by Dwayne K Buhler
As a missionary I often struggle with the task of writing prayer letters that creatively communicate the very real needs that my family and I face.
As a missionary I often struggle with the task of writing prayer letters that creatively communicate the very real needs that my family and I face. I desire to challenge people to participate with us in the ongoing ministry to which God has called us. The challenge, however, is doing so in such a way that their prayers and participation are effective and rewarding.
Partially motivated by this issue, I was encouraged to study the letters of Paul and consider his pattern of writing back to his supporting churches. This study of Paul’s letters and his missionary prayer requests has helped me greatly to understand the dynamic relationship that a missionary should seek to have with those who are holding the ropes in prayer.
Paul considers the people who make up the churches where he has ministered his partners. Enlisting the prayers of those who are the fruit of his previous missionary travels Paul uses the Greek word koinonia, a word often translated “fellowship” or “communion,” to describe this partnership (Phil. 1:5). Paul values and encourages a relationship of co-participation through the prayers of these friends and saints. They are equal partners with him in what God is doing through his ministry.
Paul never appeals to his partners in ministry to pray vague or uninformed prayers. Paul does not encourage a “Hail Mary” approach to prayer; rather, all of his requests are directed to specific needs in his present ministry. Putting these principles in simple terms, one might say “When one prays specifically, God answers specifically.”
Looking at some of the specific requests Paul gives in his letters, we can gain insights into a pattern of prayer in which we, as missionaries, can enable a richer partnership between those at home and the missionaries for whom they intercede.
PRAY FOR OPEN DOORS (Col. 4:3)
Paul’s request to pray that “God would open a door for our message” must be understood in light of the events surrounding the letter he is writing. Tradition holds that this letter was penned in a Roman jail while Paul was awaiting the verdict of the courts. In the midst of what would seem a hopeless situation and facing a closed prison door, Paul asks that doors of opportunity be opened up to him. Paul must have been remembering the words of Acts 23:11 as the Lord ministered to him in Jerusalem: “As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”
Paul experienced a direct answer to the prayers of those who were praying for him. When he reflects back on his captivity, he makes it clear that throughout the palace guard and to everyone else that he had made known and preached the name of Christ (Phil. 1:12-14). He was in chains for the sake of Christ, something that served to advance the gospel. Paul further explains that “most of the brothers have been encouraged to speak the Word of God more courageously and fearlessly” because of his imprisonment.
Applying this principle to my own ministry situation, I began to ask people to commit to praying for open doors to the ministry where I served in Porto Alegre, Brazil. A small group of people began to pray specifically that doors of opportunity would be opened to us.
God surprised us by the doors that he opened in response to the prayers of our partners. The opportunity to work together with Campus Crusade for Christ and use the Jesus film with many other Christians in our city was indeed a welcomed window of opportunity that we had not anticipated. Another open door that had been prepared for us was that of a senator who welcomed us and worked with us in seeing an outreach planned for high level city and state government officials. Much of what we experienced in the unity and fruitfulness of the Jesus Film Project in 1998 can only be explained by the fact that people were praying for such open doors.
There are many doors that remain closed and need to be opened. Some of these doors are large and reflect the greatest challenges for the church in the new millennium. These are the nations and people groups where access to the gospel is restricted or hindered. Some doors represent influential people in a city or tribal situation. Some of the doors are the hearts and minds of the people who are the neighbors of missionaries or Christian workers. The list of unopened doors presents a tremendous opportunity for God’s people to enter into a prayer partnership with missionaries, seeing these doors opened to the gospel.
PRAY FOR CLEAR COMMUNICATION (Col. 4:4)
The words that follow Paul’s request for people to pray for open doors at first left me puzzled. Paul asks that the Colossians pray that he “proclaim the gospel clearly, as he should.” Paul’s request does not seem to reflect the man of courage that we often ascribe to him.
However, Paul’s request for clear communication does make sense in light of the context from which he writes. Paul had proven himself to be well versed in his own defense before kings and rulers in Jerusalem and in Caesarea, but what he faced in Rome was an opportunity to speak to the most influential people of his day. Paul’s encouragement to “make the most of every opportunity” and to “let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone,” is as much for him in his personal situation as it is for his readers (Col. 4:4-5). Paul’s motivation to ask for prayer in this area is not one of fear, but rather a deep desire to make the maximum impact for God in the situation he faces.
As a missionary I can also relate to the fact that Paul was soliciting divine help as he would be addressing his audience in a language that was not his mother tongue. His desire was that he would have clarity of speech to be able to tackle deeper issues and the spiritual condition of his hearers, and not merely make a suitable defense to his accusers. Being able to speak a second language in the marketplace is very different from being able to talk to heart-issues and matters that will transform a life. For clear communication to occur in these situations, the missionary relies on God to communicate life-changing truths through him or her.
An obvious application of the prayer request for clear communication is for those who are in language study. Those who find themselves learning a new language soon find that it means much more than knowing how to buy and sell or exchange money in the marketplace. Clarity of expression involves cultural understanding, application of idiomatic expressions, gestures, tone of voice and many other variables. Language learning involves becoming childlike and relying upon the help of others, a task that is not easily accepted by those who have many years of education and ministry experience behind them.
Note that this missionary prayer request does not limit itself to those who are in language study or their first term of service. There are very few veteran missionaries who would not confess their need of God’s help in communication, especially in relating the good news of Christ to a people for the first time. No matter how long a missionary has served on a field, the learned or adopted language is still his or her second language. When one is tired or under the attacks of the enemy, speech does not necessarily flow easily in the same manner as the mother tongue.
PRAY FOR RESPONSIVENESS TO THE GOSPEL (2 Thess. 3:1)
Paul certainly evoked a broad spectrum of emotions from his hearers. In some places he was received as a scholar with an interesting new teaching. In some cities he was received as “one of the gods” with magical powers. In some cities he was received as an enemy of the Jewish faith and was stoned for his efforts to tell of the Messiah’s coming. In some cities he faced opposition and hardship, while in other cities people gladly received his message and experienced wonderful conversions to Christ.
Paul is not the only one who has experienced a mixed reaction to his teaching or to his presence. In writing to the Thessalonians Paul fondly remembers the warm and fruitful reception that was given to him and his traveling companions. It had been in stark contrast to the Philippians who, only a few days earlier, ran him out of town. Perhaps the only passage in scripture that parallels this extreme dichotomy is the reception that Jesus experienced when his triumphal entry was followed five days later by an angry mob leading him up to Calvary for his crucifixion.
Reflecting back on this warm reception, Paul asks that the Thessa-lonians pray that such a reception await him in other cities and places of ministry. Praying that the gospel “would be well-received, as it was with you” reminds the believers of the receptive state of heart in which they were found when they heard the gospel. Paul realizes that fruitful or productive soil for the gospel is not just a matter of hit-and-miss luck, but rather that God would direct him to those who have already been prepared in their hearts, and that there would be a wholehearted reception of the saving message that Paul brings.
In terms that address missions in today’s world, we could state that not all mission fields are the same. In some countries the gospel has moved in and made wonderful transformations. In some nations the people are very hostile, untrusting and unresponsive to missionary efforts. As with the parable of the different types of soil, the seed of the gospel produces a varied amount of fruit in each different context.
The longing of missionaries is to see the barren and difficult ground of unproductive peoples become fruitful and transformed. The gospel, which is the power of God to change lives, is their message. They go out in God’s power knowing that they are not always guaranteed success, but they long to see lives changed and cultures bend their knee to the lordship of Christ. They long to see the responsiveness that will change the hearts and minds of the people that they have come to love.
Jack Campbell, a C&MA missionary from Guinea, West Africa, shared the joyful experience of seeing a substantial number of people come to the Lord from the tribal group with which he worked. Fifty years of previous missionary efforts had produced only a handful of believers. The turning point, as he shares in his testimony, was when a large group of people began to fast and pray specifically for the responsiveness of this tribal group. God began to answer the specific prayers of his people.
There remain many resistant peoples who have little or no visible Christian church. These peoples are not only found in distant jungles, but also large, sprawling, unfriendly cities. These people may or may not be friendly towards our missionary inroads, but they remain part of the challenge that the Great Commission of Christ addresses. Many countries within the 10/40 Window fall into this category. Countries in secularized Europe are also largely unreached. Some of the world’s largest metropolises, Mexico City included, are also within this category.
When we ask people to pray for our ministries, we can encourage them to pray that the gospel will be fruitful and well received. They can pray that we may find the favor and love of the people to which we faithfully minister. They, who have received many blessings from their relationship with the Lord, should pray that the gospel will be well-received, as it was with them.
PRAY FOR PHYSICAL AND SPIRITUAL PROTECTION (2 Thess. 3:2).
Paul’s insight in the request for deliverance from “unspiritual men” cannot be understated. Paul had faced many perils during his years of preaching the good news. He had faced shipwrecks, opposition, false accusations and many other situations that could have greatly hindered his ministry. He knew the importance of having people pray for his physical and spiritual protection.
Praying for the protection of missionaries can include various aspects, including physical and spiritual dangers, as well as the health of the missionary. It can include praying for missionaries as they drive through dense jungles, whether they are in the middle of nowhere, or in the middle of a concrete maze. It can include prayer against evil men or groups that would kidnap and hold missionaries and their families for ransom. It especially includes praying for the protection of missionary families and their children.
Most certainly Paul’s prayer request for protection has a tone of spiritual warfare, as Satan uses the physical world to try to hinder the advance of the Kingdom of God. There were many instances when the battle he fought as a herald of the gospel had overt and physical manifestations, such as the demon controlled people who opposed the work of God. However, he also did not let the subtlety of some of the attacks against the work of God distract him from observing the real source of the opposition.
The truth of the matter is that, in the battlefield of today’s missionary efforts, Satan still uses many weapons. At times these weapons are obviously directly sent from him to obstruct or discourage God’s messengers. Other times his weapons are people who are unaware that they are being manipulated to achieve his hellish goals. Many times his weapons are also subtle circumstances that dissuade, discourage or distract the missionary from accomplishing God’s purposes.
It would not amaze me to think that Paul attributed many of the amazing rescues or miracles to the prayers of his faithful supporters. I can imagine him returning to Antioch to report all that God had done to save him from many trials. In doing so he would have deepened the prayer partnership that he had with all of those who made up his support base.
I do not know the number of times that my wife and I have looked at each other and exclaimed, “There must have been people praying for us!” Accidents that were avoided, close calls that seemingly had no explanation, and God’s perfect timing in keeping us from potentially dangerous situations.
One experience that comes to mind took place in the fall of 1994. I had a number of errands to run and had offered to take our three-year-old daughter with me to give my wife some quiet time alone. As was my custom, I first went to the bank near our home, amazed to find a terrible line-up at the tellers. Much like any good North American, I was quietly complaining of the obvious waste of time and difficulty of keeping a three-year-old entertained in a bank line-up.
When we finally got out of the bank, we headed for item two on my list—send some letters. It was only a short walk from the bank, so I took my daughter by the hand and we headed for the post office. We were surprised to see three or four police cars and an ambulance parked nearby.
When I asked what had happened, I was amazed to hear that some twenty minutes before there had been an armed robbery. There had been shots fired and two customers were injured. It was only when I looked at my watch that I realized that a bank line-up had saved my daughter and I from being present at the very moment of the robbery. That night we gave thanks as a family for bank line- ups, for God’s perfect timing and for the many people who we knew were praying for our personal safety.
Prayer for the protection of missionaries also includes praying for their health. One of the most common reasons for the early return of missionaries and their families is for health reasons. This is often a combination of environmental factors and the stress that living in a different culture can place on their lives. It is an area of attack that the enemy seems to like to affect or slow down the work of God.
PRAY FOR BOLDNESS (Eph. 6:19)
Paul’s prayer request in Ephesians 6:19 that “words may be given to me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel” is somewhat related to the prayer request for clarity of communication (cf. Col. 4:4). However, the aspect of courage in the face of dangerous or threatening situations has most certainly been brought out in this request, as Paul once again finds himself writing from a Roman cell.
It is encouraging to those who have ever struggled with fears to realize that Paul, the seemingly fearless apostle to the Gentiles, also needed special, Spirit-filled boldness that would make him an effective witness. Most times Paul was willing to risk his life, stand up in front of a hostile crowd and share the gospel. However, in the situation in which he finds himself, he specifically asks that the Ephesian believers pray for this area.
Paul knew that there were many times when boldness was his greatest need, especially when facing a hostile or unresponsive group. The myth of the “waiting masses” who are anxiously awaiting the missionary to open his mouth and pronounce the Good News is something that Paul also had to face. Seldom was he received with applause and openness. More often he was received with mistrust, leers and opposition. While few would consider Paul to be a fearful person, he must have many times searched his heart to face the uncertainty of his next stopover.
There are many missionaries who need great insight into when they should share openly. Some are in countries opposed to the faith and to Christian missionaries. They enter their country as tentmakers and must have great tact and wisdom to know when to speak. In these situations, knowing that their words may be used to trap them and force them out of the country, they need great boldness to proclaim Christ well.
On one occasion our youth drama team was given the opportunity to be the first group allowed to perform in the main square of the city that we were visiting. The city, known for its rugged and independent individuals, had very few evangelicals and had in the past been hostile towards any group that openly proclaimed the gospel.
Knowing that we would need a special God-given boldness to take advantage of the opportunity we had been afforded, we spent much time in prayer. God answered those prayers and calmed our doubts and fears. In spite of hecklers, a car accident that took place as we performed our drama, and the loud music of a night- club nearby, we were able to share testimonies of the transforming power of Christ in our lives.
Fear can be crippling. One missionary colleague faced many trying situations in the weeks that followed the robbery of her car at gun point. Fearful to leave the safety of her home at night, it became a very real challenge to participate wholeheartedly in the ministries in which she served, especially in light of the fact that the people to whom she ministered were part of a night-oriented culture. It is in such circumstances that missionaries truly do need the prayers of their partners for boldness in the sharing of the gospel.
Prayer for missionaries should not be some vague exercise where one prays in an uninformed manner. “Lord bless the missionaries, whoever they are, wherever they are, and whatever they are doing—I’m sure they need your help” is not an effective way to be a partner with God in and through missionaries. We as missionaries can aid those who partner with us by teaching specific and biblical patterns of prayer for missions.
My experience as a missionary has also shown me that when God’s people pray specifically, he answers those prayers specifically. The study of Paul’s missionary prayer requests has challenged me to also make specific requests of those who align themselves as my partners in ministry. As people have prayed specifically we have seen answers to those prayers. Our ministry prayer partners have also been full participants, not only in what God is doing in and through our lives, but also in what God is doing in the world.
Dwayne Buhler and his wife Rhonda are Canadian missionaries currently serving with the C&MA in Mexico City. He is the director of the Leadership Training Institute known as CETA. They previously served in Brazil for ten years, and in Canada.
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