5 Ways to Pray Missionally
We restless North Americans struggle immensely to prevail in prayer. I struggle in prayer. I see impoverished, persecuted believers in other parts of the world praying with fervor, corporately and individually, and I marvel at my own ineptitude when it comes to conversation with God.
Yet prayer is an inescapable concept. Desperation of any sort produces dependence on something, and that dependence overflows into pleading and petitioning. In response to the stress of life, turning to a bottle of pills, pulling a level in a polling booth, or obsessively scrolling Instagram can all be seen as ways in which people cry out to their gods. The question for us is not so much whether we will pray, but to whom. And only by calling upon the Triune God will we witness deliverance.
It’s because of our self-sufficiency that prayer is often a last resort rather than a natural reflex. What we need, then, is a radical recognition of our dependence. And nothing should produce a sense of dependence like the enormity of the Great Commission mandate.
Prayer is the combustion fuel of mission. So, what does this look like? Consider Luke 11:2-4: “And he said to them, ‘When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.”’
One brief article cannot wring Scripture dry of its insights regarding prayer. But by focusing particularly on Luke’s account of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:2-4, we can gain five critical insights on how to ignite our prayer lives and redirect our petitions toward God’s global purposes.
- Pray before activity (Luke 10:38-42).
In Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer—the one most of us have memorized—Jesus’ instructions come to us wedged within the Sermon on the Mount. But Luke places Jesus’ model prayer immediately following the well-known account of Mary and Martha. And it’s no coincidence that our passage on prayer comes on the heels of the stark contrast between Martha the frenetic do-gooder and Mary the pious, patient listener simply sitting at the feet of her Master. Luke intends for us to enter prayer recognizing that “but one thing is necessary” (10:42a).
Let us engrain in our minds the understanding that Spirit-filled prayer necessarily precedes any successful undertaking for the Lord. This pattern permeates Luke’s writings:
- In Luke 4, solitude and communion with God in the wilderness precede Christ’s public ministry.
- In 4:42-43, before Jesus calls the disciples in chapter 5, Jesus’ determination to preach the gospel of the kingdom in other towns appears to flow out of his time spent in quiet, secluded fellowship with the Father.
- Jesus instructs his followers in 10:2: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
- In Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:4, Jesus instructs his apostles to wait in Jerusalem to receive the Spirit before they embark on their mission, a command they observed by gathering and waiting together in prayer for ten days (cf. Acts 1:14, 2:1).
- When the disciples experience their first persecution in Acts 4, they gather again for prayer, and the result is continued boldness and the shaking of the very building in which they were assembled (vv. 23-31).
The lesson contained in this pattern was accurately summarized by the missionary statesman Hudson Taylor, who said, “Do not have your concert first, and then tune your instrument afterwards. Begin the day with the Word of God and prayer, and get first of all into harmony with Him.” Taylor also once commented, with his typical earnestness and simplicity, “Since the days of Pentecost, has the whole church ever put aside every other work and waited upon Him for ten days, that the Spirit’s power might be manifested? We give too much attention to method and machinery and resources, and too little to the source of power.”
Interestingly, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus concludes his instructions on prayer with the statement: “[I]f you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (v. 13). Therefore, model prayer—for the evangelist and for Jesus—consists not only in waiting in dependence on the Spirit before ministry activity is initiated, but also in petitioning the Father for the Spirit through Whom it is to be accomplished.
- Pray for global worship (Luke 10:2b).
The first petition of the prayer, “Hallowed be your name,” is often misunderstood simply as an honorific statement. But this truly is a request; Jesus instructs us to pray that God’s name (signifying his honor and reputation) would be hallowed, or regarded as holy, by human beings in all the earth—not because he is somehow unholy and must be sanctified, but because he is holy and is to be worshiped as such. We want God to be rightly recognized in the world as worthy of all the honor and worship he is due. To pray missionally is to pray in worship and for worship globally.
Benjamin Keach, the English Particular Baptist preacher and writer, summarized this part of the Lord’s Prayer aptly in his catechism: “What do we pray for in the first petition? In the first petition, which is ‘Hallowed be thy name,’ we pray that God would enable us and others to glorify Him in all that whereby He makes Himself known, and that He would dispose all things to His own glory (Matt. 6:9; Ps. 67:1-3; Rom. 11:36; Rev. 4:11).”
Prayer does not change God, who is immutable; it changes us, and it does so first by aligning our hearts with God’s passionate desire for his fame in all the earth—a desire expressed throughout Scripture:
- “[A]ll the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord…” (Num. 14:21).
- “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Ps. 46:10).
- “And one [seraph] called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’” (Isa. 6:3).
- “[T]he earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9).
- “…Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes” (Ez. 36:22-23).
- “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts” (Mal. 1:11).
God’s end-vision of universal worship is not in competition with his desire to redeem or save sinners—the purpose we usually associate with missions—but is in fact inextricable from it. The Abrahamic blessing (Gen. 12:3) is the coming of Christ (Gal. 3:16) to pour out the Spirit (Gal. 3:14) to accomplish the boundless joy of the worship of the nations. The salvation of sinners is a means to an end; the goal is the glory of God.
Prayer does not change God, who is immutable; it changes us, and it does so first by aligning our hearts with God’s passionate desire for his fame in all the earth.
To pray missionally, then, is not only to begin with a worshipful recognition of God’s character, but to pray for such a worshipful recognition among others. Worship is foundational; missions is temporary. As John Piper has rightly observed in Let the Nations Be Glad and in many messages through the years, “Missions exists because worship doesn’t.” In eternity, there will be no missionary activity or conversionary outreach, but there will be unending adoration of God. The goal of missions is to bring that state about for as many individuals as possible so that God would receive maximum praise.
- Pray for the kingdom (Luke 10:2c).
The second petition, “Your kingdom come,” is also often rushed over yet carries vast missiological import. But we must first ask: what kingdom, exactly, are we to pray for? After all, God is already king by virtue of creation (Ps. 47:2: “For the LORD, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth”). In what sense is God not already reigning supreme?
The kingdom in view is the eschatological kingdom; that is, the distinct kingdom of God stripped from Adam, foretasted in ancient Israel, inaugurated by Christ, and consummated at his return. This is the unique, saving, priestly, covenanted, culture-transforming realm of God’s dominion within the created kingdom of the cosmos itself. Second Temple Jews would often pray at the end of the synagogue service for this kingdom to be realized in a recited prayer known as the “Qaddish” (sanctification): “Exalted and hallowed be his great name in the world which he created according to his will. May he let his kingdom rule in your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the whole house of Israel, speedily and soon. And to this say: amen.” In Jesus, the anticipated kingdom of God becomes a present and permeating kingdom.
The future, final display of divine dominion has already entered the world through the gospel and its power to change hearts, drawing sinners into the church and into loving submission to Jesus as Ruler. In contrast with the final, consummate new heavens and earth—the kingdom of the Father—this is the kingdom of the Son, growing and spreading until it will finally be presented to the Father by the Son, so that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:20-28).
Hence, to pray for the Father’s kingdom to come is to pray for the fulfillment of the Great Commission and the blanketing of the world with the gospel now as a precursor to the eternal state. In the Lord’s Prayer, we are reminding God to speed forth the progress of the good news worldwide and the manifestation of that kingdom now in our local assemblies of the redeemed. We are praying for every tribe, tongue, and nation for whom Christ died to be brought into the fold.
Keach helps us again in his catechism: “In the second petition, which is ‘Thy kingdom come,’ we pray that Satan’s kingdom may be destroyed, and that the kingdom of grace may be advanced; ourselves and others brought into it, and kept in it, and that the kingdom of glory may be hastened (Matt. 6:10; Ps. 68:1-18; Rom. 10:1; 2 Thess. 3:1; Matt. 9:37, 38; Rev. 22:20).”
To pray for the kingdom of God is to pray for nothing short of the gospel coming and turning every power and worldly dominion on its head. This point cannot be overstated. The coming of the kingdom, present now and someday present fully, is the sort of revolution for which we long. Albert Mohler writes:
“Something within us cries out that the world is horribly broken and must be fixed. … We are actually desperate for what no earthly revolution can produce. We long for the Kingdom of God, and for Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We are looking for a kingdom that will never end and a King whose rule is perfect. This is why Christians pray the Lord’s Prayer… This short prayer turns the world upside down. Principalities and powers hear their fall. Dictators are told their time is up. Might will indeed be made right and truth and justice will prevail. The kingdoms of this world will all pass, giving way to the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ.”
Matthew’s version of Jesus’ model prayer reinforces this point: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). But Luke, summarizing Christ’s teaching in a different context, offers a simpler version with less liturgical flourish, moving us right on to the petition for daily provision.
- Pray for provision (Luke 10:3).
Even in the third and fourth petitions, as the Lord’s Prayer peels away from cosmic realities into the dailiness of life, the result is filled with missiological implications for ordinary life—from the way in which we engage others in relationship to the very food on our tables.
Few believers feel the weight of the words “Give us each day our daily bread” quite like missionaries. From the 72 disciples whom Jesus sends without money sacks (Luke 10:4) and those who, according to 3 John, went out on mission “accepting nothing from the Gentiles” (v. 7), to the many faith-supported missionaries raising funds today, it is evident that full-time gospel ministry has a unique way of teaching dependence upon God for provision. And the good news is that God gives us exactly what we need at all times, not to satisfy every longing, but to accomplish his will—often more, but never less (2 Cor. 9:9, Phil. 4:19).
Further, receiving and enjoying our daily provision is itself missiological. Worshipful feasting is evangelistic. In Acts 2:46-47, we see this on vivid display: “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” We are inviting the nations to sit at a banquet (Matt. 8:11, Rev. 19:6-9). Rather than insisting on asceticism (Col. 2:18), believers even signify the new covenant with bread and wine (1 Cor. 11:23-25).
Even when, in our endeavor to serve God, we find ourselves in need, we are enabled to be content through all circumstances (Phil. 4:13). And like Christ, we have a food to eat which others do not know (John 4:32)—the satisfaction of doing God’s will.
- Pray for forgiveness (Luke 10:4).
Missional prayer—the sort that overturns kingdoms and witnesses the transformation of souls—is not purely focused outside the individual. The petition “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” speaks to our obligation to walk prayerfully in grace and forgiveness. We must not only intercede for the spread of the gospel externally, but the deepening of the gospel’s impact in our own hearts. We cannot buttonhole everyone else with our gospel but remain calloused ourselves. We cannot give grace unless we have received it.
This application forms much of the context of Matthew’s version: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (6:14-15). True Christians who call on God as Father must practice forgiveness to evidence that they have received it.
As we pray for forgiveness, we are also to pray proactively so as not to fall into sin. The petition “Lead us not into temptation” speaks to the fact that, while God does not tempt (James 1:1-15), he does permit us to face trials. Yet in doing so, he also gives us strength to overcome. “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:12-13).
To pray proactively against sin is to prepare ourselves for the missionary call. This is why the Apostle Paul reminded Timothy that to be useful to God means one must not be a defiled container fit only for common use. “Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:21).
The Lord’s Prayer, which most of us have memorized, stands as a constant invitation from Christ to come away and seek his face before we rush out in frenzied spiritual activity. Hudson Taylor wisely remarked, “The power of prayer has never been tried to its full capacity in any church. If we want to see mighty wonders of divine grace and power wrought in the place of weakness, failure and disappointment, let the whole Church answer God’s standing challenge; ‘Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knows not.’”
Throughout Luke 11 and beyond, Jesus continually emphasizes the Father’s willingness to hear our prayer and provide the Spirit to accomplish the work of mission. Even when we fail in prayer, he hears. Christ’s atoning blood purifies our weakest, most distracted mumblings to God, redeeming them into effectual prayers used to accomplish the will of God. God is zealous for the fame of his name, and as his people pray toward that end, he responds and empowers us for mission.