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Well, I had planned to write this as a Sunday note last week (20th January 2013). However, that week, I got caught up in writing a few thoughts on the issue of “God versus Science” and also a post on my experiences in a particularly “interesting” church movement. So in the event I did not actually write a “Sunday Note” last Sunday. Since then, as is so predictable with these things, another Church has posted notice about a 24/7 prayer event. So I really want to make it clear beforehand that this is a post that I have been meaning to write for a while.
What is 24/7 prayer?
24/7 prayer is a prayer movement where people in a church will unite to offer prayer up around the clock, so that each hour of the day and night will be covered – or at least that would be the aim. So there would usually be a schedule, and different people in the church can tick off whichever hours they would like to cover. So this does not mean that everyone prays through the whole day, rather that individuals choose which of the hours they would like to pray. And then the prayer itself would usually take place in a designated “prayer room”, where there will be lots of colourful and comfy beanbags and also pieces of paper, post-it notes and coloured felt tip pens for people to get creative with writing out their prayers, and sticking up the pieces of paper on the wall for other people to see and be inspired by.
My interaction with 24/7 prayer
My first interaction with 24/7 prayer was in my final year(?) at uni. This was a while ago now, so I’m a little hazy on the details – I think it may have been a joint effort between a number of churches, of which my own church was one, and a few student groups. I know it was either my second or my third year – or both? ( I do remember cycling home at crazy hours of the night though – perhaps it was actually my second year…sincerely, I’ve forgotten!) So that was my first ever interaction with 24/7 prayer. From what I remember, the movement was quite young then, or it had not gained much traction. Now it does seem to have grown a little bigger.
So what about it?
Spiritually speaking, prayer is my thing. Ironically it was while I was at uni that I first started getting serious about prayer, that is that I finally decided to start taking it seriously. 24/7 prayer is a good thing, in that anything that gets people to pray is a good thing. However, I also believe that it can often amount to little more than a gimmick.
This is what I mean. There was one church I was part of where the pastor himself effectively cancelled the weekly prayer meeting. And then the leadership board also effectively hamstrung many efforts that the members might have made to pray individually. (If I go into details then the members of the church would know that I am talking about them. So it’s probably best not to go into details.) And then after effectively stamping out regular, ongoing collective prayer efforts in the church, the leadership board created a splashy 24/7 prayer event. To me this is like if a husband ignores his wife or is rude to her throughout the year, then on Valentine’s Day presents her with a flamboyant bouquet of roses, and expects her to be ecstatic. For this gesture to be meaningful to the wife, it has to be built on a a foundation of sustained love and consideration that is nurtured tenderly throughout the year. In the same way, to me having an anaemic or non-existent church prayer life throughout the year and then putting on one big event for a couple of weeks or even a month is essentially meaningless. (And then this particular church is very big on “branding”. So they will not pay any attention to fostering organic, quiet church grown prayer, but will go out of their way to splash a big brand over their church bulletins, if this could be a way of attracting people into their church, or raising the brand-awareness of their church. And yes, this is the state of the Christian Church in the 21st Century, that someone has actually managed to brand the concept of prayer.)
But then when I really thought about it, a typical 24/7 event in an essentially prayerless church would not even equate to an inconsiderate husband making a flashy Valentine’s Day gesture. 24/7 prayer sounds quite impressive, however it is not as if everyone prays for all those 24 hours. Rather it is simply that the church as a unit maintains prayer for 24 hours. From experience, where the event takes place over a week or more, many of those early morning hours would remain unclaimed in the schedule, and many of those hours which were claimed on paper would remain uncovered in practice. If on average we were to say that each hour of the day were covered by one individual, then that means that a church of 200+ individuals is collectively offering up 24 hours of prayer over the course of one day of the event. If we divided 24 hours by 200 people (members of the church) then that means that on average, each member of the church would be praying for a total of just over 7 minutes per day. Even if we rounded that up to 10 minutes, without wanting to get legalistic, and state how many hours a Christian “should” pray, a prayer life of 10 minutes per day for an established Christian is simply not a prayer life. For me, this is the equivalent of the inconsiderate husband making the Valentine’s Day presentation of a single rose – or even a single rose petal.
If we were to be more generous, and say that on average each hour of the event would be covered by 4 people praying, then that would certainly be better (now closer to 30 minutes of prayer per person in the church per day, when rounded up). However, even that would hardly be reason for us to start congratulating ourselves. That would amount to a good start.
Do I need to explain why as Christians we should be pursuing passionate prayer lives right throughout the year? Prayer is the power of Christian life. Prayer is where we bring ourselves before God to be constantly moulded more and more into the image of Christ. It is also by our prayers that we can affect and impact the world around us. Remember that in life it is what we do every day, or all the time, that truly defines who we are. If we want to think of ourselves as prayerful people then we need to pray every day. If we want to think of our church as a prayerful church then as a church we need to collectively immerse ourselves in prayer all the time, not just once a year, or once a quarter.
Limitations to 24/7 prayer
Logistically, I can imagine that managing the 24/7 schedule would be difficult. Even using modern technology, how do you ensure that everyone has access to the latest, updated schedule, so that no-one chooses hours that have already been chosen? Would you work via a website, or email? Perhaps it is the logistical difficulty of maintaining such a schedule that makes us feel that a 24/7 event is a big achievement, even when we do not actually offer up that much prayer. I think that one big limitation is that people pick individual hours to pray through (or prayer blocks of multiple hours). If you wanted to pick an hour late at night or very early in the morning, then in a way it is going to be extremely disruptive to your sleep whether you pick one hour to pray through, or whether you choose to pray through the entire night.
Furthermore, to state the obvious, the same way I am female now is exactly the same way I was female at university! I remember once during a 24/7 event I had chosen to pray through a few hours at night. There was no-one else but me. And then this man came in. Now I knew him, I knew him quite well. However, I was so conscious that he and I were the only ones there and that is how it was for a good two hours. And I was literally petrified! This is not a comfortable position to be in. Neither of us was comfortable. Eventually, after a couple of hours he left and I was by myself for a while longer until around 6 am when I also eventually left. (once again, I forget!) Now I know that we are all Christians and we all trust one another. All the same, I would not choose to be in that situation again. Getting home at such late hours is also something I am very conscious of – I don’t want to be making my way through dark streets alone, constantly looking over my shoulder.
Going forward, I believe it is perfectly possible for at least 70% of the members of any church to commit to give up an hour to pray every day. Yes that is every day. Every single day. Yes, a whole hour. Without making any real sacrifice. Not as part of a 24/7 prayer event but just as normal, everyday life. I am not talking about coming to the church, or organising a schedule, or everyone choosing the same hour to pray. Perhaps many of us will easily be able to give up lots more than that, again without making any real sacrifice. You might have to give up some TV, some lounging around – that is not what I would call real sacrifice. And of course a church should have a regular collective prayer meeting, at least weekly – once again this is not a matter of legalism.
Regarding the actual 24/7 prayer, I think it would make a lot more spiritual impact if the whole church were to gather and everyone were to literally pray for a whole 24 hours. Even to me, though this would be unrealistic. So might it not be possible for the church to split into two shifts? In this case half the people could pray for 12 hours, and then the other half could pray for the remaining 12 hours, with eg an hour overlap between them. If you chose sensible changeover times, then this would mean that no-one needs to worry about walking home by themselves late at night. For instance, one shift could run from 9.00 am to 9.00 pm, so no-one needs to worry about their personal safety in getting to/from the venue. Also, being with so many people there at the same time means that no-one would have to worry about being a solitary woman with a lone man, or vice-versa. I also think that if you were to pray for any part of the night you would essentially have to write off the whole night anyway, so you might as well go ahead and use the whole night for prayer.
I know that if a church were to institute something like this, there would never be a 100% take up rate. Even if 25% of the church were to get involved in either of the shifts, that would still be considerable. At the most, everyone would take a day of holiday off work. Would that be utterly inconceivable? Logistically it would take a lot less organisation than the current 24/7 programme – just make sure you have at least, say, 10 people guaranteed for the night shift – and then people can turn up to whichever shift they please (and if you ask everyone to fast, then you don’t even have to worry about refreshments! Hee hee!)
Having a single day to do this would be great. However, imagine the kind of spiritual impact that would be made if the church were to continue something like this for a week. I believe that this is the kind of thing that would start to alter the spiritual environment in a city, and would produce results that would translate from the spiritual realm into the physical realm in the city. Or in other words, it would produce visible, undeniable results.
This would definitely represent sacrifice to everyone involved. People might have to use a whole week of holiday, just like that! However, I believe that the point must come, and soon, when as Christians we accept that to make the kind of impact that we dream of, that the Bible talks about, we are actually going to have to make real sacrifices. Sacrifices of time, sacrifices regarding jobs, sacrifices regarding money – I don’t mean giving more money to the church, I mean spending more time to pray rather than work so that you are not even earning so much in the first place. And yet, as we start seeing results, and the undeniable effects of God’s mighty hands at work in our neighbourhoods and in situations all around us, we are going to know that it is worth it.
So come on Church, let’s go hardcore. 😉
Image of Prague astronomical clock by Vera Kratochvil from http://publicdomainpicture.net