Prayer and the Health of the Church

Church Growth Today
Christianity is growing faster today than it has at any time in its history.

This is a surprise to most Christians in the Global North (i.e. Western Europe, North America, and Australia). If anything, we tend to think of this as the great age of martyrdom within global Christianity and a time of waning influence on culture. People who hold to premillennial eschatology often portray our age as the time of the “Great Falling Away” preceding the coming of the Antichrist.

It is true that more Christians were martyred in the twentieth century than in the rest of church history combined, and the beginnings of the twenty-first century look even worse. Nonetheless, it is also true that the church in the Global South has been exploding. Consider the following statistics:

  • In Latin America in 1900, there were about 50,000 Protestants; today there are 64 million, 75% of whom are Pentecostals.
  • In China, It is estimated that 10,000 people per day are becoming Christians.
  • In India, Christians have gone from 2.5% of the population to 5.8% in ten years; in some regions, Christians make up 25% of the population.
  • In the Muslim world, prior to 1980, there were only two significant movements of conversion to Christianity in history, defined as 1000 baptisms or 100 new churches founded. Between 1980 and 2000, there were 11 such movements, and since 2000 there has been an additional 69.[i]
  • Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, has twelve times as many Christians today as it did 40 years ago.
  • 40 years ago, there were 200 Muslim Background Believers in Iran; today it is estimated that there are between 100,000 and 500,000, most of whom are Evangelicals; between 1996 and 2006 the number of Christians grew 39%.
  • In Africa in 1900, there were about 9 million Christians; by 2000, there were 380 million, and today Christians make up 40% of the African population.

The examples can be multiplied.

In contrast, Christianity in the Global North has stagnated at best. In many ways, it seems like it is in full retreat. The question is, why?

Why There and Not Here?
We can propose all sorts of reasons for the difference between the Global North and South. For example, we can blame the affluence of the West and the consumerist mentality that accompanies it, which presumably makes us less interested in the Gospel. The problem with that excuse is that China is also growing in affluence and consumerism, and yet the Gospel is spreading even among the wealthy. Or we could claim that it’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt, and that it is therefore easier to spread the Gospel in new territories. The problem here is that in many of the “easier” areas, evangelism and conversion can result in loss of family and friends, loss of livelihood, imprisonment, or even death. Or maybe we haven’t adapted our message and our means of communicating it enough to make it palatable to the general public, and so with better media, better programs, and a different emphasis, people will listen to us and we’ll start having more of an impact.

All of these explanations view the success or failure of the church’s mission in secular terms: the church’s impact depends first and foremost on the cultural and societal conditions, and the church’s failures come from not adopting the best methods or not adjusting the message to suit the culture’s interests, felt needs, and desires.

There are two problems with this way of thinking: it results in a secularized Gospel, and it ignores the spiritual dimensions of the church’s work, substituting techniques drawn from the culture for reliance on the Spirit.

The failures of these explanations point to the real explanation: Christians in the Global North are far more likely to rely on our own resources rather than prayer to get things done. In the Global South, they don’t have the resources to do any of that; they have no choice but to rely on God for their needs. Where we tend to make plans and pray that God would bless them, in the Global South, everything begins and ends with long, serious, intense prayer.

To put this in perspective, consider the prayer schedule of one network of churches and partner ministries in Anglophone West Africa, specifically in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Gambia, Northern Nigeria, and Ghana.

Prayer Calendar in Anglophone West Africa
To start the New Year, the churches spend 21 days starting on January 10 in corporate prayer and fasting. (In their fasts, they only eat the evening meal.)

On a daily basis, there are prayer chains at 40 prayer centers around the five countries; people take 90 minute shifts praying throughout the day.

Also each day, all ministry teams, offices and schools stop for 30 minutes of mid-day intercession and worship.

Throughout the year, the churches spend every Wednesday (or Thursday) in fasting and prayer and break their fast together in the evening with Bible study and corporate prayers.

They also spend a half or a whole night of prayer in every church one Friday every month.

The last day of every month, all Christians are encouraged to leave their houses and engage their neighbors in prayer for their needs.

Prayer Mobilizations (meetings to pray for open doors for disciple making) are held quarterly.

Upper Room Meetings are also held quarterly. These are prayer gatherings for the senior leaders in Disciple Making Movements (DMM)[ii] in the region.

Periodically, the churches hold Daniel Prayer Meetings focused on spiritual restoration, including for the church in the Global North.

The churches also hold Victory Weekend Retreats for people who are in spiritual battle. People receive personal attention at these retreats, which also includes intercession for prayer requests from around the world.

To finish the year, the churches spend the last three days of December in thanksgiving, prayer, and fasting.

In addition to the prayer calendar and the regular prayer events, a few thousand dedicated intercessors are on 24 hour call to fast and pray for urgent matters that come up in the life of the church.

Objects of Prayer
Along with seeing how much the Christians of West Africa pray, it is also instructive to see their prayer priorities, which are based on the things Jesus told us we should pray for. The most important of these is prayer for the advancement of God’s Kingdom. Specifically, they pray that God would raise up teams of disciple-makers and church planters, that he would open doors into regions that are closed to the Gospel, that they would be able to identify “people of peace” (i.e. people who will welcome them and give them an entry into new communities), and that new churches would be founded in those communities.

They also pray for God’s favor on other African ministries and churches that partner with them in disciple making, for blessing on their financial partners, and for the work of key disciple making pioneers and leaders around the world. They also pray regularly that Disciple Making Movements would start in the Global North to help restore the church here.

These are the constants. Special prayer needs always come up as well of course, and these are distributed throughout the month to all the churches and prayer centers.

Is it any wonder that God is at work there?

A Proposal
If we are going to see an improvement in the state of the church in the Global North, we have to stop doing things our way and stop relying on ourselves to get things done. We need to dedicate ourselves to prayer and learn to rely on God rather than on our programs, plans, and consultants.

Every major advance of the church and every revival throughout history was preceded by an often lengthy period of widespread, intense prayer. There is no reason to think that the church in America and Western Europe will recover in our day without a similar commitment to prayer.

So here’s a proposal heading into the New Year: spend one day a week in fasting and prayer about a particular issue that God has placed on your heart. It could be for the start of a Disciple Making Movement, or revival, or for the persecuted church, or abortion, or whatever other cause moves you. If you are new to fasting, I suggest starting small—skipping breakfast and lunch but drinking whatever you would like during the day—and increase the rigor over time. And don’t do this by yourself, but invite others to join you. This is far less than our brothers in Africa are doing right now, but it will be a start.

Although we cannot control the Spirit, if we dedicate ourselves to prayer and learn to make disciples the way Jesus told us to, we can trust that God will bless our efforts since he wants the growth of His Kingdom even more than we do. But He will only provide that growth if we rely on Him and do things His way.

[i] David Garrison, A Wind in the House of Islam, 18.

[ii] A Disciple Making Movement is a large scale, self-sustaining movement similar to a revival but more externally focused: whereas revivals occur within churches, DMMs emphasize outreach with a particular focus on obedience-based discipleship rather than simple conversion.

Next Steps

How about it—are you ready, finally, to begin a prayer discipline? Why not take up Glenn’s suggestion of one day per week of fasting and prayer, and use the resources below to help?

Further Reading:
Two books are recommended this week. On fasting, try the classic,
God’s Chosen Fast. On prayer, Touch the World through Prayer.



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