It’s a familiar prayer. Too familiar, some say, to mean much.
“Lord, bless the missionaries.”
For church folks of a certain age, these words are as comfortable and automatic as “Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies” or “Bless the gift and the giver.”
Mission leaders who’ve heard this prayer uttered countless times sometimes criticize it as perfunctory, meaningless or ritualistic. Which missionaries? Where? Bless them how? And what about the people the missionaries are trying to reach with the gospel? Don’t they need prayer, too? A quick “Lord, bless the missionaries” gives people an excuse to check praying for missions off their to-do list, like dropping a buck or two in the offering plate takes care of supporting missions.
Effective praying for missionaries and their ministries needs to be a bit more specific.
“I continue to be intrigued that God, a sovereign God, would link his activity over the nations to the prayers of his people,” said Jerry Rankin, retired International Mission Board president. “But are we willing to move beyond a simple ‘God bless the missionaries’ and pray to invoke his blessings on their efforts? Prayer is not simply a way to bless the strategies and methods of our missionaries. It is the foundation of the strategy. Missionaries go to tell the story and to reap the harvest, but if the doors are to be opened, if the barriers are to crumble, if hearts are to be softened, it’s our responsibility to pray them into the kingdom.”
Wanda Lee, Woman’s Missionary Union executive director-treasurer, made a similar observation years ago: “Praying ‘God bless the missionaries’ once you are informed is not specific enough to open these dark places to the light of Jesus Christ. It will take informed, inspired praying to reach our world with the message of salvation.”
“Informed” is a key word. There are many ways to become informed about the needs of missionaries and the people groups they strive to reach. A good place to start is www.imb.org/CompassionNet, IMB’s main prayer network, which offers a variety of ways to pray strategically for missionaries, mission teams and people groups. You and your church might even become part of one of those teams as you discover God’s heart for making disciples among all the nations.
Storming the gates of darkness requires informed, committed spiritual warriors willing to pray big prayers – and “small” ones. God cares about little things, because they aren’t so little in the grand scheme of his work.
It’s been another challenging week for us,” a missionary wrote recently. “My husband’s back suddenly started to spasm on Wednesday and by Thursday he was in real pain. Our crate arrived Thursday, which was a great encouragement. It’s been a little slow trying to get everything in place by myself, but I’ve done pretty well and things are shaping up. Did I forget to mention that my husband also slashed his finger pretty badly Wednesday afternoon? We just washed it, put a dab of super glue on it and bandaged it.
“Why do you need to pray for missionaries?” she asked. “Because these are some of the more minor things we face. Because a cut finger and severe back issues mean we’re a man down. Because we can’t just run down the road for medical attention. And because little things can become big things if you let them. God doesn’t need us to do his work. He can get it done however he chooses, with us or without us. He does need us to cooperate with him if we are to be made holy and sanctified saints. And this requires the right attitude. Pray for us to persevere through all circumstances and to rejoice in all things. In this way, we honor the Lord and bring glory to his name. And that is what will draw the nations to him.”
Are back spasms and a cut finger too trivial to pray about when the world is falling apart? Not if you’re the one experiencing them. Not if they prevent you from focusing on the work of God. Back spasms can shut you down faster than being arrested for spreading the gospel. If you’re jailed, at least you can share Jesus with fellow inmates. Back spasms put you on the couch, afraid to move a muscle.
Lord, bless that missionary. But let’s get more specific: Heal his back, if you are willing, or teach him to rejoice in weakness and trust your grace completely. Help him and his wife to persevere day by day when the going gets tough, when discouragement blots out hope like an eclipse. Give them joy. Give them strength and energy. Help them to lift your light in the dark place where they live and use them to bring many new disciples into your kingdom. And show us how we can do our part – through prayer first, but also through action.
- Bridges is global correspondent for the International Mission Board.