Pastor John, you’re a compelling example to a lot of us of a man who prays daily and prays corporately in his church. So how do you structure your prayer life? That’s the question today from a listener, a pastor named Phil. “Hello, Pastor John! I’m a new pastor, and God has been teaching me a lot about prayer through good books by Tim Keller (‘Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God’) and Don Carson (‘Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation’). My question for you is particularly when you were serving as a senior pastor, how often during your day did you set aside time to deliberately focus on prayer? How often did you pray for the people of your church? Did you attempt to pray for everyone by name? Did you have a system to help you pray for everyone? Did you prioritize church leaders? I’m excited to participate in God’s work through prayer, and I’m learning how important it is that I make it my first priority. But there are so many details that I have not figured out.”
Answering questions like this is always dangerous, first, because Jesus said to go into your closet and pray rather than standing on a corner and boasting how long you pray and how much you pray and how well you pray, because the praise of man is going to be your reward. You won’t get anything from God in that case, so answering a question like this could really put me in spiritual jeopardy.
Second, it’s dangerous because (this is practically more important for the listener to grasp) any glimpse into my life — the biographical glimpse into my 33 years in the pastorate — is going to be in a sense misleading because any season (even a long one, say ten or fifteen years) that I may describe doesn’t really describe every other season.
So I may say, “I prayed like this between the years fifteen and thirty.” Well, it might have been a total wash in the first fifteen, or just the other way around. I might describe some nice, 5-year chunk where everything was going great, and the other 25 years were awful.
So when you read famous statements like “Luther prayed for three hours,” well, you know that’s just one little, tiny slice of his life that somebody wrote down. That’s not every day and every season, when his kids were every imaginable age.
All that to say, take what I’m about to say with a very large grain of salt. I will try to put to death my desire for your praise, and I will try to be conservative in my self-estimation of how much I prayed or how well I prayed during my pastoral ministry.
I would say, like most pastors, I have never felt satisfied with my pattern or intensity of prayer. But you asked, and I will go ahead. The battle is just as strong at 71 as it’s ever been. I need the prayer as much now as I ever did, and so I will speak from the season when I was a pastor. But I don’t want to give the impression that the battle is not still raging.
“Whatever you do, don’t let go of the life of prayer. Seek to deepen it and saturate it with the word of God.”
The pattern of prayer that I look back on with the greatest sense of satisfaction was a season, maybe 10 or more years out of the 33. It was similar in other times, but this was a pretty repetitive pattern for a pretty long season, and it looked like this.
I have always prayed and read my Bible early in the morning by myself in a devotional, meditative way, turning the Bible into prayer as part of that time for my soul and for others. Then I would have a focused time on particular needs that I wanted to pray about. I’ll come back in a minute to say how I did that. The day begins with an hour with God alone in his word so that I can face him with his Spirit surging in me.
Then there were five prayer meetings every week that I attended, with each lasting thirty minutes: Friday morning, 6:30 a.m. to 7:00 a.m.; Tuesday morning, 6:30 a.m. to 7:00 a.m.; Wednesday night, 5:30 p.m., before the evening events; Saturday evening thirty minutes before the worship service; and Sunday morning at 8:15 a.m. before the worship service.
So those were five thirty-minute prayer meetings, and those meetings were attended by anywhere from 6 to 25 people, I would say (rarely more, rarely less). There was no Bible teaching, no sharing of prayer requests. (I really discourage sharing of prayer requests because they eat up all the time to pray.) We took thirty seconds or a minute to read a short passage of Scripture, and then we went straight to prayer. When the thirty minutes was up, I closed or somebody closed in prayer, and we went about our way.
It’s amazing how long a prayer meeting can endure in the life of a church if you start it and stop it on time, and only pray instead of talking about prayer. That prayer, by the way, on Friday morning, I still go to, and it’s been going since 1988. I’ve scarcely missed a Friday morning prayer meeting except when I’m out of town.
In addition to these formal prayer meetings, the weekly staff meeting always began not just with a prayer, but a season of praying for each other and the church. I really encourage pastors to lead meetings this way. Don’t open in prayer. Open in a season of prayer. Let it be a lingering season. It may only be fifteen minutes, but just opening in prayer and then charging into your business doesn’t say the right thing about where your trust is.
I remember one time I failed to do this. I was just dismissing the meeting — called a “deacon’s meeting” back then, consisting of about twelve guys — and a deacon said, “Can I just share something?” He broke down in tears and said his dog had died that afternoon. Can you believe this? He wanted to tell everybody his dog had died, and he was crying, and I thought to myself when I got home, “Why didn’t I open in a season of prayer and say, ‘Anything urgent going on in your lives? We got to do business here, but anything urgent?’”
Every January we had a week of prayer with an all-night prayer meeting on Friday. We would also have prayer meetings every day, morning and noon. I went to all those during that week of prayer.
Besides all that, I tried to pray without ceasing, which simply means as often as I could remember. Over and over again during the day I would roll my burdens onto the Lord, asking for his help before every meeting, before every conversation, before every phone call. The air you breathe is, “Help. Help. I trust you.” Then you call some promise to mind.
For Your People
In answer to the question whether I prayed for all the people in the church by name, the answer is no. I never did that. There were 700 members when I came to the church. Even if there were only 350 people in attendance, I never made that effort. It seemed to me it would become so mechanical, rushing through those names, however long it took. So I didn’t do that. Maybe I was wrong in that.
“What the church needs, what the world needs, is men who have been in the presence of Christ.”
One thing Noël and I did do for twenty years was, once a year, we would invite people to our house to an evening called Missions in the Manse. It had to do with world missions, and I enticed people on Sunday by saying, “If you come and you’re interested in pursuing missions, Noël and I will put your name on a list and pray for you by name every day for the rest of the year.”
We did that for twenty years, which means we were pretty much praying all the time for these people. Sometimes there were sixty and sometimes there were a hundred people on this list. We read them out loud to the Lord on our knees at the bed, at night, and prayed for them as a group.
If you wonder how I decided to pray during that morning hour, the answer is I prayed in concentric circles. I still do this to this day. The most needy person I know is John Piper. So I pray for John Piper’s soul because if I lose the faith, I can’t pray for anybody. Then I widen my circle to my family. Then I widen the circle to staff and elders at church.
Today, it’s different. I pray for desiringGod.org and the faculty over it. I pray for Bethlehem College & Seminary. But at this point back in the pastoral days, I was still praying for people by name, so the elders by name and the staff by name.
After that came our missionaries and the church as a whole — all the members. Then I would pray for our ministries, then the city, then unreached peoples, and so on. You get the idea of what “concentric circles” means. We all know that on any given day you may be so clobbered and overwhelmed by some desperate need in your family or in your church or in your city that that need consumes virtually all the time. I’m not presenting any idealized picture of this happening without exception every day. Just usually.
I think one of the most practical things I could suggest to pastors (and really to anybody) is that every year or so a pastor should read a book on prayer. Not so much a technical, exegetical, apologetic book, but a book relating to the experiences of great men and women of prayer telling their stories.
“The most needy person I know is John Piper. So I pray for my soul. If I lose the faith, I can’t pray for anybody.”
We need models to show us what is possible and beautiful because most of us probably are living at a level far below what we could be living in power if we were inspired by those who were ahead of us spiritually. Year after year, I was inspired by such books. In fact, the book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals was based on a series of articles, and that whole series of articles was inspired by reading E.M. Bounds’s Power Through Prayer. I read that my first year in the pastoral ministry. It set me on an amazing course that I will give thanks to God for all my days.
Cling to Prayer
Whatever you do, don’t let go of the life of prayer. Seek to deepen it and saturate it with the word of God. Don’t assume that you just heard from me the best model. Compared to some church patterns in the world, my pattern is pitiful. It’s just pitiful. And compared to others, it was significant. But don’t assume it was ideal.
Seek the Lord. He may have something very different and better for you, the church, and the world. This is one of the reasons I’m so passionate about pressing the prayer life into pastors.
The church and the world do not need more efficient, psychologically savvy, culturally informed, managerially skilled executives in the pastorate. We don’t need any more of that. What the church needs, what the world needs to taste, is men in whose presence Christ has been. Men of God who have the savor of life to life and death to death because they’ve been in the presence of the aroma of Christ.