By Dr. Harold Sala
Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1Thessalonians 5:16-18
In my possession is a small, leather-bound book, badly worn and repaired several times over the years. Its printing date is 1848, which reminds me that it is more than a century and a half old. It belonged to a circuit-riding Methodist minister who happened to be my great grandfather. Containing many of the thoughts of John Wesley, the little volume was printed primarily to help ministers know how to organize their lives and the churches that they served.
Frankly, it contains a lot of good advice–the kind that would keep the names of a lot of ministers out of print if they would only follow it today. The following direction is given to those who preach:
- Be sure never to disappoint a congregation.
- Begin at the time appointed.
- Let your whole deportment be religious, weighty, and solemn.
- Always suit your subject to your audience.
- Choose the plainest text you can.
- Take care not to ramble, but keep to your text, and make out what you take in hand.
- Take care of anything awkward or affected, either in your gesture, phrase, or pronunciation.
- Do not usually pray, extempore, above eight or ten minutes (at most) without intermission.
- Frequently read and enlarge upon a portion of Scripture.
- Always avail yourself of the great festivals, by preaching on the occasion.”
Not bad advice, even today! That first one–never to disappoint a congregation–means that a minister had better learn to walk on water and leap over tall buildings, because I don’t care how talented a man may be, he can’t keep them all happy.
But the one which struck me most forcibly was the instruction not to pray for more than 8 to 10 minutes in public; that is, leading the congregation in prayer for that period of time. Dwight L. Moody didn’t go much for long, public prayers. On a certain occasion, a man led one of his crusades in prayer and prayed on and on. Finally, Moody got up and, somewhat irritated, said, “While our brother finishes his prayer, let’s have a song!”
Someway, I question whether most pastors today pray even ten minutes a day in private, let alone pray for that length of time in a public service. Should somebody try it today, half the congregation would walk out by the time he finished his prayer.
Studying the prayer life of Jesus reveals something which seems to counter both the advice of the Methodist discipline and what most of us do today. Jesus’ prayers were very short in public, very long in private. Altogether too often, we want to impress people with our piety and drone on and on in a prayer group and pray very little, if any, in private. Jesus, however, escaped to the privacy of the Garden of Gethsemane and there He prayed through the night, on several occasions.
He spent the night in prayer before He chose the 12 who were to be discipled. He prayed in the garden prior to the ordeal which lead to Calvary. Mark tells us that at the height of His ministry when things were really moving, Jesus withdrew to the desert and there He prayed. Luke says, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16).
Question: Have we lost sight of the importance of both public and private prayer today? Has prayer been replaced with program, performance, hype, and entertainment? If we stopped praying altogether, would anything change? Or should I put it another way–if we really started praying, would things change?
I have a feeling that my great grandfather, who wore out that little brown leather book, might be pretty uncomfortable with the way we do things today. It’s something to think about.
Resource reading: Matthew 6:1-4