Instead of keeping prayer within their walls, two Chicago churches are making prayer their gift to the neighborhood.
by James Meeks
I had been wrestling with the question of how our church could effect meaningful change in our community. The hopelessness and despair around us was suffocating, and I knew through Christ there had to be a way to bring light and hope to inner city Chicago.
That's when I picked up a book written by David Yonggi Cho, the pastor of the world's largest church. His church of 700,000 is huge, but the impact it has on its community is even bigger.
Now while my church is nowhere near the size of his, and neither is yours, I was really challenged by how Pastor Yonggi Cho envisioned a church that dreamed big dreams and accomplished big things. The ministry of that church moves way beyond its walls to impact its city, its nation, and the world. What could we do that would have that kind impact on the people around us?
We had undertaken big projects before. In 1998 we led the largest vote drive in Chicago's history to make the sale of alcohol in our community illegal. On Good Friday this year we distributed 30,000 Bibles, one to every address in our Zip code.
But I was growing in the conviction that our church has a powerful means of bringing people into contact with God—prayer—that we were keeping locked up inside the doors. The people around us need to touch the living God, and they need Him to touch their lives. So this summer we launched a big-dreaming plan to bring prayer to every corner of our Zip code.
60628—the largest Zip code on the south side of Chicago. The U.S. Census Bureau broke our Zip code down into 818 blocks. Our vision was to have prayer gatherings going on simultaneously once a week on every one of those blocks. We wanted open prayer meetings, where anyone could come and share their needs. We wanted anyone who needed prayer to find it, right there on their own block.
I was convinced by the principles in Cho's book that the only way to reach a community of 30,000 homes is by actually going to where the people are. We'd never reach them all by just waiting for them to become a part of our fellowship. So we trained our church to go knock on doors, invite people to come to the prayer gatherings, and ask them for prayer requests.
We put up signs and passed out flyers with the time, date, and place of each meeting that read "Salem Summer Nights. Your Prayers. God's Answers." We printed red signs indicating which homes were hosting the meetings. We produced red T-shirts for every prayer team captain. Two weeks later, we cancelled all other Thursday night ministries to begin the eight-week, Thursday-night prayer drive.
Thinking with these kinds of numbers in mind is possible because we're a big church in a big city. Most cities are not as large as Chicago. And most churches aren't as big as Salem Baptist. But it wouldn't matter if we were a church of 100 people—we'd just do 100 blocks. By praying block-by-block, you don't need the personnel to go door-to-door to thousands of homes. One small church can cover an entire small town.
During the two weeks leading up to the kickoff, we started finding backyards and front porches where we could hold these prayer gatherings outside. We put up the signs in the windows. But after two weeks of backyard prayer, we had only 249 blocks covered, well short of our goal of all 818.
Corner on prayer
As I walked around to the different gatherings. I was wondering, Why only 249? Why are all these people out walking the streets, with no idea of what's going on in Mrs. Jackson's backyard? Then I noticed that I had to go through the alleys to find all these backyards. The people aren't hanging out in the alleys; they're on the sidewalks, on the street corners.
That Sunday we shifted our vision. I preached a sermon from Acts about bringing ministry from the secret places out to where the people are. Some 500 new prayer captains rose up, and we moved from praying exclusively in backyards to "Doing It On the Corner." Our signs changed from "Mrs. Jackson's backyard" to "Meet us on the corner at 103rd and Normal."
That Thursday we covered all 818 blocks in prayer, and our captains started bringing in testimonies from the nearly 20,000 people who showed up to pray over the course of the eight-week drive.
A man came one Thursday night and asked that we pray for his brother. He had lost contact, and no one in the family had spoken to the lost brother for eight years.
The man came to pray again the following Thursday, but in the middle of the prayer time, his cell phone rang. He apologized for the interruption and turned away to find out who was calling. It was his brother!
Apparently someone who heard his request knew someone who knew someone who had a cousin who found the missing brother.
"I want you all to pray that I reconcile with the lady next door," said a woman at another streetcorner gathering. "We have not spoken in 15 years."
That Saturday she went to her own backyard and started tearing down an old fence that needed replacing. As she was working under the sun, the estranged neighbor came over and began to help.
The two women ended up talking about why they hadn't spoken, but neither could remember. So they started to talk. They rebuilt an old friendship while they tore down an old fence.
After such prayers answered, our church is excited to "Do It On the Corner" again next summer. Many people who were used to focusing prayer on their own needs discovered the blessing of ministering to others through prayer. They heard the testimonies of things God did—things they were praying about, people they were praying for.
"We know there are drug dealers or drug houses on almost every block," said Denise Rogers, "but we also know the power of prayer."
The community is looking forward to it, too. People told us they felt a tranquility in the busy neighborhood during the hour of prayer that they hadn't felt before. Children said they'd never seen adults gather to pray like that, and certainly not out on the corner.
As the reports of prayer requests came in, our church was able to get in touch with the burdens of the people around us. Consistently, prayer requests came from people struggling under the weight of debt and credit cards. In response, the church and I partnered with Moody Press to provide a free book on finding freedom from debt to each of the 30,000 homes in the community.
When we extended the ministry of prayer beyond the limits of our walls to the limits of our zip code, we saw great things happen. Next year we want to think even bigger, to include other churches and other communities. Maybe one day, every street corner in each of Chicago's 76 Zip codes will be covered in prayer.
James Meeks is the pastor of Salem Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois
Originally published in Leadreship journal , October 1, 2001.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today, Inc./Leadership journal.
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Fall 2001, Vol. 23, No. 4, Page 63