Go to God Together
Why the Church Gathers to Pray
Article by Marshall Segal, Staff writer, desiringGod.org
The violent tremors they felt that day may have been the most reassuring earthquake anyone has ever experienced.
Christ had poured out his Spirit, he had established his church, and now he was adding to their number day by day (Acts 2:47). As the word spread, opposition mounted, threatening their young and fragile family. So, they did what souls captured by God do: they gathered to pray.
Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them . . . look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus. (Acts 4:24, 29–30)
The threats against them were deadly serious. Some of them would be killed for standing with the risen Jesus. When they came together, though, they did not pray for protection, at least not here. Instead, they prayed earnestly for the courage to keep telling people about Jesus, to keep putting themselves at great risk for the sake of winning some. And how did God respond to their prayer?
When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:31)
God answered, giving them great boldness, but he did more than that. Why would God shake the place where they prayed? Not only to impart more confidence, but also to say vividly, tangibly, even violently, Your Father in heaven loves when you gather to pray.
God Through One Another
Why do Christians, from the early church to today, in every time and place, pray together? In part, because heartfelt prayer requires fresh glimpses of God, and we know how little we see by ourselves. We want to take in and experience more of Jesus than we would ever see on our own. We want to kindle our adoration before God through the eyes of others. Tim Keller writes, quoting C.S. Lewis,
By praying with friends, you will be able to hear and see facets of Jesus that you have not yet perceived. . . . Knowing the Lord is communal and cumulative, we must pray and praise together. That way “the more we share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall all have.” (Prayer, 119)
Praying with others gives us new windows into the worth of Christ. Of course we pray in secret (Matthew 6:6), and yet if we only prayed alone, we would tear out one of our eyes, as it were, missing facets of Christ we see only through others. The soul of any Christian rises or falls with secret prayer, but it is not good for man to only pray alone. We need to hear each other go hard after God, and we need to carry one another’s burdens before him.
God for One Another: Five Prayers
As we read through the book of Acts, we see that the early church never stopped praying together. The story seems to turn on followers of Christ gathering to seek their Lord — for wisdom, for deliverance, for boldness, for strength and comfort. They devoted themselves to the word of God, to one another, and to prayer (Acts 2:42). And how did God respond to their prayers?
Day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46–47)
We all want such power in our lives, in our families, in our churches, in our cities, and we should not expect God to do it apart from our praying. So, what did the church in Acts pray together for?
1. For wisdom with difficult decisions.
When Jesus ascended to heaven, his followers fell to their knees, “devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:4). They felt the need to replace Judas among the twelve, but the Spirit had not yet been poured out on them. How would they decide between two worthy men, Joseph and Matthias? “They prayed and said, ‘You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen’” (Acts 1:24). So today, we pray together and for one another that we “may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9), especially in difficult, painful, or complicated decisions and situations.
2. For boldness in their mission.
As we already heard, the church gathered and prayed, “Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). They were already bold (Acts 4:13), but they did not presume on past boldness. They asked God to renew their confidence — to continue to speak his word with all boldness. They pled together for courageous faithfulness, for an open door (Colossians 4:3), for clarity and precision (Colossians 4:4), and for supernatural fruit among their hearers (2 Thessalonians 3:1).
3. For the leaders of the church.
When they called men to public office, they prayed together over them. “When they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23). Similarly, they prayed over the seven table-servants (Acts 6:4–6), and over missionaries they sent (Acts 13:3). The church went to God together on behalf of its leaders, establishing a precious path and pattern before the throne for our churches today. The men God has called to us as shepherds need us to go to God together for them in prayer.
4. For suffering in the body.
When Peter was arrested to satisfy Herod’s pride and lust for approval, the church gathered to pray. “Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church” (Acts 12:5). They didn’t just agree to pray in their own closets, but they came together to pray. And God miraculously freed Peter. When Peter realized what happened, “he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying” (Acts 12:12). What might God do if, instead of only adding another item to our personal lists, we gathered together to pray for those suffering in the body (Hebrews 13:3) — especially for persecuted and oppressed saints around the world?
5. For godly comfort in sorrow.
We know very little of the kind of goodbyes we read about in Acts. They truly did not know if they would ever meet again, and keeping up with one another was extremely difficult. When Paul left the Ephesian elders, “he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again” (Acts 20:36–38). He did the same, likely through tears, with the believers in Tyre (Acts 21:5). When sorrows rolled, they knew to kneel and pour out their hearts, together, to God.
We know the church gathered to pray for more, but these five prayers give us a great place to start in any prayer gathering, however big or small. If we don’t know what to pray for with our family or with other members of our church, we can start by praying what we know Christians have prayed for together since the church began.
When We Confess and Pray
As we gather to adore God, we see more than we would have seen on our own. As we gather to plead with God to move in specific ways among us (supplication), he is all the more eager to stretch out his hand to guide, to heal, to embolden, to comfort, to provide. Another surprisingly precious ingredient in corporate prayer, however, is the confession of sin. As we humble ourselves before one another in hope-filled honesty, grace rises and Satan runs (James 4:7).
How many of us have been stuck in ruts of sin while no one else prayed for us? And how would others pray for us if we never confessed our sin to them? God wants us to confess to one another, and then go to God together for forgiveness, renewal, and healing.
Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. (James 5:16–18)
When we confess our sins to one another, and pray for one another, we welcome that kind of power into our war against sin and all its consequences — the kind of power that disperses clouds and holds back seas. When we confess and pray together, we’re no longer a lone soldier against sin and Satan, but we fight alongside an army of warriors backed by the sovereign throne of heaven. James speaks of a kind of culture of hope and healing that comes through humbling ourselves, confessing our sin to one another and then going to God together in prayer.
Giving Thanks to God Together
Finally, when we pray together, we not only adore our God, confess our sins, and make our collective requests, but we also thank our great God together. We know, even by instinct, how to ask God to fix the present or provide for the future. We are not, however, as naturally thankful. Thankfulness, however, is indispensable to prayer, whether private or corporate.
Paul writes, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2). He wanted the church to watch together for reasons to thank God together. And we are never without reasons. “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). So, when you sit together to pray, give place to give thanks.
Corporate prayer makes gratitude wonderfully contagious. As Paul writes, “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Corinthians 1:11). While the whole world restlessly runs ahead to the next event, plagued by anxiety about the future, linger uncomfortably long over all the good that God has done for you.
Thank him alone in secret, but don’t only thank him alone. Let your prayers strengthen someone else’s hope, and let their prayers strengthen yours.
Marshall Segal (@marshallsegal) is a writer and managing editor at desiringGod.org. He’s the author of Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness & Dating. He graduated from Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Faye, have a son and live in Minneapolis.