By Brian Stiller
Prayer is tough when taken seriously. Praying doesn’t come easily. I can preach, organize, write, exhort, study, and create fairly easily, but praying is a discipline. For most, prayer is not our first choice—getting something done is, which presumes praying is not.
Yet people everywhere are gathering together for prayer: in homes, before the business day, online, and in parliamentary groupings. Towns, cities, and regions have annual prayer breakfasts. Prayer gatherings are different and varied, noisy and silent, bombastic and reflective.
The World Prayer Assembly is a confluence of streams finding their way to a delta of prayer. This one I was at was hosted by South Koreans—well known for their rigorous early-morning prayer gatherings—and by Indonesian prayer groups. It was a four-day pep rally on prayer. The music, dance, drama, and unabashed enthusiasm were all inspiring.
The genesis of today’s world prayer was in 1984 in Seoul. Vonnette Bright, who with her husband, Bill Bright, founded Campus Crusade for Christ, led the Lausanne Movement in its late-twentieth-century prayer gathering. Here they were joined by the Global Day of Prayer, a focus triggered by Graham Powers of South Africa.
The underlying mood of the World Prayer Assembly matched my boyhood camp meetings. Joy captured the moment, for what could be more satisfying for those assembled from the troubled spots of the world? Those often living under the heel of a religious or secular majority, who are despised at best and persecuted at worst, are gathered in praise and prayer. I applauded with thousands as six hundred Christians from China stood to be welcomed. Those from Indonesia know what it means to pray in a Muslim-dominated country, where on some of its islands, Christians have recently been killed and churches burned.
It is within this burgeoning prayer movement that the gospel is unfolding in new ways. Sometimes its message is hopeful, other times disconcerting in the extreme. Even so, we are in the vortex of a spiritual windstorm. Spiritual activity creates it own spin-offs. Some of these spin-offs will raise concern by their style or theological assertions. However, it should not deter us from seeing the larger and more profound work of the Spirit.
Hunger for God and a Word-based faith know no bounds. I’m moved as I witness the breathing of the Spirit into peoples, regions, and vocational sectors. Where this all is going, we don’t know. What occurs in the process of spiritual resurgence is beyond our predictions. However, in this global meeting of prayer, I note five clusters defining today’s prayer movements.
People, so thirsty for spiritual life, will go anywhere to alleviate dryness. Who are these people? They come from all walks of life, from all kinds of life experiences, from profoundly activist religious groups, and from lifeless ones. I see old-line Protestants raised on the message “Be good and that will get you to heaven” desperate for a fresh infilling of the Spirit. Alternatively, I meet Roman Catholics and Orthodox eager to find new streams to quench their spiritual thirst. I also speak with Pentecostals tired of hype, looking for forms of spiritual journeys found often among the early church fathers, where quietness and silence brood in a mood to go deeper. Mainstream Evangelicals, whose spirituality is framed by doctrine, are prospects for the charismatic. In every group, at least some languish in the system at hand, longing not only for what is new but also for the Spirit life, breaking barriers of deadness and stopping the draining of the soul.
The drive to pray for the unreached has been part of our eschatology (doctrine of the end times) for hundreds of years. More recently, the focus has been on what has been called the 10/40 Window, the rectangular area of North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia between approximately 10 degrees north and 40 degrees north latitude. Heightened by 9/11 and increased awareness of the world of Islam, prayer groups have focused on reaching the unreached.
Living in Real Life-Challenging Faith
Religion offers the potential of two extremes: on the one side, a tightly scripted doctrine defining what to believe, and on the other, a watered-down faith, unsure of what to believe and what to ask for. Either extreme snuffs out life. In the wide middle is the offering of dynamic, life-changing, and God-intervening faith. We see this especially in the Global South, where people actually believe that what God promises, he will do. This may be for healing, solving troubling matters, or meeting physical or spiritual needs; they ask for an actual, observable action from God.
Engaging the Spirit World
Western minds often tend to operate as if faith were just an idea. The debate between liberal and conservative doctrine has been about ideas. The notion that spiritual war is waged in the “heavenlies” seems spooky. However, it doesn’t take many conversations with church leaders in Africa, Asia, or Latin America before you understand that their environment of spiritual advancement is within the spirit world. We may be uncomfortable in identifying dysfunction or disunity as something other than psychological, but Christians in much of the world think otherwise. It is for them a battle defined as spirit warfare, and is often associated with intercessory prayer.
Prayer takes on the life and ways of the peoples practicing it. In my first service in a South Korean Presbyterian church, I was convinced I had ended up in the wrong place. When the time came to pray, I was expecting someone to pray while everyone listened. Instead, as they closed their eyes, everyone prayed out loud at the same time. The noise was deafening. After a few minutes, the minister rang a small bell and everyone stopped.
Today, much of contemporary praying is closely linked to praise and worship, forms that fit the cultural world of those praying. While in the past, worship music in non-Western communities was often just a translation of older Western hymns and choruses, today indigenous music, dance, and forms have become the norm. These new words, melodies, and rhythms are eras away from the old forms.
Every sharp rise in spiritual interest carries with it extremes. Let’s be careful not to be too critical of what is new or different. We can too easily dismiss expressions of prayer outside of our experience. It matters that we evaluate what is going on historically. New waves of spiritual life have carried with them forms of heresy, but most in time do find equilibrium and normalcy. Listening to a text of biblical promise in a village void of clean water, and having no seed for spring sowing, will trigger prayer with different intensity and expectation than in a place where our biggest need is finding a new music minister.
As we made our way out from the prayer assembly, I knew we had felt the wind of the Spirit, heard the voice of our Lord, and embraced with joy and faith peoples from everywhere.
Brian Stiller is the global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance. His latest book, An Insider’s Guide to Praying for the World is your gift for subscribing now to Faith Today. Brian Stiller is the guest on the next EFC webinar, when we will interview him about his global perspective on evangelicalism.
*This blog is an adapted chapter from An Insider’s Guide to Praying for the World, and used with permission from Bethany House publishers.