Prayer as Formation

A Christian who doesn’t pray isn’t really a Christian. A church that doesn’t pray isn’t really a church. To be a Christian is to be a pray-er.

Prayer has always been central to God’s people, especially in his church. Prayer was of the utmost importance in Jesus’ life. Time and again, he would disappear into the wilderness or some quiet space to be alone with his Father.

It was obvious to Jesus’ followers that his time in prayer fed his insatiable love for God and man, so much so that they finally broke down and begged, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). We, too, should beg Jesus to show us how to pray. That’s the aim of Gordon T. Smith’s small new book, Teach Us to Pray.

This book, like so many others on prayer, is built off of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2-4). But it differs in its treatment of the subject matter. Instead of working through that prayer line by line, Smith opts to examine three key features of Jesus’ prayer: thanksgiving, confession, and discernment.

Prayer as Formation

But before he begins that treatment, he points out that our lives usually inform our prayers. But, he asks, what if it was the other way around? What if instead of our life circumstances driving us to pray, we saw prayer as a way of participating in the kingdom of heaven and as a way of actually shaping the realities of our everyday lives? Smith says,

“Prayer has a formative impact on our lives—the manner or form of our prayers actually shapes the contours and character of our lives” (p. 9).

Smith is wisely pointing out that the form of our prayers ends up forming us. So when we pray, we should not pray as if God is passive and we are trying to get him to act, Smith says. Instead, we should approach prayer with the knowledge that God is always working, and through our prayers, we begin to see how and where he is at work in the world around us.

Since the form of prayer shapes us, he says, “We can even speak of a liturgy [of prayer], meaning that our prayers have a regular pattern to them so that over time our hearts and minds and lives are increasingly conformed to the very thing for which we are praying.” For thousands of years, God’s people have found it helpful to pray God’s words back to him, whether in the form of the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, Paul’s Ephesian prayer, and so on. These prayers are so beneficial for the individual and the church because they continually shape our hearts and minds to look more like God’s heart and mind.

Three Movements of Prayer

With that in mind, Smith explains that (based on Jesus’ example) there ought to be movements of thanksgiving, confession, and discernment in our prayers. We must start with thanksgiving because we will not receive more of we are ungrateful for. “We cannot pray ‘thy kingdom come’ if we are not grateful for how the kingdom has come and is coming” (p. 12). Thanksgiving is the Christian’s original response to the Redeemer’s work, and it should be our initial response to God in prayer.

The next movement is confession—the typical response for any who finds themselves in the presence of the King of Kings or in the midst of his kingdom. Smith calls confession, “the essential realignment of those who long to live under the reign of Christ” (p. 13). Confession and repentance (“an act of intentional alignment . . . with the coming of the reign of Christ”) are essential in developing “kingdom eyes”:

“We cannot pray ‘your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ unless and until we see the ways our lives are not lived in consistency with the will of God” (p. 13).

Third, we practice discernment in our prayers, by which Smith means, “considering where and how God is calling us to speak and act as participants in the kingdom of God” (p. 13).

Three Movements, Three Temptations

At each movement, though, we are tempted away from praying. We’re tempted away from thanksgiving by focusing on what God is not doing rather than seeing what he is doing. I’m easily tempted to wish for moves of God I read about in other countries, churches, or states, so I was particularly busted by these words:

“Rather than looking to other societies where we are impressed that God is at work in seemingly miraculous ways and bemoaning that this is not happening in our situation, should we not see that perhaps in a secularized society God may be working in a far more subtle way?” (p.15).

When it comes to confession, we’re tempted away from praying by looking at “how others fall short, how others are not living up to the kingdom” (p. 15). If we think it’s always someone else who needs to change, we can be sure that we’re not confessing our own sin and repenting from that which is keeping us from living under Christ’s authority.

Once we’ve been thankful for the ways God is working around us and we’ve confessed and repented of our sin, we can now do  the work of discernment in our prayers—unless we give in to the dual temptations of thinking there’s nothing we can possibly do about the situation, or thinking we are the only ones who can do it all, and so we must. The first leads to cynicism, the second to burnout.

Worth Your Time and Money

From there, Smith dives deeper into each of the three movements—thanksgiving, confession, and discernment. Each chapter of my copy is filled with underlines and dog-eared pages. I love books this size (about 10,000 words) because each word counts and the author has usually boiled their thoughts down to the absolute essentials.

Teach Us to Pray is absolutely worth reading. Smith is a Canadian, so his phrasing, examples, and lexicon are refreshing for American readers. He often writes with beautiful simplicity and clarity—both of which the church can never have enough of.

My Favorite Quotes

  • “We are invited not only to pray the prayer but also, in praying, to enter into the kingom—to seek it and to live in this new dimension of reality.” (p. 5)
  • “In our praying not only are we asking God to change things, but we are being changed.” (p. 7)
  • “Yes, we do need to be agents of positive change, but could it be that we can only discern God’s particular call on us now if we’re able to see how God is already at work?” (p. 15)
  • “Praying in the Spirit means that in our prayers we listen twice as much as we speak.” (p. 25)
  • “If we think God is good to others and not to us, we do not really believe that God is truly good.” (p. 39)
  • “Confession is not a matter of getting God to love us. Indeed, we make confession precisely because we know we are loved.” (p. 58)
  • “And this requires persistent prayers—ideally daily—for the very simple reason that the impact of our prayers is their cumulative effect.” (p. 93)

The Most Important Thing About You

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. — A.W. Tozer

I first opened The Knowledge of The Holy three years ago. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit it took me that long to read its 117 pages, but only somewhat. Some of that time was spent wandering away from its pages to more seemingly immediate things which needed reading (thus is the life of a pastor and seminary student). But mostly it took me three years because I was brought to my knees by the power of Tozer’s words as they unfolded the holiness of God.

Alissa Wilkinson once wrote that, “any person who can say what you’re thinking before you find the words is irresistible.” This was my first experience with Tozer. Each page I found myself increasingly drawn in to his thundering presentation of God’s character. And who wouldn’t be with sentences like this?

We have lost our spirit of worship and our ability to meet God in adorning silence. Modern Christianity is simply not producing the kind of Christian who can appreciate or experience life in the Spirit. The words, ‘Be still, and know that I am God,’ mean next to nothing to the self-confident, bustling worshiper in this middle period of the twentieth century.

Good thing Tozer wasn’t around for Twitter.

As the title suggests, The Knowledge of The Holy is interested in stirring our knowledge of the holiness of God and correcting our wrong thoughts about Him on the way. And this he does with a resounding sense of authority and urgency one rarely witnesses today.

For Tozer, there is little time to mince words and piddle around in the Church when a high view of God is being eroded day by day.

The loss of the concept of majesty has come just when the forces of religion are making dramatic gains and the churches are more prosperous than at any time within the past several hundred years. But the alarming thing is that our gains are mostly external and our losses wholly internal; and since it is the quality of our religion that is affected by internal conditions, it may be that our supposed gains are but losses spread over a wider field.

The two paragraphs quoted above are from the preface. Tozer has barely warmed up. What follows are 23 deceptively brief chapters about the nature of God, each dealing with one particular attribute.

I sat down to try and write a brief review of this book, but found there was simply no way to summarize everything it has to say in one short book review. Since each chapter and its subject matter is worth dwelling on, that’s what I’ll be doing. I’ll be writing one article for each of the 23 chapters of The Knowledge of The Holy. After all, there is no more important subject than the nature of God, so this will be time well spent.

If you can’t already tell, I definitely recommend buying this book. Its one of those classics which were we’re so fortunate to have. You know, the kind you can actually read and understand.

Buy The Knowledge of The Holy from Amazon

The Ministry Shift that Changes Everything

What if there was a shift you could make in ministry that would change everything? Authors Colin Marshall and Tony Payne think there is one, and that it’s the most foundational idea in the Christian faith — discipleship. This is the theme running throughout their book The Trellis and The Vine.

What “the trellis and the vine” means

The problem, according to the authors, is that too many within the church have overlooked that foundation in search of “better” methods and programs. This is where the metaphor of the “trellis and the vine” comes in:

“most churches are a mixture of trellis and vine. The basic work of any Christian ministry is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of God’s Spirit, and to see people converted, changed and grow to maturity in that gospel. That’s the work of planting, watering, fertilizing and tending the vine. However, just as some sort of framework is needed to help a vine grow, so Christian ministries also need some structure and support. It may not be much, but at the very least we need somewhere to meet, some Bibles to read from, and some basic structures of leadership within our group. All Christian churches, fellowships or ministries have some kind of trellis that gives shape and support to the work. As the ministry grows, the trellis also needs attention. Management, finances, infrastructure, organization, governance—these all become more important and more complex as the vine grows.”

What happens in many churches is an overemphasis on the trellis work. It’s often flashier and more pressing. The problems are right in front of you and scream for your attention. Small groups needs leading, budgets need tightening, staff needs vision, and emails never stop coming. So we keep up with the trellis work, assuming the vine is taking care of itself.

The power of the trellis and vine metaphor is striking. Its ties to biblical references only seek to strengthen its prophetic witness. Perhaps that’s why this book is so powerful, and why it broke on the scene after its release in 2009. Not many books come out of Australia and penetrate the rest of the Christian world like The Trellis and The Vine has.

And that’s for good reason. This is a good book. A really good book. And, I’m starting to think, a foundational book for pastoral ministry.

Focus on disciple-making

Here’s why: The Trellis and The Vine focuses sharply on what disciple-making looks like in a pastor’s life and his church’s life.

Marshall and Payne start where most books on discipleship start, with the Great Commission. But then the book gets interesting and starts to challenge its readers assumptions, a pattern that’s continued throughout the book. The authors make a point that’s been made elsewhere, but that’s not often talked about — which part of the Great Commission is actually the command.

“Sometimes our translations may give the impression that ‘go’ is the emphasis of the command, but the main verb of the sentence is ‘make disciples’, with three subordinate participles hanging off it: going (or ‘as you go’), baptizing and teaching. ‘Baptizing’ and ‘teaching’ are the means by which the disciples are to be made.”

The more common way the Great Commission is understood is where “go” is the primary command and making disciples, baptism, and teaching flow from the “going.” But if churches have this understanding it can lead them to,

“think that they are obeying the Great Commission if they send money (and missionaries) overseas. But the emphasis of the sentence is not on ‘going’. In fact, the participle is probably better translated “when you go” or “as you go”. The commission is not fundamentally about mission out there somewhere else in another country. It’s a commission that makes disciple-making the normal agenda and priority of every church and every Christian disciple.”

In just these few, pointed sentences they lay down the logic for why The Great Commission is for every Christian (and therefore every pastor and church). That means each Christ-follower and their churches must focus on disciple-making as the core of their mission. (Notice I’m using the term disciple-making. I’m implying, as are the authors, that the Great Commission is both evangelism and discipleship. Disciples are to be found (evangelism), then taught to obey Jesus’ commands (discipleship).)

More than a how-to manual

But this book isn’t a simple how-to manual. Far from it. Much of the middle of it spends time examining just what God is doing in this world, how He plans to carry it out, and what it means that we are saved by grace.

The rest of the book draws these ideas out, going through the pastor’s personal and professional life, and how this plays out in the church. The authors aren’t suggesting minor tweaks in a church’s programs, but a radical shift in how it does ministry and what those ministries are:

“most churches need to make a conscious shift—away from erecting and maintaining structures, and towards growing people who are disciple-making disciples of Christ.”

By that, they mean churches need to shift some of their attention away from trellis work, and focus it on the vine where it belongs. And here’s what “vine work” means:

“This is what the growing vine really is: it is individual, born-again believers, grafted into Christ by his word and Spirit, and drawn into mutually edifying fellowship with one another.”

That has drastic implications for what pastors and churches focus on.

If God is at work making his gospel known throughout the world through disciple-making disciples of Jesus, then the pastor’s life and schedule should reflect that priority, and even come to emphasize it. This means a pastor might spend more time in one-on-one training and mentoring, or perhaps more time meeting with 3-4 men who are being trained to teach others the truth of the gospel.

It also means shifting our from making followers of our particular church or denomination to focus on making followers of Jesus. This implies shifting focus away from growing our particular churches to growing the Kingdom of God and its gospel-influence.

The heart of the shift in ministry

At the heart of this shift in ministry is a return to training. But this isn’t simply training Christians how to do certain things, such as reading their Bibles and having a quiet time (though those are obviously important). Instead, the authors say that,

“training is much more about Christian thinking and living than about particular skills or competencies.”

I like the dual emphasis on both the mind and the heart, because it echoes the Great Commandment to holistically love God.

The training section of this book is a goldmine of wisdom and practical information. Their goal is not to give you a blueprint of what to do, but convictions of what you should be doing.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s very helpful for pastors and church leaders, and foundational for church planters. At the same time, it’s for anyone in the church, because the call to make disciples doesn’t fall on pastors alone. The writing is concise, potent, and sage. If you’re looking for a book to help you understand discipleship and the implications of the Great Commission, this a great place to start.

Top quotes

  • “The first and most obvious is that if this is really what God is doing in our world then it is time to say goodbye to our small and self-oriented ambitions, and to abandon ourselves to the cause of Christ and his gospel.”
  • “The Christian without a missionary heart is an anomaly…We have to conclude that a Christian with no passion for the lost is in serious need of self-examination and repentance.”
  • “…most churches need to make a conscious shift—away from erecting and maintaining structures, and towards growing people who are disciple-making disciples of Christ.”
  • “But our view of gospel work must be global as well as local: the goal isn’t church growth (in the sense of our local church expanding in numbers, budget, church-plants and reputation) but gospel growth. If we train and send workers into new fields (both local and global), our local ministry might not grow numerically but the gospel will advance through these new ministers of the word.”
  • “But it’s interesting how little the New Testament talks about church growth, and how often it talks about ‘gospel growth’ or the increase of the ‘word’. The focus is on the progress of the Spirit-backed word of God as it makes its way in the world, according to God’s plan.”
  • “…people-growth happens only through the power of God’s Spirit as he applies his word to people’s hearts.”
  • “The radicalism of this demand often feels a world away from the ordinariness of our normal Christian habits and customs. We go to church, where we sing a few songs, try to concentrate on the prayers, and hear a sermon. We chat to people afterwards, and then go home for a normal week of work or study or whatever it is that we do, in time to come again next week. We might read our Bible and pray during the week. We may even attend a small group. But would someone observing from outside say: ‘Look: there is someone who has abandoned his life to Jesus Christ and his mission’?”
  • “The heart of training is not to impart a skill, but to impart sound doctrine. Paul uses the language of ‘training’ to refer to a lifelong process whereby Timothy and his congregation are taught by Scripture to reject false religion, and to conform their hearts and their lives to sound doctrine. Good biblical training results in a godly life based on sound, health-giving teaching.”
  • “…training is inescapably relational. It cannot be done in a classroom via the supposedly neutral transferral of information. The trainer is calling upon the trainee to adopt not only his teaching, but also the way of life that necessarily flows from that teaching.”
  • “A commitment to the growth of the gospel will mean that we train people towards maturity not for the benefit of our own churches or fellowships but for the benefit of Christ’s kingdom.”
  • “Christian discipleship is about sound doctrine and a godly life, and so to train or equip someone to minister to others means training and equipping them with godliness and right thinking, not just with a set of skills—because that in turn is how they will need to minister to others.”
  • “The Bible doesn’t speak of people being ‘called’ to be a doctor or a lawyer or a missionary or a pastor. God calls us to himself, to be Christian. Our ‘vocation’ (which comes from the Latin word ‘to call’) is to be Christ’s disciple and to obey everything that he commanded—including the commandment to make disciples of all nations. In that sense, all Christians are ‘ministers’, called and commissioned by God to give up their lives to his service, to walk before him in holiness and righteousness, and to speak the truth in love whenever and however they can.”

Buy The Trellis and The Vine on Amazon