Sermon series: When the Church Prays

  1. The Priority of Praying Together - Acts 6:1-5

  2. The Critical Mass That Unleashes God’s Will - Revelation 8:1-5

  3. Why We Believe Better Than We Behave Concerning Prayer - James 4:1-2

  4. Principles for a Powerful Prayer Meeting, Part 1 - Acts 12:1-11

  5. Principles for a Powerful Prayer Meeting, Part 2 - Acts 12:1-11

  6. The Great Awakening - Romans 1:18; Joel 2

Scriptures: Acts 12:1-11


Charles Finney is a name known to everyone who has studied the mighty movements of God in country. A former lawyer turned preacher by the call of God, Charles Finney was one of the key figures during the Second Great Awakening in 19th-century America, which touched virtually every aspect of life in this country. Finney is sometimes called "America's foremost revivalist," and there's no doubt that God had His hand on him. In the seven years in which Finney was an evangelist, there were an estimated 500,000 conversions. His ministry in Rochester, New York from 1830-1831 has been called the greatest year of spiritual awakening in American history. (Adapted from "The Persuaded Life.)

Someone did a follow-up study of those reportedly converted under Finney's preaching, and found that, years later, 80% of those who made professions of faith gave evidence of true life change. (Statistic cited in website "Daniel Nash: Prevailing Prince of Prayer")

What is more, there were immediate effects felt in the social structures of entire cities and townships. By every standard we know, that is extraordinary. How do you account for the effectiveness that visited this man and his ministry? To what can we attribute the amazing harvest God accomplished from his preaching?

If you asked Charles Finney, he would point to one man who partnered with him in his crusades. Daniel Nash joined himself to Finney for the purpose of prayer. When Finney was invited to speak in a city, Nash would arrive three or four weeks early, rent a room, find a small group of like-minded Christians to join him, and start a prayer meeting to plead with God for souls. Once the public meetings began, Nash usually did not attend. He and his group would stay hidden away, agonizing in prayer for the conviction of the Holy Spirit to melt the crowd.

On one occasion, Finney himself noted in his journal that when he arrived in a particular town for a revival, he was met by a lady who ran a boarding house. "Brother Finney," she asked, "do you know Mr. Nash? He and two other men have been at my boarding house for the last three days, but they haven't eaten a bite of food. I opened the door and peeped in at them because I could hear them groaning and I saw them down on their faces. They have been this way for three days, lying prostrate on the floor and groaning. I thought something awful must have happened to them. I was afraid to go in and I didn't know what to do. Would you please come and see about them?" And Charles Finney replied, "No, it isn't necessary. They just have a spirit of travail in prayer." (again Daniel Nash; see also Jim Cymbala, Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, p. 175-176.)

Finney and Nash traveled thousands of miles together, in prayer and proclamation of the Gospel. Then in the winter of 1831, Nash took ill. On December 20 of that year, while he was on his knees in prayer, he died at age 56. Charles Finney said this of his dear friend and partner in ministry: "Said a good man to me: 'Oh, I am dying for the want of strength to pray! My body is crushed, the world is on me, and how can I forbear praying?' I have known that man go to bed absolutely sick, for weakness and faintness, under the pressure. And I have known him to pray as if he would do violence to Heaven, and then have seen the blessing come as plainly in answer to his prayer as if it were revealed, so that no person could doubt it any more than if God had spoken from heaven.

"Shall I tell you how he died? He prayed more and more; he used to take the map of the world before him, and pray, and look over the different countries and pray for them, till he expired in his room, praying. Blessed man! He was the reproach of the ungodly, and of carnal, unbelieving professors; but he was the favorite of Heaven, and a prevailing prince of prayer." [4]

Today, there is a marker on a neglected grave in a cemetery near the Canadian border that reads, "Daniel Nash, Pastor, Laborer with Finney, Mighty in Prayer." He never had the limelight, the stage, or the accolades. But he shook heaven and hell because he believed in the power of praying together.

I am interested in prayer meetings like that—that do battle for souls; that overcome obstacles and move God's hand. As I peer through the window of God's Word at the church in Acts, I see those kinds of prayer meetings. As we are asking God to teach us how to pray as a congregation as well as individuals, I thought it well to show you the Principles of Powerful Prayer Meetings. Take a walk with me into the Prayer Meetings that turned the world of their day upside-down. This morning, I want to focus on the first of four principles that is so foundational, so pivotal that it deserves this singular focus. I will look at the other three principles with you tonight.

I. Principle 1: God-focus

I want to break this down into two headings that are related to one another: Tune to God's agenda, and follow God's lead.

A. Tune to God's agenda

Have you ever done a comparison between the way the apostles approached Christ in the Gospels and the way they approached Him in the book of Acts? In Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, their requests included calling fire down from heaven to consume those who rejected Christ, sending people away hungry, and sitting on the right and left hand of the throne when they got to heaven. Their actions were also telling. They constantly demonstrated a lack of faith, prohibited children from coming to Christ, and tried stopped someone from casting out demons. Now and then, they would get it right, but most of the time they were out in left field when it came to Jesus and His mission. Consequently, our Lord rarely ever did what they asked.

But when you turn to the book of Acts, you find a completely different focus in their lives and in their asking. Acts records no account that they ever failed in their faith again. When God looked on their prayer meetings, 3000 were converted in a single day, the place where they prayed was shaken, and prison doors swung open. Obviously, some tremendous transformation, some radical change had occurred. What made the difference?

Very simply, they went from being on their own agenda to being on God's agenda. They quit seeking a seat on Jesus' right and left and began praying for boldness to testify in the face of persecution. They quit flirting with a return to fishing and focused on shepherding the people of God. They stopped tripping over their circumstances and started seeking an endowment of power from on high to preach the Gospel. They changed from being self-centered to being God-centered.

In Acts 4, Peter and John were released with threats of what would happen to them if they spoke in the name of Jesus again. They reported this to their friends who immediately, reflexively went to prayer: 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices to God unanimously and said, "Master, You are the One who made the heaven, the earth, and the sea, and everything in them. 25 You said through the Holy Spirit, by the mouth of our father David Your servant: Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot futile things?

Why are they praying these things, quoting Scripture back to God and reflecting on the history of God's purposes? They spend five verses telling God who He is and two verses asking Him for boldness. Why didn't they pray, "Thank you Lord for getting our friends out of this mess. And Lord we want to be honest and tell you we're scared. Please protect us"?

Their concern was not their protection but God's purposes being secured above and beyond and through their suffering; not for their reputation to be vindicated but for His Son's; not for shelter, but for boldness. And the result was the place where they were praying was shaken as a physical sign of the power of God falling on them and they were all empowered by the Holy Spirit for Gospel purposes. (Adapted from John Franklin, And the Place Was Shaken, p. 32-33.)

Folks let's be honest here: we spend a whole lot more time praying for God to keep Christians out of heaven than for Him to get the lost out of hell. "God heal and help us" is prayed far more often than "save and sanctify."

Don't get me wrong: God is our Healer and we are commanded about praying for sickness and provision. But that's just one of many, many Kingdom issues about which we are to pray. When most of our praying is about our wants, our needs, and our concerns, we will see the working of God in trace amounts. And oh how our culture needs to see His mighty power manifest through His church!

I call you again to join our Wednesday night prayer gatherings. If you haven't been in awhile, it will feel very different. You may not like it at first because our hearts are conditioned to other things. But our goal is God and we're asking Him to teach us to pray.

B. Follow God's lead

Have you ever wondered about this like I have: How is it that Elijah could believe that God would actually respond to His prayer to send fire from heaven and consume the water-soaked sacrifice? How could Moses actually think that God would split open the Red Sea when the Egyptian army was bearing down on the people of Israel? How could Joshua have the audacity to ask the sun to stand still? What made Jesus think a four-day-old corpse could live again?

They asked for the impossible because they were so God-oriented that they knew what He was doing and what it meant. Elijah explained before the fire fell that God was turning Israel's heart back to Himself through the answer to prayer. Moses had spent private time before the Lord until God told Him what He was going to do. Joshua recognized that God was fighting for them, so he asked for more daylight to finish the job. And Jesus declared, prior to raising Lazarus from the dead, that God was going to save those who were watching. (Adapted from John Franklin, And the Place Was Shaken, p. 34-35.)

In each case, they were able to discern the activity, the intent, or the heart of God prior to asking. They knew what God wanted, so they asked Him for it. How did they know? Notice that in each case, that discernment and knowledge flowed from their relationship with Him. They had paid the price in time with the Lord in Scripture and prayer so that they understood God's perspective on their life and work. Once they understood it, they set about their Father's business. They sensed God's power working through them as they joined Him in His work. They knew what God wanted done, they asked Him for it, and God answered.

We believe that Jesus could do all that He did because He was the Son of God, and rightly so. But our Lord Himself wants us to understand this connection between discerning the heart of God and asking for what God already wants to give. Listen to what He says, in John 5:19-20: Then Jesus replied, " I assure you: The Son is not able to do anything on His own, but only what He sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son also does these things in the same way. For the Father loves the Son and shows Him everything He is doing, and He will show Him greater works than these so that you will be amazed.

He comes back to this theme repeatedly. I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work... For I have not spoken on My own, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a command as to what I should say and what I should speak. ... Don't you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me? The words I speak to you I do not speak on My own. The Father who lives in Me does His works. (John 9:4; 12:49; 14:10)

Jesus discerned the heart of God and then acted. He walked with His Heavenly Father and asked for what He already knew the Father wanted. And it was done. And He calls us to that same kind of walk.

May I go back, and take an incident from Daniel Nash's life again? On one occasion, when meetings had begun in a particular city, a group of young men confronted Charles Finney, openly announcing that they were going to break up the meetings. Finney and Nash decided this was best combated with prayer, so they found a grove of trees and gave themselves to prayer until, in Finney's words, "we felt confident that no power which earth or Hell could interpose, would be allowed permanently to stop the revival."

That night, the group of young men arrived to find a packed house to hear Finney preach. And Daniel Nash, who was ordinarily a quiet man, was sitting on the back row. He stood and faced them with these words, "Now mark me, young men! God will break your ranks in less than one week, either by converting some of you or by sending some of you to hell. He will do this as certainly as the Lord is my God!" Having said that, Nash dropped to his seat, bowed his head and groaned in prayer.

Finney admits that he thought his friend had gone too far. Yet by the next Tuesday, the leader of the group suddenly showed up, and in tears and confession, broke his ties with this world and trusted Christ. Before the week was out, almost all of those young men were converted. (Adapted from "Daniel Nash: Prevailing Prince of Prayer")

That kind of discernment comes to those who have a lifestyle of prayer focused on God's glory and God's ways and God's purposes, so much so that you begin to see things from God's perspective. And listen: every time that kind of God-centeredness has come to God's people, the power of God was unleashed.

Oh how I resonate with Paul's longing, expressed like this: [My goal] is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death. (Philippians 3:10) Will you join me in that journey, taken daily in time with Him?

Lloyd Stilley is pastor of First Baptist Church, Gulf Shores, Alabama. He is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Leeanne and is the father of Joey and Craig.