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New Life Ways 6: Fellowship and Prayer

“Fellowship” can be spelled with three letters. Don’t believe me? Jesus’ words show us how: “He said to them, ‘Whenever you pray…’” (Luke 11:2).

You’ve probably read that verse before. Jesus had been praying “in a certain place” and when he was finished one of the disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray…” (Luke 11:1).

Did you catch it? “Fellowship” is spelled “y-o-u” by Jesus. And if you didn’t see it there, maybe you caught what the disciple asked. He did not ask, “Teach me to pray.” He asked, “Teach us to pray.”

When Jesus answered he answered with the “second plural present middle subjunctive”[1] of the word for “to pray.” But you did not need to know that. You just need to pay attention to the “you.”

You see, in the sentence I just spoke and am speaking, you could think I am talking to you—singular. It’s a good device for speakers and writers to make each person feel as if the speaker or author is speaking straight to that one person.

But you could also think I am speaking to the group. “You” in our language can be both singular and plural. It can be confusing. Unless you are speaking Texan and then we just clear it up by saying “you all.” Then you know you are part of a larger group.

Which is the kind of “you” Jesus was speaking to. “Us” wanted to know how to pray so Jesus said “When you…”—as in “all of you”— “…pray.”

Jesus was happy to teach them to pray together because Jesus is fond of his disciples praying in packs. Look through the Gospels and look for Jesus teaching about prayer and his practice of prayer. You—singular or plural—may discover 37 verses. Some are repeated in more than one of the Gospels. But if you pay attention to Jesus’ words you will find that in 33 of them he is addressing a group rather than an individual audience.

What does that suggest? Only that although Jesus would want us to pray in private, he teaches us to pray in packs.

Let’s take Matthew 7:7 as an example. “Ask, and it will be given to you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you.” You guessed it. Even though we tend to read this individually Jesus is telling us that when we ask, seek and knock together, we will be given, find, and have a door opened to us in our relationships with other people. (Just keep reading the context before this statement. Hint: It’ll help if you get the log out of your own eye first.)

More clearly is another passage that is well known. In teaching his disciples how to restore someone who has fallen into a sin, he says: “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:19-20).

Could it be that something powerful happens when we pray in packs instead of in private? The early church seemed to think so. The Book of Acts is saturated with scenes of people praying in packs.

  • We start with the 120 gathered in an Upper Room. What were they doing? “Praying in one accord” (Acts 1:13; 2:1). No, I don’t know how they all fit into one Honda.
  • When Judas had to be replaced, the disciples prayed for wisdom (Acts 1:24).
  • When Peter and John reported to the church how the Sanhedrin threatened them, the group prayed together. It might be good to note they did not pray for safety. They did not pray for protection. They prayed for boldness to share the story of the risen Christ even more. (Acts 4:24, 31). Incidentally, the place where they were praying together was shaken!
  • When some widows were being neglected the church prayed for what would be the seven men appointed to serve them (Acts 6:6). We’ll come back to this one in a moment.
  • During a period of persecution, James was martyred. Peter was thrown in prison by Herod. And the church ran! No, by now you know what they did. The church prayed. Peter got an angel escort out of prison and as he knocked on the door of where the believers were, he heard their prayers (Acts 12:1-11). When the servant answers the knock and tells the prayer group Peter is there, they think the servant is out of her mind. “It must be his angel” they surmise (Acts 12:14-15). Next time you have a hard time believing God hears your prayers, relax. You are in good company.
  • When prophets and teachers in Antioch were praying and fasting, they heard from the Holy Spirit to send Paul and Barnabas off on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-2). Prayer moved the gospel to areas of the world it had yet to reach.
  • When Paul and Silas were in jail praying, an earthquake opened their jail cells and converted the jailer (Acts 16:25). Prison did not cause Paul and Silas to panic. It caused them to pray.

Is personal prayer also encouraged? Of course it is. Jesus was known to go off by himself to pray often. But there is something powerful and important in the life of a church that it’s people devote themselves to the fellowship of prayer.

The Acts 6 story highlights that importance. The Greek speaking Jewish widows were being neglected from the distribution of food while the Hebrew speaking Jewish widows were being favored. The problem came to the attention of the Apostles. Listen to what they say:

In those days, as the disciples were increasing in number, there arose a complaint by the Hellenistic Jews against the Hebraic Jews that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution. The Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching the word of God to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Acts 6:1-4

Notice the three highlighted words: distribution, wait on, and ministry. They all come from the same Greek word for “deacon” or “ministry.” All that the Apostles are talking about has to do with ministry.

All ministry is important. But there is ministry in the church the Apostles believed they needed to focus on. What ministry would be so important they looked over it themselves? “…we will devote ourselves to [the] prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

You probably don’t see the “the” in your Bible. Kind of like it’s hard to see the plural “you.” But it is there in the original. It just sounds awkward so translators leave it out. But maybe they shouldn’t. Without the “the” it is easy to think the Apostles need time to pray by themselves so they will know what “word” to give the church.

But with the “the” we understand that they are not speaking to prayer in general. They are speaking to something specific about prayer. When we take into account the context of ministries within the church and the syntax of the sentence, the possibility is created that the ministry of prayer and the word are twin ideas. Join to that the fact that every example of the Apostles in prayer earlier in Acts has them praying with the pack instead of privately, we understand that they made it their priority to make sure the church grew its ministry of prayer. Just as Jesus led the way in prayer, so did his first followers.

Jesus wants us to pray in packs. Jesus also wants us to pray persistently for the church. A walk back through these passages on prayer and we find the church praying:

  • They prayed continually united…Acts 1:14
  • They prayed for God to show them leaders…Acts 1:24; 6:6
  • They prayed for boldness…Acts 4:24
  • They prayed for a fellow believer, Peter, in prison…Acts 12
  • They prayed for the gospel to be spread…Acts 13
  • They prayed while in prison…Acts 16

They prayed for kingdom purposes. They prayed in packs. They prayed persistently. And God listened. In five separate instances Luke records the growth of the early church.[1] How did that growth happen? Could we trace it back to the prayers that were made when believers gathered in packs?

I think so. The disciples did exactly what Luke outlined in Acts 1:8. The church witnessed to the risen Christ in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the end of the earth. It took unity, it took leaders, it took boldness, it took enduring persecution to spread the gospel. But it mostly took prayer.

The church grew. It might be good to note that it grew with new converts, not transfer believers. Ed Stetzer quotes Mike Breen in his article about church plants: “In an issue of Mission Frontiers, Mike Breen laments that in the United States, ‘96% of church growth is due to transfer growth and not churches striking into the heart of our enemy’s territory. We’ll consider it a win because we have the new service or program that is growing…but that growth is mainly from people coming from other churches. That’s not a win! That’s a staggering loss.’”[2]

What made the early church and their growth different? Prayer. They lived in a time there were no other churches. Either they fulfilled the mission God had given them to do or no one would. By the end of Acts, we see that they had taken the gospel to the end of the earth and then Acts just kind of ends. Like a movie that leaves you hanging to fill in the blanks, Acts leaves us with an unspoken question: Will we continue?

That’s a good question to ask when it comes to prayer. Will we continue the kind of praying we find in Acts?

How do you pray? “You” singular and “you” plural? Do you pray more often by yourself? Short tweets to God when you think of it? Are your prayers self-centered or kingdom-centered?

If you are like me, you have some room to grow. Let me suggest that we do what the first believers did. First, let’s pray in packs. Get in a group and pray! When someone asks you, “Who do you pray with?” have an answer. “My small group.” “My men’s group.” “My neighborhood group.” “My ministry group.”

Speaking of ministry groups, this year we are realigning our ministries into seven main ministries. Within each ministry team we are looking for someone with a gift and passion for prayer. They are not the only people who should be praying on the team. But they will be the person that gives themselves to the ministry of prayer, making sure that the team spends as much time in prayer as it does in its practice.

Then pray persistently. But pray as the church did. Could it be that we do not experience the power of the early church because we pray for the wrong things? We pray for jobs. We pray for protection. We pray for safety. I’ve watched groups of people pray for someone they read about on the web that they don’t even know.

Maybe that is all well and good, but it seems that the early church prayed for the church to grow in Christ and to go in Christ, spreading the gospel of the risen Christ. It seems we might pray like Paul:

For this reason I kneel before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us — to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:14-21

The fellowship of prayer. It has to do with “you.”

[1] see 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20.