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

[This post is part two in a two-part series. Part one was posted on Wednesday, October 22nd at Baptist21. Please check it out before reading on as this post will probably not make much sense to those who haven’t read the first one!].

The great need of our time, as I suggested in part one of this series, is for praying pastors. If many pastors, as I suspect, are falling prey to prayerlessness (or very little praying in comparison with the great pastors and missionaries of previous eras), what will be the negative consequences for 21st century SBC churches? What will happen to us if we do not rediscover the importance of prayer? Let me suggest just three negative results of prayerlessness, although many more could be elaborated. Along the way, just as in the previous post, I will incorporate insights from E. M. Bounds’ masterpiece, Power Through Prayer. Bounds’ words will help us to avoid these three negative consequences if we would only heed them.

If 21st century SBC churches do not rediscover the importance of prayer:

I. We will have programs without power.

Listen to the words of E. M. Bounds on this subject, remembering that they were written a hundred years ago!

We are continually striving to create new methods, plans, and organizations to advance the church. We are ever working to provide and stimulate growth and efficiency for the gospel. The trend of the day has a tendency to lose sight of the man. Or else he is lost in the workings of the plan or organization…The Church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men. (8)

What the church needs today is not more or better machinery, not new organizations or more or novel methods. She needs men whom the Holy Spirit can use—men of prayer, men mighty in prayer. The Holy Spirit does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men—men of prayer! (9)

Oftentimes at the staff meetings of our churches, comments will be made like, “If we could just get AWANAs up and running, then we would reach families with young children,” or, “If we just had some more contemporary music, then we could draw in the lost.” Of course, music and ministry programs must be discussed but let us never forget that such things are not our greatest need! The church does not ultimately need “more or novel methods” but “men mighty in prayer”! We can have all the programs in the world, but if we are not a people of prayer we are trusting in man-made devices. Our growth, if any, will be hollow, and our successes, if any, will be short-lived. The church needs ministers who believe more in the Holy Spirit than in the latest children’s program, the latest youth camp, or the next great speaker for the churchwide revival. Programs without prayer are powerless to effect eternal change in the lives of our people. SBC churches in the 21st century will not bring revival in America or reach the nations for Christ with powerless programming. Only a work of God can accomplish such feats, and we know from Scripture that God moves in response to the prayers of His people!

II. We will have sermons without the Spirit.

Bounds writes that for many preachers, prayer can become a “performance” only done in public.

The pulpit of the day is weak in praying. The pride of learning is in opposition to the dependent humility of prayer. In the pulpit, prayer is all too often only official—a performance for the routine of service (13).

What is needed for Spirit-enabled preaching, Bounds suggests, is prayer conducted in the prayer-closet before the preacher ever stands to preach. Without preaching and sermon-making bathed in prayer, the sermon is actually deadening to the spiritual vitality of those who hear it.

Preaching which kills is prayerless preaching. Without prayer, the preacher creates death and not life. The preacher who is feeble in prayer is feeble in life-giving forces…There is and will be professional praying, but professional praying helps the preaching to do its deadly work. Professional praying chills and kills both preaching and praying (24).

Even sermon-making—incessant and taxing as an art, as a duty, as a work, or as a pleasure—will engross, harden, and estrange the heart from God by neglect of prayer. The scientist loses God in nature. The preacher may lose God in his sermon (29).

Bounds also warns that many things masquerade as effective preaching, but without prayer, even orthodox, earnest sermons will have a deadening effect on their hearers.

There may be tears, but tears cannot run God’s machinery. Tears may be nothing but superficial expression. There may be feelings and earnestness, but it is the emotion of the actor and the earnestness of the attorney. The preacher may be moved by the kindling of his own sparks, be eloquent over his own exegesis, and earnest in delivering the product of his own brain, but the message of his words may be dead and fruitless (18)

The preaching which kills may be, and often is, orthodox, dogmatically, inviolably orthodox…But orthodoxy, clear and hard as a crystal, suspicious and militant, may be nothing but the letter, well-shaped, well-named, and well-learned—the letter which kills. Nothing is so dead as a dead orthodoxy…Letter-preaching may be eloquent, embellished with poetry and rhetoric, sprinkled with prayer, spiced with sensation, illuminated by genius, and yet these may merely be the chaste, costly mountings—the rare and beautiful flowers—which coffin the corpse (22).

Bounds states that what is needed for powerful, life-giving preaching is prayer.

The character of our praying will determine the character of our preaching. Light praying will make light preaching. Prayer makes preaching strong, gives it an anointing, and makes it stick (31).

Talking to men for God is a great thing, but talking to God for men is still greater. He who has not learned well how to talk to God for men will never talk well—with real success—to men for God (31).

The preachers who gain mighty results for God are the men who have prevailed in their pleadings with God before venturing to plead with men. The preachers who are the mightiest in their closets with God are the mightiest in their pulpits with men (36).

In one of the quotations above, Bounds mentions how praying gives to preaching its “anointing.” Later in the volume, in a chapter entitled “Under the Dew of Heaven,” Bounds includes the following quotation from Charles Spurgeon on anointing.

One bright blessing which private prayer brings down upon the ministry is an indescribable and inimitable something—an anointing from the Holy One….If the anointing which we bear comes not from the Lord of hosts, we are deceivers, since only in prayer can we obtain it. Let us continue instant, constant, fervent in supplication. Let your fleece lie on the threshing floor of supplication till it is wet with the dew of heaven (73).

In contemporary SBC life, preachers are incessantly debating about preaching. We ask questions like: “Should we preach with or without notes?”, “Should we preach topically or expositionally?”, “Should we stand behind a pulpit or sit down on a stool?”, “Should we incorporate video?”, “Should we wear a suit or a Hawaiian shirt?”, and “Should we provide an outline with blanks?” Some of these questions are important; some are probably not that important. But more important than all of these questions is this question, “Are you preparing yourself to preach by spending time alone with God in prayer?” Let us remember Bounds’ warning that we cannot speak “to men for God” until we have spoken “to God for men.”

III. We will have pastors without purity.

The statistics on moral failure among SBC pastors is alarming. I have been told often during my days at seminary that most who leave seminary will not finish their working years in ministry. Many of those who leave ministry at some point do so because of impurity or unfaithfulness of some kind. Do we not realize that one of the primary contributing factors to the moral slide among ministers is our neglect of personal prayer? Bounds writes:

Our great lack is not in the head culture, but in heart culture. Not lack of knowledge, but lack of holiness is our sad and telling defect—not that we know too much but that we do not meditate on God and His Word, and watch and fast and pray enough…Can ambition that lusts after praise and position preach the Gospel of Him who made Himself of no reputation and took on the form of a servant (67-8)?

A holy life would not be so rare or so difficult a thing if our devotions were not so short and hurried. A Christian temper, in its sweet and passionless fragrance, would not be so alien and hopeless a heritage if our closet stay were lengthened and intensified. We live shabbily because we pray meagerly (99-100).

“OK,” you say, “we do not want ‘programs without power,’ ‘sermons without the Spirit,’ and ‘pastors without purity.’ What will it take to overcome our tendency towards prayerlessness in order to avoid these negative results?” Let me mention two quick encouragements as a partial answer to this question.

First, we will need to fight against laziness because prayer is hard spiritual work. You probably noticed in part one of this two-part series of posts that many of the great prayer warriors of the past used their morning hours (among other times) for prayer. Bounds writes against wasting the morning hours in sleep:

Morning listlessness indicates a listless heart. The heart which is lax in seeking God in the morning has lost its relish for God…A desire for God which cannot break the chains of sleep is a weak thing and will do little good for God. The desire for God that stays far behind the devil and the world at the beginning of the day will never catch up (52)

Also related to this theme of “laziness,” Bounds writes elsewhere on the cost that is required for earnest prayer.

Spiritual work is taxing work, and men are loath to do it. Praying—true praying—costs an outlay of serious attention and time, which flesh and blood do not relish. Few people are made of such strong fiber that they will make a costly outlay when inferior work will pass just as well in the market…To be little with God is to be little for God (98).

I wish I had more time to write on the above quotation. I think this is one of the primary things that keep us from prayer. It is hard work, and, as Bounds writes, “Inferior work will pass just as well in the market.” Many ministers fail to pray because they believe their people will never know about that area of their lives. “My people will notice,” they think, “whether all the points of my sermon are alliterated and whether the revival meetings go smoothly, but will they know if I fail to pray for them?” What the pastor must bear in mind is that the hard work of prayer is worth it! In fact, none of the remainder of his toil will amount to anything without this expenditure of effort in the prayer closet! What good will a well-crafted sermon or a “smooth” revival service do without the power of the Spirit? The people in the prayerless pastor’s church may never know of his prayerlessness, but they will be the worse spiritually because of his neglect.

Second, (and somewhat obviously), in order to overcome prayerlessness we must reprioritize prayer. We must realize that prayer, more than programs, talent, and personality, is what is most needed in the church today. Bounds’ comments on this subject will serve as a fitting conclusion to this discussion.

We do not need men who arouse sensational stirs by novel devices, nor those who attract by a pleasing entertainment. But, we need men who can stir things, work revolutions by the preaching of God’s Word, and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, cause revolutions which change the whole current of events. Natural ability and educational advantages do not figure in this matter. But, capacity for faith, the ability to pray, the power of thorough consecration, and ability of self-littleness are all important factors (103).

Prayer is out of date—almost a lost art. The greatest benefactor this age could have is the man who will bring the preachers and the Church back to prayer (101-2).

–Scott S. Wilson

A free online version of E. M. Bounds, Power Through Prayer, is available here.