With millions of Christian believers holding mass prayer rallies worldwide, scholars and prayer-movement leaders are asking whether this development foreshadows church renewal on a global scale.
Many prayer-movement activists fervently assert their commitment to prayer will usher in a modern-day Great Awakening like the eighteenth-century event that revived the church in America. However, other Christian leaders and scholars are wary of such bold expectations.
Whether or not 1994's prayer movements are a warm-up for revival, few people dispute the tremendous growth in organized corporate prayer during the past ten years.
The June 25 March for Jesus, involving 12 million Christians in 179 countries, and the September 21 See You at the Pole campaign, with nearly 2 million high-school students, are two of the most visible recent manifestations of this expanding phenomenon, as millions of believers are expressing their Christian devotion through public prayer and witness.
According to David Barrett, a leading demographer of global Christianity, 160 million Christians worldwide are committed to daily prayer for revival and world evangelization. He estimates there are 1,300 global prayer networks and 10 million prayer groups that have revival on their agenda.
Prayer activists are using every conceivable vehicle to gather and pray together, such as all-night prayer vigils, round-the-clock prayer chains, and even electronic mail. David Bryant, executive director of Concerts of Prayer International, says that prayer gatherings can involve anywhere from a handful of people in a park to millions in dozens of nations linked up via satellite television.
"A prayer movement that greatly surpasses anything, perhaps in all of Christian history, is rapidly gaining momentum," says C. Peter Wagner, a church-growth expert at the Fuller Church Growth Institute, Pasadena, California.
PRECURSOR TO REVIVAL?
By one definition, a prayer movement is a large-scale, grassroots commitment to corporate prayer, crossing denominational, racial, and geographic lines, and that spills over into evangelistic activity. What has been striking about the current prayer movement is an unusual amount of cooperation and unity of purpose across different Christian faith traditions. Pentecostals and charismatics are joining mainline Protestants and Catholics in public prayer gatherings and agreeing to pray for conversions to Christ rather than conversions to Protestantism or Catholicism.
Some scholars, including church historian Richard Lovelace, argue that the prayer movement today could be a precursor to church renewal. Others are not so certain. "As a much-burned historian, I get nervous with modern cause-and-effect explanations of revivals," says Mark Noll, professor of history at Wheaton College (Ill.) and author of A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. "I don't want to dampen enthusiasm, but we can't predict what can happen."
Darryl Hart, librarian and associate professor of church history at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, believes a connection between prayer and revival is too simplistic. That kind of analysis, he says, "neglects the sociological issues that could influence revivals." Among these issues are changing economic circumstances, the ebb and flow of cultural trends, and evangelical Christianity's distinctive appeal to individualism. Hart explains that evangelicalism's call to a personal decision for Christ is tailor-made for a society caught in the whirl of social and economic change.
Many in the prayer movement are committed to pray because they are convinced they are reshaping history.
Last year, the AD 2000 evangelism movement launched "Praying Through the 10/40 Window," a program focusing on the area of the world between 10 degrees and 40 degrees north latitude stretching from North Africa and southern Spain to Japan and northern Philippines, a region largely dominated by other religious traditions. Some 1,200 people from 32 nations were part of "prayer teams" sent to 62 of these least evangelized countries to pray in those countries' few churches and, in an act of spiritual courage, pray to the God of Judeo-Christian faith in front of temples devoted to other gods. The teams did not preach or distribute Christian literature. Also supporting the prayer campaign were 28,000 churches worldwide.
AD 2000, based in Colorado Springs, has as its goal "A church for every people and the gospel for every person by AD 2000." With such a dramatic target date, those Christians who are part of the network are quickly mobilizing, giving momentum to the prayer movement.
New technology plays an important role in motivating people to pray. In the same way that Jonathan Edwards attributed the spread of revival to the printing press in the 1730s, so today the information highway, faxes, laptop computers, and global TV channels are being harnessed to leverage evangelism and corporate prayer. "News of awakening tends to stimulate awakening," says Lovelace.
State-of-the-art technology has transformed church prayer meetings into multimedia celebrations. In 1993, several youth ministries cosponsored an evangelistic follow-up to the successful See You at the Pole prayer campaign. Operation Powerlink drew 1 million teens across the country electronically. As youth gathered at 50,000 pizza parties for prayer and evangelism, they were linked to each other via satellite over 325 TV stations and 2,100 cable affiliates, through which evangelist Josh McDowell preached, then gave an invitation to follow Christ. Some 87,000 said yes.
Rapid telecommunication was a critical factor in the success of March for Jesus. Ten fax machines at the Austin, Texas, headquarters received reports of the marches taking place on different continents. Reports were then forwarded to coordinating offices across the globe.
In addition, a phone line was established in London for recording one-minute reports of marches. Those were compiled into one recorded message and later rushed to Christian radio stations worldwide for broadcast.
The net effect was to minimize the boundaries of time, geography, and culture, generating a global and public prayer event focused on beseeching God to usher in worldwide spiritual renewal. While the focus was on prayer, many of the participating churches reported conversions by passersby moved by Christians' belief that prayer is a tangible expression of faith.
The concepts of "spiritual warfare" have been changing the way Christians pray just as profoundly as the use of new technology has.
A highly controversial subject among Christians, spiritual warfare is a form of prayer that sets out to do battle with evil spiritual forces.
Among some advocates of spiritual warfare, there has been extensive use of "spiritual mapping," a process of spiritually discerning the location of focused spiritual evil. This process involves researching a city's history and, through prayer, waiting for spiritually intuitive impressions or visions that "reveal" a city's spiritual condition. So in Cali, Colombia, for example, one of the discerned spirits might be drug addiction; in Portland, Oregon, individualism; and in Jeremie, Haiti, it might be voodoo. These broad characterizations are seen as parallels to biblical characterizations of cities such as Sodom and Gomorrah that had reputations for immorality.
Once discernment has taken place, groups and individuals pray intensively over a particular geographic area against the sin that has been identified.
The terminology of conflict fills the writings of spiritual warfare advocates. Evangelist Ed Silvoso writes in That None Should Perish that "the heavenly places are the battleground where the Church must face and defeat the forces of evil." He has whole chapters devoted to discussing how to "secure the perimeter," "infiltrate the enemy's territory," and "set the captives free." These tactics are the basis of prayer groups such as Generals of Intercession and the Sentinel Group.
The impact of spiritual warfare techniques on many prayer activists cannot be underestimated. Within the spiritual warfare community, marital problems, division among leaders, unexpected illnesses, and many other difficulties are understood and treated as "satanic attacks" to be repulsed through directly confronting evil.
Wagner, editor of "Territorial Spirits," a major treatment of spiritual warfare, has no doubts that the explosive growth of the church in certain areas is related to the successful efforts of spiritual warfare.
Many scholars and Christian leaders have approached spiritual warfare methods with greater caution. Clinton Arnold, associate professor of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California, and author of two books on the theological and historical view of spiritual warfare, believes spiritual warfare is biblical in relation to casting out demons. Yet, he says, spiritual mapping is "nowhere modeled or taught explicitly or implicitly in the Old or New Testament nor throughout church history."
Although spiritual mapping remains a relatively new part of the overall prayer movement, it has, to date, not generated sufficient controversy to divide those Christians working for renewal.
"There has come a sense of desperation that if God does not intervene, there is no hope," says Terry Dirks, vice president of Northwest Renewal Ministries in Portland, which has sponsored in the past five years 175 four-day "Prayer Summits," involving 6,500 pastors and church leaders from widely different denominations.
It is this sense of desperation that has galvanized many Christians to set aside sectarian differences and refocus on what they hold in common. This type of unprecedented unity through prayer inspires Bryant: "There's a work of spiritual revival hovering and ready to break open."
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