Why Prayer is an Essential Part of Missions
It has often been observed that a person’s last words convey great significance. Whether someone is dying or leaving not to return, they weigh carefully what they say. Final words will be remembered, treasured, and have lasting value.
With this in mind, it is important to consider our Savior’s last words before He went back to His Father. He said a number of things, but in each of His final encounters with His followers, there was one message that He repeatedly emphasized: take the gospel to the nations! We call this the Great Commission. It is the Lord’s great mandate to the church.
This Commission is found in several places in the Scriptures, including Matthew 28:18–20, Mark 16:15–16, John 20:21, and Acts 1:8. This same directive was earlier stated by Jesus in Matthew 24:14: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” In this verse, we understand that the word “nations” does not refer to our modern concept of countries. Rather it denotes the various ethnic or people groups of the world. In other words, Christ has commanded the church to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God to all the various ethnic groups of the world.
Is the mission complete?
The Lord’s emphasis on announcing the Good News to the nations implies that there are people who have not heard the message — indeed, that there are people who desperately need to hear the message. Since the gospel is the message of salvation (Romans 1:16), if these people do not have it announced to them (Romans 10:13–14), then they are hopelessly lost (Mark 16:16; John 3:3, 36). Thus the vital importance of the Great Commission is apparent.
The world’s ethnic populations that have not been effectively impacted by the gospel are called “unreached people groups.” Of the more than 17,000 ethnic groups in the world today, a little over 7,100 are unreached. For some of these groups, there may be a nascent or fledgling Christian presence. However, there is not enough of a gospel witness for the culture to experience the full transforming power of Christ’s message. Thus, these people remain “unreached.”
The two requirements for reaching the unreached
This raises the question: how are they to be reached? The Scriptures are clear that reaching the peoples of the earth is accomplished through Christian believers proclaiming the message of the Savior to those who have not heard (Matthew 24:14; Romans 10:12–15). The basic requirement, then, is a messenger who is sent to proclaim the gospel. Yet I would submit that as fundamentally and vitally important as this is, there is one other factor that is also absolutely required. There must be prayer. There must be prayer for the messenger who is sent, for the message itself to be effective, and for the hearts of the recipients of the message to hear and actively receive the Good News of salvation. When considering the Great Commission, one may not readily consider prayer as an essential ingredient. But the witness of both Scripture and church history demonstrates the absolute necessity of prayer as a vital component in reaching the lost and unreached peoples of the earth. Why do I say this?
First of all, prayer is basic to everything that God does on the earth. We recognize that God is sovereign and can do anything He chooses. The fact is, though, that He has sovereignly chosen to accomplish His work through prayer. As the noted 19th-century preacher Charles Spurgeon once observed, “Like it or not, asking is the rule of the Kingdom.” John Wesley asserted, “God will do nothing but in answer to prayer.” Dwight L. Moody echoed the same sentiment, “Every work of God can be traced to some kneeling form.” We could go on and cite numerous quotations and examples from men and women of faith through the centuries — all affirming the same truth: God chooses to work through prayer. It is no wonder that the Apostle James declared, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2).
This general principle, that God chooses to work through the prayers of His people, applies to every area of the Christian experience. This includes missions and world evangelism. Indeed, the testimony of the New Testament writers, the model of Jesus, and the wisdom of great saints in sacred history bear witness to this fact. Let’s look at some examples that demonstrate this truth.
Prayer and missions in the New Testament
We see that the calling and sending of Paul and Barnabas as missionaries occur during a time of prayer, fasting, and worship:
- “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” (Acts 13:2–3)
There are repeated exhortations to pray that the gospel message will be proclaimed successfully:
- “…[Pray] also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel….” (Ephesians 6:19)
- “Pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ…” (Colossians 4:3)
- “Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you.” (2 Thessalonians 3:1)
The disciples saw the necessity of prayer in order to proclaim the gospel boldly and effectively:
- “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.” (Acts 4:29)
- “So pray that I will keep on speaking boldly for him, as I should.” (Ephesians 6:20, NLT)
- “Pray that I will proclaim this message as clearly as I should.” (Colossians 4:4, NLT)
- “…I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective…” (Philemon 1:6)
The Savior clearly taught us to pray for the harvest and for needed workers: “And he said to them, ‘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’” (Luke 10:2).
If there is no other biblical rationale for praying for missions, for the lost and unreached, we have the example of Jesus Himself. The Lord defined His mission as “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). With this in mind, the pattern of Jesus that we observe in the Gospels is significant. We often see Him seeking His Father in prayer: “In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12). Jesus’ mission of announcing the Kingdom of God began with 40 days of prayer and fasting and then was bathed in prayer throughout His earthly ministry. More to the point, Jesus specifically prayed for those who would be reached through the proclamation of the gospel by His followers (John 17:20). How important is prayer in ministry? Even now one of Christ’s primary ministries is prayer for the church (Hebrews 7:25).
Prayer and missions in church history
When we examine the evidence of church history, we also see that prayer and missions consistently go together. In truth, one of the most frequent characteristics seen in the lives of great missionaries is their devotion to prayer. They understood that missions would not occur, indeed could not occur, without fervent, focused, and urgent prayer. Many illustrations of this could be offered. Here are several:
In 1727 a mighty move of the Holy Spirit stirred the hearts of Count Zinzendorf and the Moravian Brethren in Bohemia. This launched a prayer movement that continued 24 hours a day for over 100 years. Within the first 25 years over 100 Moravians were sent to the mission field. This prayer and evangelistic effort helped launch the modern missions movement. Furthermore, the example of the Moravians inspired both the Wesleys and William Carey in their vision for world evangelization.
David Brainerd was a mighty man of God. He served as a missionary to Native American tribes in the early 18th century. Yet, his most effective work was in prayer. Jonathan Edwards once said that the Great Awakening was a direct result of the prayers of Brainerd.
David Livingstone earned renown as both a missionary and explorer in Africa. He was also known as a man of great and effective prayer. Indeed, when he died, his body was found in the mud hut where he lived, kneeling beside his cot in prayer.
That great 19th-century missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, knew the power of prayer in missions. Preparing for his mission, he declared, “When I get to China, I will have no claim on anyone for anything. My claim will be alone in God and I must learn before I leave England to move men through God by prayer alone.” He challenged the church to pray for missions with these words: “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.”
A. B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, asserted, “Prayer is the mighty engine that is to move the missionary work.”
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, John Mott was a prominent figure in world missions, especially among young people. He was a key player in helping various Christian ministries to cooperate together in international missions. Mott once said, “The history of missions is a history of prayer. Everything vital to the success of the world’s evangelization hinges on prayer.”
E.M. Bounds is noted as a foremost authority on the importance and power of prayer. In his book The Essentials of Prayer, Bounds wrote this: “Prayer has a great deal to do with missions. Prayer is the hand-maid of missions. The success of all real missionary effort is dependent on prayer. The life and spirit of missions are the life and spirit of prayer. Both prayer and missions were born in the Divine Mind…. The key of all missionary success is prayer.”
Samuel Zwemer was an American missionary, scholar, and writer from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. He labored diligently to reach Muslims for Christ and was known as “The Apostle to Islam.” Zwemer saw prayer as a key component of missionary work. He asserted, “The history of missions is the history of answered prayer.”
The story of Elisabeth Elliot is well known. After her husband, Jim Elliot, was killed in 1956, she returned to Ecuador to reach the very natives who had martyred him. She became a very successful missionary to these unreached people. She stated, “Prayer lays hold of God’s plan and becomes the link between His will and its accomplishment on earth. Amazing things happen, and we are given the privilege of being the channels of the Holy Spirit’s prayer.”
For over 70 years, Wesley L. Duewel served the church as a missionary. He spent 25 years in the field reaching people in India. Then for many years, he was the president of One Mission Society (OMS). He knew the power of prayer in missions. He stated, “We can reach our world if we will. The greatest lack today is not people or funds. The greatest need is prayer.”
Former leader of World Vision’s prayer ministries, John Robb, is the Chairman of the International Prayer Council. He has served as a pastor, field missionary, author, and missions researcher. He boldly makes this claim: “Prayer is the most powerful part of mission to unreached peoples, because God does what only He can do.”
Thus it is evident from both Scripture and church history that prayer is vital to the work of all missionary endeavors. This is especially true in reaching those peoples of the earth who are classified as “unreached,” with little or no exposure to the message of the gospel. John Robb’s admonition is poignantly true — only God can do this work. Therefore, we must pray. Prayer is the crucial dynamic needed to engage and reach the unreached peoples of the earth.
How you can make a difference
This is the summation of the matter. The Lord Himself has commissioned the church to take the Good News of the Kingdom to all the peoples of the earth. There are thousands of people groups who have not yet been reached with the gospel. To accomplish Christ’s mandate, we must be active in going to these people with the Savior’s message. However, the work of missionaries cannot be effective unless it is grounded in prayer and energized by prayer. Prayer is the key element required for the successful evangelization of the world’s peoples.
For more information to help you pray, or to download the Prayer Guide for the Unreached, please visit the prayer page of our website.
“God has willed that his miraculous work of harvesting be preceded by prayer. He loves to bless the world. But even more, he loves to bless the world in answer to prayer.” – John Piper