When Thousands Gather for Prayer
At the World Prayer Assembly in Jakarta in May, I watched 9,000 people from 60 countries fill a marvelous facility owned by Christians in a Muslim country. On the last day, 100,000 joined at the Bung Karno Stadium.
Prayer is tough, at least when taken seriously. Nothing is harder for me. I can preach, organize, write, exhort, study and create, but praying does not come easily. When my feet hit the floorboards in the morning, sitting in reflection and prayer is not my first choice. Getting something done is, which presumes praying is not. That’s my mistake.
Yet everywhere I see people grouping together for prayer: in homes, before the business day; online; in parliamentary groupings; towns, cities, regions have their annual prayer breakfasts. Different and varied. Noisy and silent. Bombastic and reflective. Take your choice.
The World Prayer Assembly in Jakarta in May 2012 was a confluence of various streams finding their way into the delta of this remarkable moment. Hosted by South Koreans—well known for their rigorous early morning prayer gatherings—and Indonesia prayer groupings, it felt like a four-day prep rally on prayer. Its music, dance, drama and unabashed enthusiasm would please any self-respecting Pentecostal.
The genesis of this world prayer event was in 1984 in Seoul, South Korea. Vonnette Bright – wife of Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ – led the first major late 20th century prayer gathering hosted by the Lausanne Committee. However, it has been the Global day of Prayer, triggered by Graham Powers, a construction magnate of South Africa – that has pushed prayer to such a worldwide activity.
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, often living under the heel of a religious or secular majority who despise at best and persecute at worst – than to be gathered in praise and pray? I applauded with thousands as 600 Christians from China stood to be welcomed. Those from this region knew more than I do, what it means to meet in a Muslim dominated country where in some of its islands, Christians have been in very recent years – and occasionally still are – killed and churches burned down.
Workshops ran the gamut. Some bordered on triumphalistic; assuming that a few people here and there exerting influence of faith, was evidence we had won. Others are nurtured by the health and wealth heresy. Not surprising when people struggling to raise a family in poverty opt for a message that says God will supply all your need according to his richness in glory, by Christ Jesus.
It is within this burgeoning prayer movement that Christianity is unfolding in new ways. Sometimes its message is hopeful, other times disconcerting in extreme. I’ve seen it in Toronto as well as Jakarta. Some hijack this profound longing for prayer, making themselves prophets and apostles. Others fleece their flock – a.k.a. TV audiences – promising rewards of God’s good promises.
Even so, we are in vortex of a spiritual windstorm. The activity of the Spirit in global activity creates spin-offs, which while at times may seem disingenuous; it should not deter us from seeing the larger and more profound Spirit-work at play.
Hunger for God and a felt-based faith knows no bounds. I was raised in the world of Evangelical Protestant faith and its various spiritual forms. I’ve seen a lot. My father took over a deeply broken and hurting church denomination in Saskatchewan, divided by heresy, driven by outlandish forms and expectations of prayer. For 45 years I’ve served the Evangelical world where prayer matters, but not in the extreme. I watched “The Toronto Blessing” trigger concerns, enthusiasms and extra-biblical manifestations while providing for many an authentic understanding of the love of the Father.
While nothing much surprises me, I’m moved as I witness the breathing of the Spirit into peoples, regions and vocational sectors. Where this all goes, we don’t know. What occurs in the process of spiritual resurgence is beyond our predications. However, as I met in prayer with others, I noted five clusters defining today’s prayer movements.
• Existential thirst
People are so thirsty for spiritual life that they will go anywhere, to any group to alleviate their dryness.
Who are these people? 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 in heaven,” desperate for a fresh infilling of the Spirit. Alternatively, Roman Catholics anxious to find new streams. More and more I speak with Pentecostals tired of hype, looking for new forms of spiritual journeys found often among early church fathers and their communitities, where quietness and silence broods a mood to go deeper. Mainstream Evangelicals, rooted in modernity, spirituality framed by doctrine and cognitive propositions, are likely prospects for the Charismatic. There is no group where at least some languish in the system at hand, longing not just for what is new, but Spirit life that breaks barriers of deadness and stops the draining of the soul.
• Evangelistic passion
The drive to pray for the unreached has been part of the eschatology – doctrine of the end times – of the Church for over a hundred years. More recently, focus on what has been called the 10-40 window highlights prayer especially for the Muslim world. Heightened by 9/11 and increased awareness of the world of Islam, prayer groups have focused on reaching the unreached.
• Actualizing of faith
Religion offers the potential of two extremes: on one side, a tightly scripted doctrine defining what to believe and on the other, a religious system waffling at best, unsure of what to believe and what to ask for. Either snuffs life. In the wide middle is the offering of faith. By that, I don’t mean “belief” or “hope” but making real what is believed. The West locates faith in what we think is true – the cognitive. Waves of conversion in the Global South triggers faith, actualizing people into trusting for the real, the observable. It may be in healing or in meeting specific needs, but something other than mental affirmation.
• Engaging the spirit world
Flowing out of the above, western minds tend to operate as if faith were just an idea. The debate over 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 South America before you understand 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, within the realm of prayer, a battle defined as spirit warfare, often associated with intercessory prayer.
• Embracing culture
Prayer takes on the life and ways of the people practicing it. In my first service in a South Korean Presbyterian church, I was convinced I had ended up in the wrong church. When time came to pray, it wasn’t that someone did the praying and 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 communitities was often just a translation of older western hymns and choruses, today indigenous music, dance and forms have become the norm – words, melody line and rhythm eras away from the old forms.
Every sharp rise in spiritual interest carries with it extremes. I’m careful not to default to a critical analysis, which easily dismisses expressions or reasoning outside of my learned biblical logic. While it matters that we evaluate what is going on, historically, new waves of spiritual life have carried with them heresies and extremes, which most often in time find equilibrium and normalcy. Listening to a text of biblical promise in a village void of clean water and no seed for spring sowing, triggers a prayer life with a different emphasis and expectations than coming from a place where the biggest need is locating a new music minister.
As we made our way out from the prayer assembly, I knew we had felt the wind of the Spirit, embracing peoples everywhere.
Brian C. Stiller, Global Ambassador