During college, I spent two months in Fresno, California as part of the Fresno Urban Internship with InterVarsity. The other participants and I partnered with local non-profits, learning about ethnicity, poverty, and God’s value for reconciliation. We also participated in weekly Urban Ministry classes. Each week, we heard from a variety of speakers- pastors, former gang members, even a former prostitute turned lawyer- and read challenging articles and books. One article stood out and continues to impact my life today.
In Prayer is Social Action*, John Robb, Chairman for the International Prayer Council, describes prayer in a way that is risky, powerful, and essential to our partnership with God as agents of transformation:
For years, Christians have divided themselves over the most effective means of transforming our world: verbal proclamation of the gospel… or social action. In truth, the two cannot be separated. Without both, there is simply no Good News. And one thing ties them both together: prayer to a God of temporal justice and eternal salvation… I can say there is no holistic transformation of people apart from united intercession by God’s people.
Lately, my twitter feed and Facebook timeline has been filled with stories of injustice happening in the US and around the world. The tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the persecution of not only Christians but other religious minorities by ISIS in Iraq, the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, and the suicide of Robin Williams- all heartbreaking events that beg a response.
Many articles have been written about practical actions we can take in regards to injustice, persecution, and mental illness (I will include links to these at the bottom of this article). But something that all Christians can do right now is commit to prayer.
I can already hear your protests. Isn’t prayer a cop-out? Yes, I think it can be and I think many Christians have used prayer to avoid action. Robb addresses this particular concern:
I’m not saying that prayer is all that is necessary to change the world. For too long, too many evangelical Christians believe prayer is a substitute for action, dumping on God the responsibility for doing what he has already commanded us to do throughout Scripture. But neither is social action a substitute for prayer.
Prayer seems not enough. The problems are too big. In this tension, we become discouraged and wind up neither praying nor acting. Maybe we’ll “like” a Facebook post or retweet a compelling tweet. But without prayer or action, these well-intentioned yet vapid shows of support are meaningless.
It’s easy to favorite a tweet. It’s hard to ask God, “What does this mean for me? How am I called to respond?”
Prayer as Social Action
The type of prayer I’m arguing for is humble, honest and compassionate. It’s prayer that resists the temptation to ignore and calls out to God for wisdom, guidance, justice and redemption.
We see this type of prayer modeled in Scripture. When Nehemiah is confronted with the oppression happening to his people in the desecrated Jerusalem, he grieves and cries out to God. Then he acts in response to his prayers. Prayer and action are crucial to Nehemiah’s commitment to justice.
Some of us are silent and doing nothing, we need to get on our knees and pray. Some of us are vocally advocating and participating, we also need to get on our knees and pray. Sometimes the radical thing we can do is pause to pray in the midst of our chaotic, sin-sickened world.
Here are some ways you can participate in the social action of prayer this week:
1) Read articles from various voices and pray in response
As a guide, prayerfully read a few of these articles. As you read them, ask God, “How are you asking me to respond?”
On Michael Brown:
Black Bodies White Souls, a challenging article by Austin Channing Brown
Three Ways to Engage with Ferguson posted at Release the A.P.E.
When Your House is Dirty and Your Kids are Screaming, Why Care About Ferguson?, thoughts from a stay-at-home mom
On Mental Illness:
I Am Robin Williams, a vulnerable post by a Presbyterian pastor
Ebola by Michelle Harris, a missionary who lived in Gabon during an Ebola outbreak
On the Crisis in Iraq:
A Life of Prayer Amidst News of Death, a thoughtful response by Tish Harrison Warren
2) Rearrange your church service or small group plans.
If you are a pastor, what would it look like for you to scrap your Sunday morning plans and lead your church in a concert of prayer devoted to the issues of injustice in the world? Meet with people in your community who have a special interest in the events in Ferguson, MO or the Ebola outbreak. Consult with them on how your church can respond.
If you are a small group leader, consider reading some of the articles above together as small group and discussing them. Pray together as a community and listen to what God may ask of you.
3) Make intercessory prayer a regular spiritual rhythm
As I expressed earlier, we can often view prayer as a cop-out. I think it’s right to be aware of that. Truthfully, prayer without action is disingenuous and lacks integrity. But often, our lack of prayer exposes a lack of trust in God or over-confidence in ourselves. Do we believe that God is powerful enough to act in situations of injustice and evil? Do we doubt his goodness and his desire to make all things new?
Pray for the injustices you see several times this week. If you listen to the news in the car or if you have a routine of reading the newspaper, transform those times into prayer. Pray in response to what you read and hear.
Consider using Shane Claiborne’s “Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals” as a devotional tool to help make intercession a regular rhythm. This book of prayer often highlights our response as Christians to issues of injustice in the world.
A Prayer for Social Action
I’ll end this article with the closing paragraph of Prayer is Social Action and a prayer.
We live in an age when people often pray small prayers and have limited expectations of God. Perhaps they believe he does not really care about the world’s suffering. Perhaps they doubt his willingness to interfere in our temporal injustices. Maybe some people even believe him impotent. But I believe history belongs to the intercessors, those willing to believe that God is bigger than our suffering, those willing to believe that his power is more than able to answer the world’s needs, those willing to confront him with their God-given vision of a society full of justice, health, and love.
Join me in praying The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,(We believe that you are all-powerful, all-loving, and all-holy)
Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. (We believe and trust that you will make all things new. We long for that day. Help us to know how to partner with you in the here and now.)
Give us this day our daily bread (Thank you for providing for us. Provide for those who are in great need- the sick, the oppressed, the dying, the mentally ill. Show us how to partner with you in the needs of our community and the world.)
And forgive us our trespasses (Forgive us for our apathy, silence and inaction. Forgive us for our prejudice and pride. Forgive us for our lack of love. Help us to empathize with our hurting brothers & sisters.)
As we forgive those who trespass against us. (Help us to forgive and extend love to those who oppress. Grow our desire for justice but lessen our desire for revenge. )
Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil (Expose our own prejudice, help us lay down our pride and defensiveness. Don’t let our righteous anger turn into rage and bitterness. Remind us of our role as agents of healing and reconciliation in the world.)
For thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory Forever and Ever. (Above all else, you are sovereign, you are in control, we trust you.)
To help you stay informed or learn how to engage, consider reading these additional articles
What the Church & Christians Need to Know About Suicide & Mental Health, a beautiful post by Ann Voscamp
From Understanding to Repentance, an Asian-American perspective on the events in Ferguson
First They Came for the Black People, and I Did Not Speak Out, an article from a former IV staff about Ferguson
What’s in our Hearts: Duke, Greeks and Passive Racism, an article I wrote a year ago on how white people can respond to issues of injustice
*John Robb with Larry Wilson, “In God’s Kingdom… Prayer is Social Action,” World Vision, Feb/March 1997, 3-4.