On prayer and the ministry of the word

the pastor at prayerI’ve just had the wonderful privilege of spending a few days away at a conference for Church Leaders, and during this time The Lord has continued to challenge me in the area which has been on my heart for a while now and so I want to share a few thoughts on the minister’s devotional life.

Nothing I write is anything other than painfully obvious, but I write it so that I can continue to remind myself of these central and vital truths.

When the early church hit its first major problem – around the distribution of food to the needy – the Apostles found that they couldn’t do all the jobs that were necessary in a growing and active church. There was a need for godly leaders to take on some of the practical responsibilities, but what I am interested in today is the way they defined their own priorities:

[We] will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

(Acts 6:4)

In my particular constituency of the Christian world I think you could sometimes be forgiven for thinking that they actually said “We will give our attention to the ministry of the word.” Or perhaps, “We will give our attention to the ministry of the word, oh, and pray a bit.” But I think that what they actually said gives both aspects equal weighting. And find it instructive that prayer is front-loaded since this is (in my experience) the harder bit to do.

Which is RIDICULOUS.

In what, possible, arrogant and self-confident world do I think that I can possibly minister the word of God without prayer? How can I do anything without prayer? Prayer is an expression of my absolute dependence on God in all things. Prayer is my admission that I can do nothing on my own. Prayer is the evidence that my God is real and worth talking to and remarkably takes an interest in what I am doing.

And yet prayer is hard, and humbling. I don’t like admitting I need help. It challenges my pride and self-reliance. And besides – what is there to show for it? I’ve got such a long list of things to do, I don’t have time to pray. Really?

This is, so often, the idiocy of my heart, and this, it seems is the lesson The Lord is trying to teach me again and again. There is nothing more important for a pastor than to have a prayer-filled relationship with God. As we were hearing on this conference – we need to remember that we are sheep before we are shepherds. Just as in a plane crash you put your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else – so the pastor must feed himself on the bread of life before seeking to feed others. The alternative is dangerous, ineffective and dishonouring to God.

So let’s return to Acts 6:4. Why, as a pastor, do I find it so difficult to go off and spend a morning in prayer? Shouldn’t that be a priority? Isn’t that essential? But what would the congregation think? We’re paying him – and he’s off having a walk in the forrest (or wherever you like to pray) on ‘work time’. Do you ever think that? Or hear that? And yet, I think for most of us this kind of accusation is mainly in our heads. I think most of our congregation would be delighted to think that we were engaged in wrestling with God for them, for our lost world, and for ourselves. They would long that their pastor has a close walk with God and is able to feed them with living bread. We might not be in the study, or meeting with a church member, there might not be anything visibly to show for the time – but I have a sense they would soon recognise the difference in the life in our ministry.

So I’m writing to myself. I need to devote myself to prayer. Unless my ministry of the word flows out of that it is only the half truth. If we want our preaching, teaching and ministering to have power then that needs to come from Him. And so we need to be praying. We know this in the moments of crisis – the really obvious times when we can’t cope with things ourselves. WHen the problem seems to big, the solution impossible. But the truth is that is ALWAYS the case.

To help me cultivate my prayer life, I’ve just started reading Tim Keller’s new book – Prayer: Awe and Intimacy With God. I also found Paul Millar’s A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World very helpful. What have you found helpful? Does anyone else face the same internal battles?  And would you pray for me?

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