” (Acts 13:2).

The Holy Spirit is about to speak to them, and when he does, it’s not because they were carrying out their normal routine. They were fasting for a particular reason. Godly fasting always has a purpose. They were seeking God in special measure. Fasting is an unusual measure, expressing special need for God. You don’t “fast” by accident or without purpose. That’s just called going hungry. Fasting has a purpose.

What was the reason in Acts 13? What we know from verse 1 is that this church has a wealth of leaders, in general (“prophets and teachers”) and by name (“Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul”). And they already have a record of leaving home to help other cities (Acts 11:29–30). Perhaps these leaders sense the imbalance between the riches of the teaching they enjoy in Antioch and the paucity of able leadership elsewhere. They want to share the wealth.

So, they worship and fast, to seek God’s direction at this critical moment. They say, in effect, we will not be content with our own planning and what we can dream up on our own. We want more than we can ask or think (Ephesians 3:20). We want direction from God almighty, who makes foolish the wisdom of the world (1 Corinthians 1:20). We want guidance from the God who guides heaven’s armies. We want counsel from the one whom none can counsel (Romans 11:34).

Instead of simply strategizing with their own common sense and doing the next thing in their own strength, they worship and fast and wait for God to direct them. They embrace the glorious inefficiency of prayer in pursuit of heavenly effectiveness.

Earthly Inefficient, Heavenly Effective

From an earthly perspective, and especially through modern eyes, this seems like such an inefficient way to lead. Instead of consulting conventional wisdom, crafting plans, and acting on them, the teachers in Antioch wait on God. Waiting with worship. Waiting with fasting. Waiting with prayer. Wasting time from a human standpoint. How inefficient to linger in prayer when there’s so much planning and work to do!

Unless God is on his throne. Unless he hears. Unless he cares. Unless he stands ready to lead and guide and empower his church by his Spirit through the glorious inefficiency of prayer. They sought God’s leading in Antioch, and he answered. “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the (missionary) work to which I have called them’” (Acts 13:2). And the glorious inefficiency of prayer again proved gloriously effective. God changed the course of history as he directed them.

Why Teachers Lead the Church

The call to embrace the glorious inefficiency of prayer lands especially on the leaders of the church, as it did at Antioch. Christ calls his undershepherds to lead his church not in the most efficient manner possible, but with heavenly effectiveness — which makes teaching (hearing from God) and prayer (waiting on him) not just wise but essential, however inefficient they may feel.

This commission, among others, makes the church fundamentally different than most other organizations in society. God puts a plurality of teachers in charge of his church. Not administrators. Not sergeants. Not polished executives. He chooses teachers — often idealistic, often impractical, often inefficient by corporate standards. They are called “elders” at times (Acts 20:17; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1), “overseers” at others (Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 3:1; Titus 1:7), and even “pastor-teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). And God also gave a second office called “deacon” (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8–13), for qualified men to help the often inefficient pastor-teachers get things done. The leading office in the church, however, is the gloriously inefficient teachers, not the practically savvy administrators.

God Gives Breakthroughs

“God can do more in five seconds than we could have done in five years.”

This is God’s design for his church. His calling on his “prophets and teachers” (Acts 13:1), and every breathing member of his body, is to prioritize heavenly effectiveness over earthly efficiency. And heavenly effectiveness often makes the world’s organizational wisdom look foolish (1 Corinthians 1:18–31). But God gives his church pastor-teachers to remember, and congregants to remind them, that God can do more in five seconds than we could have done in five years. As one veteran pastor says so well,

Life has many dungeon cells, and stone walls, to hinder our joy and fruitfulness. Some of them are meant to fall down in five years. Others in five seconds. Whether it is the patient endurance to press on with joy, or the breakthrough in the twinkling of an eye, God has appointed prayer as the key. (John Piper, “What God Can Do in Five Seconds”)

Which doesn’t excuse the failure to plan with diligence, wrack our brains for ideas and strategies, give ourselves to vigorous discussion and argument, and labor faithfully. But it does mean that the church proceeds differently than the world. We worship and fast and pray. We plead, like Moses, to God, “Unless your presence goes with us, do not bring us up from here” (see Exodus 33:15). We do indeed get up off our knees and work in the strength God supplies (1 Peter 4:11). But first we make sure we have been to our knees.