In 1746, the great theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards wrote a little book with a long title.
“A Humble Attempt [to promote the agreement and union of God’s people throughout the world in extraordinary prayer for a revival of religion and the advancement of God’s kingdom on earth, according to scriptural promises and prophecies of the last time]” didn’t initially have its intended impact to stimulate a movement of prayer. But a generation after Edwards’ death, a Scottish minister John Sutcliffe received a copy from a friend. It had such an effect on him that he circulated it amongst his friends, who did likewise. It was republished, and very soon there were widespread gatherings of concerted prayer (so-called “concerts of prayer”) that God used to stimulate the modern missionary movement. This small book stimulated a missionary awakening which, in God’s grace, led to thousands––if not millions––across the globe turning to Christ.
When I heard this story and read the book some years ago, it had a profound impact on me. It was one of a number of ways the Lord was prompting me to reevaluate my dependence on him in prayer as my co-minister and I prepared to plant a church in central London.
I was acutely aware of two things at that time. First, whilst I knew that prayer was central, my prayer life was not sufficiently deep to underpin a church plant. Secondly, it was not just my prayer life as the pastor that mattered, but the church’s as a whole. I knew that the fruitfulness of the plant would be linked to our collective dependence on prayer. So how could I significantly strengthen my prayer life and also foster a similar change in the entire church?
“I knew that the fruitfulness of the plant would be linked to our collective dependence on prayer.”
Three things have helped me and, I think, us:
First, I remember reading Mark’s gospel and seeing Jesus retreat to pray (Mark 1:35–38). I’d read it plenty of times before, but one day it hit me. This is the Son of God, and he’s placing a high and costly priority on prayer (he gets up early when he’s been up late the night before, healing those who were brought to him). If he is God himself in human form, with all power, wisdom, and authority, yet this is how much he thinks he needs prayer, why is it that I try to get by in busy times by skimping on prayer? This emphasized to me the priority of prayer.
Secondly, I was struck by the psalms that speak about a sweet delight in the Lord. “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Ps. 37:4), “apart from you I have no good thing” (Ps 16:2), “God is the strength of my heart, my portion forever” (Ps. 73:26). I was left asking: is this type of passion a regular experience in my prayer life? By embracing biblical meditation and scheduling times of personal retreat, I pursued and discovered a greater passion for prayer.
Thirdly, we have a phrase we use amongst the staff at Inspire London: “No exhortation without instruction.” In other words, don’t urge the church to do something if you can’t explain how to do it. There’s no point in urging the church to prioritise prayer and be passionate about it if you can’t get down to granular practicalities of habituating prayer in our lives.
That’s why I agreed to co-author 5 Things to Pray for your City with Helen Thorne. It was written with practicalities in mind and (slightly selfishly) it is the book I wanted for myself and my church to foster concerted prayer for our city of London. The book isn’t a treatise on prayer, nor does it provide reasons why you should pray––there are many good books which do those already. Instead, it’s really trying to aid habituation, grooving into life a priority and passion for prayer by outlining things to pray for and getting straight down to doing it.
I strongly believe that these three P’s of prayer––its priority, passion, and practicalities––have worked together in my life to foster a depth and richness that I was previously lacking. If you take out the priority of prayer, there’s a danger that it becomes something I only do whenever I feel like it. Take out a passion for prayer and it can become dry and duty-bound. Take out the practicalities of ingraining prayer into our lives and it can be great in theory, but not a functional reality. Put the three together and there is a robust joy in prayer that starts to become more and more real in your life.
Pete Nicholas is a senior pastor at Inspire London and is on the steering group of City to City UK. Together with Helen Thorne, he’s created a brief but thorough guide to praying for life, justice, churches, and Christian witness in the city.