One lovely summer day, our entire church family went to the coast for a picnic. We brought a ton of food and games to play. After we had all eaten to our hearts' content, a game of touch football began, as well as horseshoes and various table games. The kids, of course, wanted to play in the little protected bay near where we had gathered. I was appointed lifeguard because, thought the water was calm and shallow, most of the kids couldn't swim.

As I stood watching them play enthusiastically, a huge wave swelled into the bay—raising the water level from two to five feet almost instantly. The kids closest to the shore scrambled out, but most of them were underwater! I plunged into the water, grasping wildly, but realized quickly that I could only get a few of the children and that most of them would drown. I ran up the bank to where the adults were relaxing and playing and screamed for help. Most of them were so involved in their games, however, that they didn't notice me.  The few who did hear me didn't seem to understand what I was saying. Somehow, I had to get through to them that they were desperately needed to save their children!

What you've just read is an illustration I made up to communicate to my congregation the critical importance of praying for a lost world that needs to be saved. I know and believe the truth that God "stirs up" His people to pray. I also believe that God works with sovereignty in people's hearts to point them toward salvation: "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" (Jn. 6:44). But it is also true that God has committed us to the work of reconciliation: "for, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?" (Ro. 10:13-14).

I believe that pastoral leadership is essential in focusing a church on prayer. Over the past eight years, I've spent a great deal of time working and thinking about how to move our church to be "devoted to prayer." During this time, I have developed some fundamentals that I believe I must adhere to if God is going to use me to lead our church toward this goal. I would like to share the first one with you.

Believe that prayer is essential

Almost everyone believes that prayer is important.  But there is a difference between believing that prayer is important and believing it is essential.  "Essential" means there are things that will not happen without prayer.

There are many contributing factors to successful ministry, especially in the area of winning the lost. Prayer alone may not get results. But without prayer, even the best program, discipline, or plan will be frustrated and fail. Those who believe that prayer is essential—not just important—will have a passion and fervency that will persuade others to join them. 

The stronger my belief that prayer is absolutely essential, the stronger my zeal and passion will be.  Passion and zeal are the keys to good leadership when motivating a congregation to pray for the lost.

Model your belief

It's obvious:  The first step in motivating a congregation to make prayer essential is to model this belief yourself.

Following a pastors' prayer summit in January 1989, I became convinced that our church needed to make prayer the central focus of our ministry. I started by confessing to my congregation — then around 200 people — that I had been pastoring them without prayer. I pledged to change that: I was going to be a man dedicated to prayer. I set the goal of praying one hour by myself every morning and praying with at least one other individual for one hour in the evening. I opened the church from 9 to 10 every night for prayer. Unless I'm out of town, I'm there every night, and others always join me. Part of my morning is devoted to praying individually for the people who attend our church. Besides praying for their needs (which I keep updated on my computer, along with photos of each family), I ask God to motivate them to pray. I take my charge from John 17:9, in which Jesus prays to the Father: "I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours."