I began this series on follow-up noting Paul’s “anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). The basic premise has been that Paul addressed his anxiety or care for the churches by writing letters. Yet, the more I studied his letters, the more I noted that he habitually prayed for the churches. His letters not only sought to build the churches in the grace of God in Christ but also called on God to accomplish that growth. So, prayer is an essential part of following up with the churches we plant.
Interestingly, Paul teaches the Philippian church, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”1Phil. 4:6, ESV. The verb form in Philippians 4:6 and the noun form in 2 Corinthians 11:28 share the same root. So, was Paul’s anxiety for all the churches inconsistent with his teaching in Philippians 4:6? No, I think that Paul’s prayers in his letters show that he is practicing what he teaches. The range of meaning for the Greek word translated as “anxiety” includes both a healthy care (Philippians 2:20) and unhealthy worry (Matthew 6:25). Whatever the level of anxiety, turning to prayer is the appropriate response. That is exactly what Paul is doing.
Prayer is Daily
Paul clearly practiced a regular prayer time. Since his anxiety for all the churches was a “daily pressure” (2 Cor. 11:28), we can assume that he prayed daily for churches. He often tells his readers that he prays for them “in my prayers” (Romans 1:9-10; Ephesians 1:16; Philippians 1:4). Moreover, these prayers are offered “without ceasing” (Romans 1:9-10), “always” (1 Cor. 1:4; Phil. 1:4; 2 Thess. 1:11), “constantly” (1 Thess. 2:13), and “earnestly” (1 Thess. 3:10).
These regular prayers were an expression of his deep love. D. A. Carson comments on Paul’s prayer in 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13:
. . . Paul’s prayer is the product of his passion for people. His unaffected fervency in prayer is not whipped-up emotionalism but the overflow of his love for brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus.
That means that if we are to improve in our praying, we must strengthen our loving. As we grow in disciplined, self-sacrificing love, so we will grow in intercessory prayer. 2D.A. Carson, Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation, 2nd. ed., Baker, 2014, p 74.
Prayer Begins with Thanksgiving
All of Paul’s letters to churches (with the exception of Galatians) begin with thanksgiving. Paul thanks God that he is working in these churches. He thanks God when he hears of faith, hope and love (Col. 1: 3-8; 1 Thess. 1:2-3). He also thanks God when he hears that these qualities are growing (2 Thess. 1:3,4). Paul is thankful that God’s word is changing lives (1 Thess. 2:13-16). Partnership in the gospel is also a reason for thanks (Phil. 1:3-6).
Many of these prayers of thanksgiving then transition to petitions for God to continue growth in the gospel. Since he has already noted what God has accomplished, Paul is confident that God will continue the work (Phil. 1:6). So, as we pray for the churches we have planted, we ought to focus on their acceptance of the gospel and that God is at work in their midst. Beginning prayer with thanksgiving gives us confidence to request that God continue his work. When Paul tells the Philippians not to be anxious (Phil. 4:6), he tells them “by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be make known to God.” So, in the context of thanksgiving, we turn to requests.
Prayer Seeks Growth
Prayer for growth in knowledge
Paul prays that they will grow in knowledge and wisdom. For example, in Ephesians after an extended praise to God for all the spiritual blessings we have in Christ, Paul prays that God will help them understand (Eph. 1:15-23). Specifically, he prays, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him.” (Eph. 1:17). The letter of Ephesians provides the content of the knowledge of him. Yet he prays that God will give them understanding. Paul’s teaching through his letter is made effective in the lives of the believers through prayer.
Philippians 1:9-11 is another example of Paul’s prayer for knowledge and discernment. Likewise, Colossians 1:9-14 asks that they “may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”(v.9). So, we learn from Paul that prayer is not an add-on to our ministry. Instead, it is essential for the growth in the knowledge of God in those we are seeking to disciple.
Prayer for a worthy walk
From growth in spiritual wisdom and understanding, Paul then builds a link to growth in Christian behavior. Growth in knowledge, wisdom and understanding produces a worthy lifestyle (Col. 1:10-14). A worthy walk includes “fully pleasing him,” “bearing fruit in every good work,” and “increasing in the knowledge of God” (v. 10). Likewise, in our follow-up, we should expect a close connection between faith and practice or knowledge and lifestyle and we should pray to that end.
Furthermore, in 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12, Paul makes it very clear that it is God that makes us worthy. Therefore, he prays that this will become true of the Thessalonian believers.
To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
An essential part of follow-up
There is much more that we can learn from Paul’s prayers for the churches. I would therefore recommend that you read D. A. Carson’s book Praying With Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation.
Praying for the churches we plant is an essential part of follow-up. Without prayer, our ministry of follow-up, or any other ministry for that matter, will be ineffective.