Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5c ESV). But too often we don’t believe him. Too often our prayer lives look like we think that apart Jesus we can do some things.
Call it hypocrisy, or call it a lack of faith. Call it whatever you want, so long as you call it a problem that needs to change. Because it’s true whether we acknowledge it or not: apart from Jesus we can do nothing.
How Prayer Closes the Gap
Prayer is what closes the gap between saying, “I can do nothing apart from Jesus,” and living like that’s true. Prayer is acknowledging our dependence on God. It’s expressing our need for what only he can give.
As John Piper wrote, “Prayer is the open admission that without Christ we can do nothing. It is the turning away from ourselves to God in the confidence that he will provide the help we need. Prayer humbles us as needy and exalts God as all-sufficient.”
Apart from Jesus, we can do nothing, and prayer is the response of faith to that truth.
The Necessity of Prayer for Planting
Across the globe, cities are debauched and dilapidated. From slums to ghettos to war-torn lands, the world is filled with hurting people and broken places. They’re all screaming, “This is not the way it’s supposed to be.”
That difference between what the world is and what God wants it to be (Rev. 21:3–5) is one of the reasons for church planting. For we know that the world is changed through churches and not through individuals alone (cf. Eph. 3:7–10; Titus 2:14).
The needs of the world are truly massive, far beyond anything we could ever hope to fix ourselves. Yet before need drives us to action, it must first drive us to prayer. Before we hit the streets, we have to hit our knees.
Prayer before Action
The pattern of prayer before action is consistent throughout Scripture. In cases when God’s people are faced with a major decision, difficult trial, or otherwise impossible task, we find them expressing their dependence on God in prayer.
“Before we hit the streets, we have to hit our knees.”
To give one example, consider the prophet Nehemiah. When he saw the desolation of Israel, he wanted to act! He was willing to give up his position as cupbearer to the king in order to see the fallen house of David restored. Before Nehemiah acted, however, he prayed. He wept, fasted, and prayed for many days before taking any steps to restore the ruins of Jerusalem (Neh. 1:4).
We are wise to follow his lead. And when it comes to church planting, there are three general areas where we must consciously acknowledge our dependence on God in prayer.
1. We Must Depend on God for Provision
Even when missionaries and planters are fully funded, their work still involves needs that money can’t buy.
For example, there are times when missionaries have physical needs that money can’t touch. There are times when they need the encouragement of a new friend. And there are times when a city—or even the whole country—is opposed to the work they are doing.
Hudson Taylor faced a situation like that. After trying for ten years to enter a restricted area in China, God finally opened a door for the gospel. Hudson later advised a missionary team hoping to work in the same area, “If you would enter that province, you must go forward on your knees.”
Because of the many needs that money can’t buy, the only way the church moves forward is on its knees.
2. We Must Depend on God for Wisdom
I am a firm believer in being prepared. Pastors and planters should do their homework. But there is a real danger in over-relying on books to the detriment of prayer.
“No amount of preparation can ever replace the need for prayer.”
The more we read about the people, the culture, and the problems of the place where we serve, the more tempted we will be to substitute book knowledge for street smarts. In this way, we increase the risk of projecting general truths onto specific situations. Not only that, but sometimes there just aren’t specific rules that speak to our exact circumstances.
In both cases, we need the wisdom that only God can provide. We need the wisdom that comes from Spirit-led listening and observing, and we need the wisdom that kicks in when the rules run out.
Simply put, no amount of preparation can ever replace the need for prayer. In addition to constantly reading God’s Word, therefore, we must also constantly pray for the wisdom we need in whatever situation we face.
3. We Must Depend on God for Salvation
We can put up the sails, but we can’t make the wind blow. In other words, even if we do everything right we still may not see the fruit we had hoped for.
This is a hard lesson to learn, but it’s an essential one. We are not God, and we can’t save people. We can only introduce them to One who can. That’s the only truth that can keep us humble and keep us faithful at the same time.
“We can’t save people. We can only introduce them to One who can.”
Therefore, we must depend on God for the salvation of the nations. We may labor, but he gives the increase. If we forget this truth, we will fall into depressing discouragement or give in to sinful pragmatism. May it never be so! Lord, keep us faithful, but keep us dependent on you.
A Servant Is Not Greater Than His Master
Maybe the best reason to depend on God in prayer is found with Jesus himself. Not only did he say, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5c ESV), but also Jesus earnestly depended on God in prayer.
He fasted and prayed for forty days before beginning his public ministry (Matt. 4:1–2). He prayed all night before choosing his disciples (Luke 6:12). And he even prayed to the point of sweating blood before dying on the cross (Luke 22:39–46).
Now if someone who enjoyed sinless fellowship with the Father and the Spirt still felt the need to depend on God in prayer, then how much more should we do the same?
Doug Logan is the director of diversity for the Acts 29 Network, co-director of Church in Hard Places, and a pastor at Remnant Church in Richmond, Virginia. He is also the author of On the Block: Developing a Biblical Picture for Missional Engagement. You can follow him @PastorDeelowg.