Book Review: John Onwuchekwa’s Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church

38530826This book isn’t specifically focused on my D.Min. research, but I thought it was an excellent little book worth sharing. Note: this book is not out yet. I received an advanced copy thanks to Crossway and Netgalley. It releases August 31st, 2018.

Onwuchekwa, John. Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2018.

There are only two types of churches: those that pray together and those that don’t. John Onwuchekwa’s wonderful, little Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church, offers us a way forward, a way to bridge the gap between churches that pray and churches that don’t. His goal is to help us learn how to pray better and more as churches. This is a book about prayer that is intentionally about the corporate prayer life of local churches.

I’ve read plenty of books on individual prayer. There are some great books out there (Paul Miller’s Praying Life, being one of the best). Yet most, if not all, only address the corporate nature of prayer to a degree. If memory serves me, this is the first and only book on corporate prayer that I have ever read. This book is needed!

Our prayer should be as valuable and essential to us as breathing. Without it we die. Onwuchekwa argues that a complete lack of prayer isn’t the problem of our churches but a problem of too little prayer. He writes, “When prayer is sparse and sporadic, when it’s done just enough to ease the conscience and not much more, we’ve got a problem” (18). Our corporate prayer-less-ness not only says something about our church, but also continues to teach and reinforce bad theology. But our prayerfulness helps teach rightly about God: “Where prayer is present, it’s saying something – it’s speaking, shouting. It teaches the church that we really need the Lord. Where prayer is absent, it reinforces the assumption that we’re okay without him” (19).

Onwuchekwa, borrowing from Gary Millar’s Calling on the Name of the Lord, defines prayer as “calling on God to come through on his promise” (33). Prayer ties us to the promises of God. Our prayers call upon God to keep his promises. And they also have a deeply corporate nature. “If prayer clings to the hope we share in Christ, then prayer should reflect our togetherness in Christ. If prayer has a gospel shape, then by implication it must have a church shape” (37).

We call on the name of the Lord together. “Prayer was never meant to be a merely personal exercise with personal benefits, but a discipline that reminds us how we’re personally responsible for others. This means every time we pray, we should actively reject an individualistic mindset” (41). In other words, “prayer is a collective exercise” (41).

In Chapters 3 and 4, Onwuchekwa walks through the Lord’s prayer focusing on its communal nature. We must begin focused on God. He begins by looking at the address and first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. Prayer is focused on God’s presence before his provision. He writes, “The most important things about prayer is not what God gives us by way of his possessions, but what God gives by way of his presence” (46). In the fourth chapter he looks at the remaining petitions in how prayer seeks the Lord’s provision (daily bread), pardon (forgive our debts), and protection (deliver us from evil). Throughout, he focuses on how the Lord taught his disciples (and us) to pray with plural pronouns. We pray for one another together.

In chapter 5, Onwuchekwa focuses on Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane as an example of how we should pray. This is where Jesus’ teaching on prayer gains traction as his disciples witness his practice of prayer. In Gethsemane, and ultimately three days after Calvary, we see that God does the impossible. “We won’t consistently pray if we’re not sure of God’s ability. So much of our failure to pray comes from subtly believing that within God exists the possibility of failure. Because of this, we never ask God to do the impossible” (71).

Personally, I found chapter 6: “Glory: The Role of Prayer in Corporate Worship” the most helpful in the book. Corporate worship, including corporate prayer, is not meant to be a spectator sport. “Corporate prayer is a way we teach our church how to engage with God” (78). He walks through A.C.T.S. (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication) with an intentional corporate focus. I’ve been familiar with A.C.T.S. for countless years, but I have never really thought about it through the lens of corporate prayer. I found this very helpful.

Chapter 7, “Lean on Me: The Role of Prayer in Corporate Care” was arguably the second best chapter. The focus was on how a church that prays together becomes a church that actively cares for one another. Dependence upon God isn’t learned by propositional learning, but by active leaning. Onwuchekwa writes, “A church that practices prayer is more than a church that learns; it’s also a church that leans. It’s more than a church that knows; it’s also a church that feels. We learn dependence by leaning on God together” (92). And he helpfully asks, “Where do people actually learn to lean on God in your church? Is there a space for them to learn dependence?” (93). He ends this chapter with offering some helpful suggestions on how to carry out a prayer meeting (more on that below).

The final full chapter, chapter 8 focuses on the relationship of prayer to evangelism and missions. “Making prayers for conversion a staple of our time together will go a long way in creating a culture of evangelism” (116).

Onwuchekwa ends with addressing five temptations. First, the temptation to cancel a prayer meeting. In short, don’t. Second, the temptation to form your theology of prayer around how God answered your most recent prayer. He answers this by arguing for the importance of keeping track of our prayer requests and revisiting that list often. Third, is the temptation to individualize what God meant to be corporate. A simple practical example: use plural nouns when you pray. Fourth, don’t be tempted to assume that people know what prayer is and how they should do it. In other words, prayer must be taught and prayer is best learned through practice. Fifth, don’t be tempted to measure the effectiveness of your prayer meeting by the amount of people who attend. Regardless, of the attendance, corporate prayer is worth fighting for.

Some books get you thinking. Other books get you moving. This book got me thinking which then got me moving. And for that I am most thankful.

The most significant contribution this book has made to my ministry is the compelling case for the prayer meeting. I confess that I have been one of those pastors who seeks to run the church with a simplified view of corporate church practice. I still believe this is the best recourse as opposed to piling ministry after ministry upon the already busy and burdened people. But prayer isn’t so much a ministry (it is) but the foundation and backbone of ministry. Prayer is ministry, but it is also the fuel for the fire of ministry.

To that end I am thinking through how we may best incorporate a specific day, time, and place once a month dedicated to corporate prayer. I don’t know why but for some reason I have been reticent to initiate a prayer meeting because it’s hard enough getting people to come out on Sunday, let alone another day of the week. But I shouldn’t be thinking this way. Nonetheless, I do appreciate that Onwuchekwa warns: “prepare to be disappointed. The prayer gathering will likely have poor attendance, at least initially. But keep fighting” (125).

I see now that corporate prayer is worth fighting for.

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