Editor’s note: In recent years, China Partnership has dedicated itself to intentional prayer for the church in China. As CP increasingly emphasizes prayer as part of our calling, we have worked with John Smed of Prayer Current to hone our prayer muscles. We spoke with him about why prayer is so crucial and how organizations can grow in this critical area. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I recently talked with a young woman who, when I asked about her prayer life, said: “I can hardly pray, and I have very little joy when I read scripture. I think it’s just a duty.” I have been told she probably speaks for a lot of younger Chinese people.
I’ve been very encouraged about many things in my involvement in China, [especially] the progress of the gospel. But there have been a few things that surprise me – for example, the challenge of legalism in the Chinese church. As this relates to prayer, it translates into joyless prayer: prayer without doxology.
When this happens it’s a sign we’ve taken the benediction and the blessing out of prayer. There is not only gospel obligation, but there is also gospel benediction. Prayer is not just a duty, but is participation in our fellowship with Christ. He said, “No longer do I call you servants… but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). The dynamic of prayer is a friendship dynamic.
Jesus says he gives us the Holy Spirit as an inner friend in prayer. The Holy Spirit will pray with you, he will intercede with groanings according to the Spirit, and he will pray with you according to the will of God. We need to move past obligation to benediction.
Would You Pray With Us Today?
Legalism in prayer is a gospel issue, but you cannot resolve the gospel issue apart from prayer. It’s not a matter of having more theological study or gospel content; faith is never just a matter of assent. The Reformation was rigorous about that. Faith is not just that we assent to something: we have to participate in something.
How do we move from knowledge of the gospel to actual communion and participation in the gospel? You cannot move from gospel information to gospel transformation without having prayer in between. Prayer metabolizes the gospel. Prayer enacts the gospel. Prayer is what internalizes the gospel.
A second issue I’ve felt in the Chinese church is that the thirst and hunger for theological teaching doesn’t always translate into gospel transformation. I believe the missing factor – bar none, no exceptions, without discussion – is that prayer has to come between gospel information and gospel transformation. Until it does, the information of the gospel will remain cranial, because it is prayer that takes the gospel and brings it to the heart. As we pray, it becomes enacted in our lives. We can’t just talk about the gospel or assent to the gospel; we want to participate in it. That happens on our knees.
The third issue we need to look at is the relationship between preaching and prayer. The divorce between preaching and prayer is a North American phenomenon, and we don’t want to export that to China. There is a sense that preaching is the end point of what we do. But Charles Spurgeon said something very key: prayer is the end of preaching. How do you know if your preaching has been effective? People are praying.
For example, Paul has 64 prayers in 14 epistles. That tells us something. Prayer completes teaching, and prayer is interwoven in teaching. Teaching, apart from prayer, can be sterile and dormant. Prayer needs to be integrated with teaching: you bring those two together, and you get gospel explosion. That is where you get more than gospel awareness or gospel conversations. That is where the gospel becomes a living reality in a person’s life and transformation, and it is also where the word gets its power and effect. We are not only inspired by what someone says, but are moved to participate in what they’re talking about. That’s a prayer event.
John Calvin put it well. He said the chief activity of the Holy Spirit is faith; the chief activity of faith is prayer. Faith is how we receive the gospel. How does faith receive the gospel? By prayer.
Prayer can’t be given a separate category. It has to be woven into the entire fabric of training. There is no such thing as word discipleship apart from prayer discipleship. There is no such thing as a person who is really powerful in the word who is not powerful in prayer. In Acts 6:4 the apostles said, “We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the word.” Is it a coincidence they said prayer first? Is it a coincidence those things are put together in a binary relationship? Prayer not only has primacy, but there is an inversely proportionate relationship between prayer and the word. We have got to stop separating those and saying, “Well, we’ll have the prayer meeting on Saturday, but the big thing is the talking on Sunday morning.” I think it’s not the big thing at all; it is one of many things in the church.
The church needs to build a gospel ecosystem, not a Sunday morning experience. Apart from prayer, I find Sunday morning relatively boring. I think the next generation finds it relatively boring. But prayer, woven into it, gives people a chance to participate and engage.
I had a long talk with an instructor who teaches in seminaries in China yesterday, and she asked, “How do I do this?” I said, “Just weave prayer in.”
Start with prayer. Start with doxology. Praise God for what you are learning. Take a passage out of the text you’re teaching people, and have them look at it and praise God for it. Then teach the passage, and then when you’re finished teaching the passage, ask, “How can we pray for our nation about this? How can we pray for others?”
It’s not difficult. It’s not magic. It’s a simple exercise, but we’ve gotten used to separating those events, instead of integrating them harmoniously.