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To know how best to pray for our churches, we need to consider how the ascended Lord Jesus Christ prays for His church. J.C. Ryle was right when he said, “What Christ asks for His people, His people should ask for themselves.” Therefore, Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is helpful as a template for our prayers concerning our churches.
It’s worth noting the spiritual nature of Jesus’ prayer. This might sound obvious, since all prayer is “spiritual,” but I’m referring more to the end (telos) of our prayers. Many email prayer chains are full of health and financial concerns. To be sure, we mustn’t disregard the importance of temporal needs (Phil. 4:6), but we should pray for temporal needs insofar as they are for spiritual ends. Perhaps noting a few categories in John 17 will support this claim.
Perseverance: Pray that none in the visible church would wander, that your church family would be numbered among those of whom Christ said He would lose not one (vv. 11, 23; see 10:28).
Joy: Pray for joy that is full, sustained, communicable, and Godward (John 17:13; see Pss. 16:11; 21:6).
Protection: Pray for protection from the world, the flesh, and the devil, the one who seeks to lead the sheep astray (John 17:15).
Sanctification: Pray for your church to be set apart in holiness and for Spirit-wrought conformity to Christ (v. 17).
Witness: Pray that your church would bear witness to the glory of God revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ (v. 18).
Unity: Pray for an unbreakable fellowship grounded in truth and a tangible unity among your church family (vv. 11, 21–23).
These categories can be prayed concerning individuals as well as larger bodies. They can also be prayed concerning the universal church or the local church.
Unity is the most prominent category in Jesus’ prayer. Unfortunately, it’s perhaps the one for which we pray least often. But Jesus prays for a unity among His church that reflects the unity of the Godhead (v. 11). Just as our mystical union with Christ is to be lived out, our union with one another is to be lived out. We as Christ’s sheep too often act as if we belong to different shepherds and to different folds. But unity within the body under its Head is in fact that which testifies to the world that the gospel is true (v. 21).
Charles Spurgeon admonished his church, “We cannot all preach; we cannot all rule; we cannot all give gold and silver, but we can all contribute our prayers.” Praying for our churches aligns our affections with the affections of God, who “loves the gates of Zion” (Ps. 87:2). Richard Sibbes noted, “The prayers of others for [Christ’s] church are accepted, because they are for her that is his beloved.” Further, praying for our churches’ perseverance, joy, protection, sanctification, witness, and unity ensure that our prayers align with Jesus’, and they’re a crucial means by which God fulfills His promise to “do good to Zion in [His] good pleasure” (Ps. 51:18).