Over the course of nearly forty-two years as an ordained minister, I have had the privilege of serving six very different congregations in terms of size, location, ethos and outlook. In spite of their differences, either at the start or near to the start of my time in each congregation, I have preached a sermon or a series of sermons on Acts 2:41-47, Luke’s picture of what a healthy gospel church looks like. I wanted each of these congregations to know what God’s agenda was for his church, the matters upon which they were to concentrate their time and energy.
One of the features of this first congregation of Christians is that “they devoted themselves … to prayer”. But that is not what Luke actually wrote. Not “they devoted themselves … to prayer”, but “they devoted themselves … to the prayers.” Bible commentators are unanimous in seeing Luke’s use of the definite article, the “the”, as indicating that he is not talking about praying privately as individuals but praying collectively as a church. Luke is not flagging up that a healthy gospel church prays, but that a healthy gospel church prays together.
In this healthy gospel church, praying together during public worship was important. In Acts 3:1, we are informed about how, at three in the afternoon, just before the evening sacrifice was about to be offered up, Peter and John headed to the Temple to join in the time of public prayer associated with it. These Christians still took part in these public prayer services, but now they saw the old prayers with new eyes, the eyes of who Jesus is and what Jesus achieved.
Also, in this healthy gospel church, praying together in more informal prayer meetings was important. In Acts 1:13-14, Luke gives us a snapshot of one of these informal prayer meetings. They met together to pray – “they … joined together … in prayer”. Praying together was a regular activity – “they … joined together constantly in prayer”. Everyone came and took part to these prayer meetings – “they all joined together constantly in prayer”. The church’s leaders, the eleven remaining apostles, were there. So were the women, and also new Christians – Jesus’ brothers who only started to believe in him after the resurrection.
Before we pat ourselves on the back because, unlike some churches, we have plenty of prayer during our services and have well-attended, many-participating prayer meetings, I want to pull us back with a question. Suppose someone from a totally non-church background turned up at one of our services or prayer meetings, what would the prayers prayed say about us? For example, would she conclude that we think that we are basically good people who do not really believe that we break God’s commandments every day in thought, word, action, attitudes and motives because she would hear little confession of a variety of specific sins and pleading for God’s forgiveness, cleansing and pardon in our prayers? (By the way, in my opinion, attaching to our prayers “and we ask this with the forgiveness of our sins” does not really constitute a prayer of confession.) Or would he work out from the topics we pray for in our prayer meetings that we are part of a denomination, part of the wider church in Scotland, and part of the global church? Would he only hear us praying for our own needs? Would he even wonder if we are a church at all because our prayers are almost totally about physical needs and very little to do with spiritual needs?
During some of the big battles that took place towards the end of World War I, one of the problems troops faced was knowing exactly where the frontline was. In the fluidity of a battle, the location of the frontline could change very quickly. Often soldiers arrived at what they thought was the frontline, but it was not. The frontline had shifted. Where is the church’s frontline? It is during our services of public worship when we pray and in our prayer meetings, where in Jesus’ name and with the Spirit’s help, we wield the God-given weapon of prayer, praying that God’s name might be hallowed, Jesus’ kingdom might advance as we and others are brought into and kept in it, Satan’s oppressive tyranny overthrown, and God’s will might be done throughout the world.
A healthy gospel church understands where the frontline of the battle is, so she prays together.
The vision of the Free Church of Scotland is to see a “Healthy Gospel Church for Every Community in Scotland.”
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