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."

I also changed my preaching pattern. Now I preach at least 13 sermons a year on prayer. Sometimes I do a series on some aspect of prayer, sometimes an individual sermon at an appropriate time. When 25 percent of the sermons my people hear are on prayer, they recognize that I place an essential value on it.

Provide opportunities to pray

The next step in motivating people to pray for the lost is providing the opportunity to do so.  It's best if those opportunities are designed so your congregation can see answers.  It's certainly important to pray for unsaved relatives who live halfway across the country.  But something happens to a congregation when people see a person they've been praying for accept Christ as Savior, become a growing believer, and get involved in a church.

At Jefferson Baptist, we encourage people to pray for neighbors, local friends, and coworkers.  We plan four major prayer events a year, each followed by an evangelistic event.  For example, every year before Easter, regular attenders put the names of 10 local people who don't go to church on a prayer card.  They commit to pray for them every day and invite them to church on Easter Sunday.  They turn in the cards, and we put them in a big bowl.  Starting 10 days before Easter, we begin around-the-clock prayer for the people on the cards.  The day before Easter, we have 24 hours of fasting.  Each time a person is prayed for, the pray-er marks the card and puts it back in the bowl.  By Easter morning, each person has been prayed for numerous times.  The first year we did this, we had over 500 in attendance on Easter morning — over 50 responded to an invitation to accept Christ as their Savior!

Another opportunity we provide for our intercessors is a community prayer effort.  We have the name of every person who lives within a 20-minute drive of the church.  Four times a year we send a card to them, asking for prayer requests.  We want our community to know we are a praying church.  When they have needs, they'll know where to go.

Our high school prayer walk is another opportunity to pray for the unsaved.  Each morning a number of our people prayer walk around the school track.  Besides getting exercise, they pray for teachers and students by name.  This has been extremely effective, and we have started a Saturday night service geared toward youth.  Many of our prayer walkers come to the service to meet the young people they've been praying for.

Don't give up!

If you want to see your church develop a passion for praying for the lost, don't give up!  It may take awhile to get your congregation motivated and on board.  Start slow and keep trying.  Make them aware that the leaders of the church are praying and put opportunities to pray in front of them.

When I was about 10 years old, my father, who was in the navy at the time, took me to the docks to do some fishing.  A large ship was tied up there.  The weather that day was particularly calm, and the ship floated on slack ropes.  My father surprised me by walking over, putting his feet on the edge of the dock, his hands on the side of the ship, and pushing.  He pushed steadily for a long time.  I thought he was crazy - he was trying to move a ship!  But to my amazement, the ship began to move!  I thought my dad was Superman in disguise!  He squatted down and said, "I don't know how it works, but somehow my energy is stored up in that ship until there is enough to move it.  If I had quit before there was enough energy to move it, even seconds too early, it wouldn't have moved, and all my pushing would have been wasted.  And guess what?  If you had helped me, it would have moved twice as fast."

As you seek to make prayer essential in your church, you will be like my dad pushing that ship.  The more people you persuade to push with you, the sooner it will move.  Don't give up before the results start to come.  You never know when they're just about to happen.  Keep praying.  Get others to pray with you.  You'll be amazed at how God moves.

Dee Duke is the senior pastor at Jefferson Baptist Church in Jefferson, Oregon. Since 1989 when prayer became the focal point of the church's ministry, Jefferson Baptist has grown from 200 to 1,300 worshipers — in a rural community of 1,700 people!
This article appeared on the National Pastors' Prayer Network site. Used with permission.

Original Publication date: October 18, 2010