Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17 ESV)
Few verses get qualified as much as this one. The hyperbole is obvious and I doubt Paul is advocating a monastic life where one can pray without any interference from the outside world (Besides, even a monk must sleep). What the Holy Spirit is telling us through the apostle is to pray a lot. A whole lot followed by several exclamation marks, underlined and in bold.
Yet, when people hear or read this verse, their first response is to make up a meaning (like, "Paul meant for everyone to always pray without stopping") and then show why it cannot be done. The straw man approach.
Another response is to claim Paul was telling people to make their lives a prayer to God. Keith Green sang,
Make my life a prayer to you
I want to do what you want me to
No empty words and no white lies
no token prayers, no compromise.
And while this makes for great poetry, it isn't great theology. Making your life a prayer to God is nonsensical for the primary reason that prayer, in Scripture, is always and everywhere understood to be communication between God and the believer. A real conversation. Not something metaphysical or philosophical but actual discussion between two parties. Sometimes the prayer is simply a calling out to God or a pouring out of one's heart to God. Other times it is a quiet listening to God. But at all times it is an actual act of communication. To make it anything else is to make it something unscriptural.
Jesus made prayer a central part of his ministry, sometimes praying all night to make seemingly simple decisions. In the sixth chapter of Luke we are told of an occasion where Jesus went up on a mountain and prayed through the night. We aren't told the content of his prayer (wouldn't that be wonderful?), but we are told that subsequent to this all night prayer vigil he chose twelve disciples. When was the last time your church spent all night in prayer before choosing elders or deacons or a new pastor? When was the last time you or your church prayed all night? When was the last time you prayed?!
When Peter was in prison we aren't told the church started petitions or took up a collection or tried to organize a jail break. What we are told in Acts 12:5 is that earnest prayer was being made of Peter. But just in case you think this is some sort of generalization, we are told in verse twelve that the believers literally got together and were praying. Clearly they were praying at the very moment he was rescued by the angel! Has your church spent the night in prayer for missionaries who are jailed or otherwise in peril? Have you?
It is my conviction that any ministry, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, that is not built upon and bathed in earnest prayer by the church is of no real and lasting use to the kingdom of heaven. Will such a ministry fail? I only wish this were true. But from what I have seen in my lifetime, Satan is more than willing to help any such ministry succeed! Since it isn't founded upon prayer it is sure to lack any real power and so will only serve to fill pews and classrooms with people, heads with knowledge and hearts with dreams, but no Spirit and no God centered change.
The thing our churches in America need more than anything else is a desire to pray. What the old time preachers called a "spirit of prayer". I've been told that having only ten people at a prayer meeting in a congregation of one-hundred is to be rejoiced over. And if I were measuring the spiritual temperature of the individual believers I would certainly rejoice. However, we must also measure the temperature of the whole church and in the above example the church's temperature has dropped below what is healthy and it is, in fact, dying!
I was told once of a famous preacher, well known for his sermons and the number of people who decided to follow our Lord in response to his preaching, who spent an hour of prayer for every two hours of preparation for his sermons. At the end of his ministry he lamented that he hadn't instead spent two hours in prayer for each hour of sermon preparation.
We have been called a people of the Book, or a people of such and such denomination or the people of this church or that church or of that pastor or that pastor. But are we a people of prayer? When God spoke to Ananias about going to see Paul he tells him in Acts 9:11 "..he is praying" (ESV). In fact, you get the impression this was how Ananias was to identify which person was Paul! How about us?
We are a church that does not even want to pray. We will fill the church for concerts and comedians, for potlucks and birthday parties. We will pack rooms for football games and talent shows. But announce a prayer meeting and you might as well have yelled "fire!". You will be able to count on one hand, in many churches, the number of people that would attend. Until we desire to pray and follow through on that desire our churches will continue to lose ground to the enemy. The bible tells us that the gates of hell will not prevail against God's Church. Considering the current state of the Church, a skeptic couldn't be blamed if he were to question this assertion.
Take time out to pray right now. Set time aside when you get up in the morning to pray. Pray on the way to work. When someone tells you of a struggle or sickness, ask them if you can pray for them right then and there. Offer to pray for your Pastor. Attend the weekly prayer meetings. Pray, pray, pray! Pray without ceasing.