Prayer has always served as an expression of Christian faith, and has never been limited to a denominational preference. A recent article in Relevant magazine quoted John Maempa, director of the Office of Prayer and Spiritual Care for the Assemblies of God, who observed, “Desperation is building among many within the church to call upon God in these very challenging days. Conditions today are bringing the Church together as never before….” He went on to add, “Prayer is a common-denominator discipline within the Church.” The same urgency is felt across the denominational spectrum. Last year, Southern Baptist Executive Committee President Frank Page wrote, “…God has laid on my heart the need to emphasize prayer and spiritual awakening like never before…I am asking all Southern Baptists to join me in a year of emphasis on prayer like none we’ve ever seen before.”
Clearly prayer is on nearly everyone’s mind but why now? Prayer has been a part of the Christian life since our earliest days in that “upper room” in Jerusalem. So when did the current emphasis, which is being felt throughout the Evangelical, Charismatic and Pentecostal traditions, begin?
The branches of the contemporary worldwide prayer movement may have their roots in the prayer ministries of 20th century South Korea.
That tiny country has seen the rapid spread of Evangelical as well as Pentecostal Christianity in the last 100 years. Persecuted Korean Christians in the late 19th century were forced to worship in private due to pressure from the indigenous religions of Buddhism, Confucianism and the mandatory practice of Shinto, brought to Korea by the invading Japanese army. As a result, Korean Christians built prayer rooms in the caves of surrounding mountains and rose for prayer as early as 4:00 am to seek God and worship daily before their workday began. Today, the prayer movement still dominates the worship style of the South Korean Christians. One church even owns a retreat called “Prayer Mountain” where as many as 10,000 people can gather at once for daily morning prayer.
After World War II, the Evangelical and Pentecostal wings of Christianity found new freedom in South Korea and churches of all denominations grew to record sizes. Of the 10 largest churches in the world, half of them are in South Korea, including the world’s largest church. Each of those churches traces their growth to an emphasis on prayer. Church Growth researchers in the West began studying the rapid growth of the Korean Church and discovered the unmistakeable link to their relentless emphasis and unusual commitment to prayer. That led to a plethora of books read, and conferences attended by seminary students and pastors over the last 3 decades related to the importance of prayer and church health and growth.
Closer to home, at about the same time, something else was developing that would help shape the prayer movement and the over-all church going experience in America. In the United States, far from South Korea, in Southern California and across the country a seemingly separate movement occurred in the early 1970’s referred to as the “Jesus Movement” (See my first BLOG post). Tens of thousands of young people on college campuses and in the Hippie culture were swept into a blend of old school revival teachings focused on urgent evangelism, literal Bible interpretation, passionate worship, and the return of Christ, all combined with a new kind of Christian music fueled by the rock beats of Southern California. This phenomenon, called the Jesus Movement, occurred simultaneously with the beginnings of the modern prayer movement.
With the “old time gospel” wed to a rock beat, the ancient “Spiritual Disciplines” were suddenly cool, and are taken for granted as an accepted part of many churches today. It is hard to say if the “prayer movement” or the “Jesus Movement” came first, which influenced the other, or if they are actually two sides of the same movement, but what is obvious is that in the 1970’s, following the wide spread impact of the Jesus Movement, the Mega Church phenomenon began. Since about 10 million American Church goers now attend a “Mega-Church,” one might reasonably assume that the fundamental teachings on prayer and worship are more common today across denominational lines than in previous decades.
Jack Hayford, a prominent Pentecostal leader, reviewing the history and growth of the church over the last one hundred years, sees the relationship between the renewal of the church and prayer. He writes, “In the last few decades the American church has gone through a prayer renewal.” The old saying, “prayer changes things” appears to be the explanation behind the noticeable differences in the American Christian experience of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. As a result, the prayer movement in the United States is stronger than ever before. With Church leaders alarmed by trends in culture and calling for prayer movements, the examples of the prayer movement will continue to rise and shape the way we think about what it means to be “Christian.”