What do SBC Churches in the 21st Century Need Most in Order to Fulfill the Great Commission? [Part One] With Insights from E. M. Bounds’ Classic, Power Through Prayer

Whoever you are in whatever station you might be as you sit down to read this post, let’s play a game of pretend together. Let’s pretend that you are a young man in your mid-twenties. You have just graduated from seminary and have been called to your first pastorate at a small rural church. The church to which you have been called has plateaued numerically, with their only growth in the last decade coming through biological means. The church has baptized no one in two years and the people are beginning to forget that the hollowed out portion in the front right wall of the sanctuary (the baptistery) actually served a purpose at one time. As you prepare to begin your first pastorate in this church, you desire fervently to turn this church around so that they will once again fulfill the Great Commission. What would be the most important thing you would do to shepherd this church as they begin to reach their community again for Christ? Would you change the worship style to make the service more attractive to the lost? Would you host a revival or start an evangelistic outreach program (e.g. FAITH) to move their hearts towards evangelism? Would you trust that your expository style of preaching, not seen in this church in years, would be enough to turn the tide and begin reaching people?

How many of us when asked that question would honestly say that the most important thing we would do is pray? How many of us would say that prayer, more than new programs, more than a new sermon series, more than a new outreach event, more than…than…than…is the thing that is most needed if a dying church in our care is to regain her footing? Perhaps some of us would say it but how many of us would actually prove that we believe it in the way we allocate our time in the new pastorate?

A study by Barna , conducted from 2001-2003, indicates that younger pastors in particular may not have answered “prayer” to the hypothetical question posed in the above scenario. Younger pastors, Barna’s research states, are more likely (than older pastors) to describe themselves as skilled administratively but are less likely (than older pastors) to describe the churches they shepherd as having prayer (among other things) as a priority. Another study by Ellison Research, conducted in 2005, revealed that younger pastors (under 45 years of age) are less likely to report being “satisfied with their prayer life” and spend less time in prayer per day than older pastors

While the research cited above certainly does not prove the following statement, my fear is that younger pastors, understanding the challenges facing the contemporary church, will depend on nearly everything but prayer as they lead the church in the 21st century. Perhaps we will lean on our “administrative” skill and our ability to “pull off” successful events. Perhaps we will lean on our preaching prowess and trust that our charisma, or better, our faithful exposition, will draw the masses. But how many will lean on prayer above all else, realizing that nothing else they do will matter if it is not undergirded with the Spirit’s power?

I recently sat down and leafed through a classic book by E. M. Bounds (1835-1913) called Power Through Prayer that I had read a few years previously. I was challenged again by Bounds’ words just as I was when I first read them. Bounds’ message, though penned a century ago, is as apt today as the day the book was written. In the remainder of this post and in a subsequent post, I want to consider several of Bounds’ statements and apply them to the current needs in SBC life.

Near the mid-point of Power Through Prayer, Bounds writes, “It may be considered a spiritual axiom that, in every truly successful ministry, prayer is an evident and controlling force. It is evident and controlling in the life of the preacher, evident and controlling in the deep spirituality of his work” (40). Most would not object to Bounds’ statement here, provided that “truly successful ministry” is understood according to God’s definition of success. Naturally, one can draw a crowd with just about anything, but numerical growth is not proof that God is being glorified or that the true Gospel message is being preached (e.g. Joel Osteen).

One of the most powerful sections of Bounds’ book is his discussion of numerous examples of godly men down through the ages who were men of prayer and were in turn used to do mighty things for the Kingdom. Bounds mentions John Wesley who spent two hours a day in prayer. Bounds, citing the words of a close friend of Wesley, writes, “He thought prayer to be more his business than anything else, and I have seen him come out of his closet with a serenity of face next to shining” (44). Martin Luther is quoted as saying, “If I fail to spend two hours in prayer each morning, the devil gets the victory through the day. I have so much business I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer” (45). How unlike us this is! If we are busy, do we not take this as an excuse not to pray or at least not to pray as long? What did Luther understand that we have forgotten amidst our busyness? Another example given by Bounds is the Scottish preacher Robert Murray McCheyne who said, “I ought to spend the best hours in communion with God. It is my noblest and most fruitful employment, and it is not to be thrust into a corner. The morning hours, from six to eight, are the most uninterrupted and should be thus employed” (46). Another Scottish preacher, John Welch, who was known to spend a third of his day or more in prayer, was also given to frequent nighttime prayer. Bounds writes, “He kept a blanket near his bed so that he might wrap himself when he arose at night. His wife would complain when she found him lying on the ground weeping. He would reply, ‘O woman, I have the souls of three thousand to answer for, and I do not know how it is with many of them’” (46).

Perhaps the most powerful example is that of Dr. Adoniram Judson. Bounds’ comments on Judson are recorded here at some length:

Dr. Judson’s success in God’s work, as an American missionary in India, is attributable to the fact that he gave much time to prayer. He says on this point, ‘Arrange thy affairs, if possible, so that thou canst leisurely devote two or three hours every day, not merely to devotional exercises, but to the very act of secret prayer and communion with God. Endeavor seven times a day to withdraw from business and company, and lift up thy soul to God in private retirement. Begin the day by rising after midnight and devoting some time amid the silence and darkness of the night to this sacred work. Let the hour of opening dawn find thee at the same work. Let the hours of nine, twelve, three, six, and nine at night witness the same. Be resolute in His cause. Make all practical sacrifices to maintain it. Consider that thy time is short and that business and company must not be allowed to rob thee of thy God.’ (48)

Perhaps suspecting that many of his readers would describe Judson’s model, and the models of the other men Bounds surveyed, as unrealistic, Bounds follows the previous section with this charge to his readers:

Impossible! we say. Fanatical directions! Dr. Judson impressed an empire for Christ. He laid the foundations of God’s kingdom with imperishable granite in the heart of Burma. He was successful—one of the few men who mightily impressed the world for Christ. Many men of greater gifts and genius and learning than he have made no such impression. Their religious work resembles footprints in the sand. But, his work endures, as if it were engraved in stone. The secret of its profoundness and endurance is found in the fact that he gave time to prayer…No man can do a great and enduring work for God who is not a man of prayer. And, no man can be a man of prayer without giving much time to prayer (48-9).

Pastor, as you read the testimonies of the prayer lives of these great men, how does your prayer life stack up with theirs? If you are anything like me, the example of these men is humbling. As Bounds writes, “The Church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men” (8). May the example of those God has used mightily in the past move us to be better men, to be men of prayer. The title of the post asks, “What do SBC churches in the 21st century need most in order to fulfill the Great Commission?” The answer according to Bounds would be that churches in this century need the same thing churches in every century have needed—pastors who are men of prayer themselves and who lead their congregations to be people of prayer. Only such churches, wholly dependent on the Lord through prayer, will see God work in and through them to reach the nations for King Jesus!

–Scott S. Wilson

[This is part one of a two-part series. On Monday I will post part two, which will include more excerpts from E. M. Bounds’ work, Power Through Prayer. In part two, we will consider the areas of our church life that have been negatively impacted by our prayerlessness. Also, we will look briefly at the obstacles pastors will need to overcome if we are to become the men of prayer God has called us to be.]