Of all the lessons I have learned, the most important, hands
down, is the primal, priority of seeking God through prayer. Karl Barth once
said, "To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the
disorder of this world."
The most important part of that quote is the word beginning. Most church planters often want to begin with strategy, mission, outreach, contextualization studies, theology, or small groups. As necessary as these things are to the foundation and growth of the church, the first step should always be prayer. In Colossians 4, Paul says, "Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains."
Over the past seven years of planting churches in New York City, I have tried to take this verse literally, striving to see that our church was built on prayer and not sheer human effort. Before even moving to New York, when we first sensed the call back in Orlando, we made prayer the priority. For 40 days we fasted and prayed, asking God for clarity and confidence that this wasn’t just a good idea, unique opportunity or our own ambition, but rather a joyful step of obedience. On the last day of the fast, I received a check in the mail for $10,000—an anonymous person felt led to give it to us so we could pay off any debt and move forward with what God had for us. Prayer gave clarity and confirmation.
Once in New York, I was particularly keen to see that prayer was not only the origin of our church but a regular part of our culture. Our team initially worked without an office space—partly for cost, but also for the chance to meet people. When we got an office, it wasn’t so we could “run our church;” it was so we could establish a base for intercessory prayer. We rented a small room, just off from Times Square, and although we didn’t know it at the time, it was between two sex establishments: Lucky Massage on the first floor and Bra Tenders above us. It was as shady as you can imagine, but it was also a place to pray. As the only full-time staff member, I would go to the office and spend whole days in prayer, fasting, worship and asking God to move in the city. The presence of God was often so tangible it seemed impossible. That place felt like a portal between heaven and earth, so we decided to invite others in and hosted half nights of prayer every Friday on the roof of our offices. The roof was incredible, with a panoramic view over midtown Manhattan. We would worship, cry out to God, savor his goodness, and claim his promises over the city. We saw some miraculous answers to those prayers, and it cultivated a deep sense of awe and faith that we were not on our own.
Through the years prayer has preceded each step of our ministry’s evolution. Below, I have listed a few snapshots of some of the ways we have actively cultivated a continued primacy of prayer.
CREATING A CULTURE OF PRAYER
- During one season of Lent, we felt prompted to gather our pastors and spend three hours a day praying for spiritual breakthrough in our ministry. We broke the Lord’s Prayer into six, 30-minute sections, and met at our East Village office. This was completely impractical, tiring, and amazing. One morning we prayed for one of our friends to come to Christ. He did that afternoon. One of our Pastors needed $50,000 within a week. He got it six days later. It was one of those shared beautiful moments when the promises of God leapt out of the pages of the Bible and wrote themselves into the scripts of our lives.
- When we got ready to plant our Brooklyn church, the leadership community of our three existing churches in Manhattan gathered together, worshipped, took communion, and then walked the neighborhood in small teams asking God for spiritual doors to open, for blessing on the community, and that God’s kingdom would come in Park Slope as it was in heaven.
- Likewise, when we planted our East Village church, we sent out over 80 people who prayed over every street in the neighborhood, as a base of spiritual life for all that would happen in the years to come.
- Our Washington Heights community has hosted a prayer meeting for the last four years on Monday nights as a time to seek God for transformation in this vital neighborhood. There was a commitment to prayer for three years before we launched our church in that neighborhood.
- Our Tribeca church prayed faithfully in the neighborhood for one and a half years before launching a gathering, and the first thing the community did, was meet for prayer.
- I have regularly taken two hours a day to pray through various neighborhoods of the city, and to worship and declare the goodness and glory of God over the city. This prayer is more intercessory in nature than abiding, and it’s contesting for the Lordship of Jesus. It is also a key tool to disciple leaders, as I can invite them to join me in prayer, and get to impart a heart, and vision for prayer, seeking God, and claiming promises into their life.
- We have regularly participated in a weekly pastors’ prayer meeting for leaders across the city, to build unity, break down selfish ambition and seek God for spiritual awakening here in New York.
- We have helped gather churches from across the city for nights dedicated to worship and prayer for our city, called Citywide Worship, to create a wider culture of prayer and seeking God across the church in New York.
- I have regularly devoted Tuesday afternoons to seasons of prayer. I ask God for more humility, spiritual power, insight into the scriptures, a heart for him, and the salvation of my unbelieving friends and neighbors. Having a chunk of time to pray over my sermon, the city, and for salvation for others has been a source of deep joy and sustainability for me.
There are literally hundreds of amazing answers to prayer I could share from the last seven years, from salvation to healing, financial provision and so on. Prayer has always been the primary vehicle for our joy in partnering with God to renew his city.