Doing an interview with someone who leads a prayer movement doesn't sound like the most thrilling task. My perception of prayer is hard-work, boring but worthy so one would expect a prayer leader to have similar characteristics.
But Pete Greig does not run an ordinary prayer movement.
24/7 Prayer is now operating in over half the nations in the world and works with any type of Christian from anarchists to the Salvation Army. It combines prayer with mission and justice activities because, Greig told me, not to do so would be "unbiblical."
The first 24/7 prayer room opened 15 years ago and Greig described how it was just because he figured prayer was important and "we were really really bad at it."
This disarming honesty has become characteristic of Greig's leadership as he watched his project grow into an international movement over the last 15 years. As we chatted he told me about his ongoing struggles with prayers but why he keeps coming back for more. By the end of the conversation I felt like I had just finished a mentoring session, not an interview.
When you look back at how 24/7 started in 1999, how do you feel now that it is an international, inter-denominational movement?
It has been a wild ride and an unexpected one. At the start we weren't trying to start a movement let alone an international movement; we were just one local church who realised prayer is important and we were bad at it. And from there we have spread into over half the nations on earth and most denominations. We have a network of monastic missional communities and mission projects. So it has been a wild ride, I feel very grateful to God.
Would you change anything?
We've made endless mistakes and God has been very gracious. At the start it would have been nice to know this was going to go on for 15 years! We would have planned appropriately! But we thought it was all going to stop at any moment. There were no foundations, no infrastructure, no money. It was really only about 5 years in that we realised this isn't going away and its going to be with us for the rest of our lives. So we decided to talk about organisation, about leadership, and about training people.
Have you got any regrets?
I don't think we do have any regrets but we've certainly made loads of mistakes. In 15 years we've not had any major relational fallouts. There is only one poor person from the start who is no longer walking with 24/7 prayer or with the Lord and that would be my only regret. But I'm still praying for her!
In scripture we consistently see a calling to ongoing prayer so it isn't new in the Christian tradition. How have you managed to unite all these prayer groups into one organised movement?
As you say the church has always practised 24/7 prayer. The church was born out of a 24/7 prayer room! Before that we had the tabernacle and the temple. Most of the great movements in church history have been marked by 24/7 prayer. I think of the evangelisation of the Celts in this country, I think of charismatic and pentecostal movements which began in multi racial 24/7 prayer rooms in 1986. I think of the Moravians praying for 100 years and then seeing the conversion of Charles Wesley. We only discovered this after we started by the way! We were trying to work out what on earth we were doing with our lives and then we realised God has always done this.
In terms of the second part of your question, we are passionate about Christian unity. It seems to me that Jesus has one great-unanswered prayer and that is that we would be one. You cannot be a prayer movement if you're not actively passionate about unity. That means we keep our theology simple. So we have made the decision to draw circles of inclusion not lines of exclusion. In other words we will work with anyone who will work with us. Sometime its tempting to adopt theological positions that are extreme that would get you lots of popularity and lots of controversy but we don't want to do anything that would divide the family of God. So we try to be as inclusive as possible. That means we are working with anarchist Christians, we are working with Catholics, we are working with the Salvation Army. Prayer is one of the few things that Christians agree on. And so if we can't be united on prayer then we probably can't be united on anything.
24/7 prayer is now heavily linked to justice and mission movements. Has that always been the case?
Before 24/7 started I was planting churches. So evangelism is in our DNA. We have what I call a kingdom paradigm. We believe we have to push in to the presence of God in prayer and then carry that presence out in to the world to make a measurable difference to the poor and the lost. If prayer is separated from mission and justice then it isn't real prayer. Prayer belongs in the advancement of the kingdom.
Prayer, mission and justice is like a three legged stool. If you take one of them out if doesn't work. If you pray but don't care for the poor, Isaiah 58 says God won't hear your prayers. If you do endless mission but you don't pray then you're just doing a marketing campaign for a religious cause. We have to combine all three. Together we get something very powerful.
What would you say to those in the Church who think we should pray and leave the rest to God?
It is unbiblical to think we can just leave it to God after he has given us the great commission.
If you say that you're not only misunderstanding God's sovereignty but you're misunderstanding the very power of prayer which is a partnership with God. In prayer we use our will to come into agreement with God's will – "let your kingdom come." If we understand prayer as a partnership then we'll also understand practical engagement as a partnership.
The enemy's great strategy over the years has been to separate prayer from practical engagement. So we have some people who are great at prayer and worship. But they don't know any non-Christians. It is like they are powerfully injected with the Jesus virus; they love him a lot. But they don't ever get to breathe on anyone who doesn't have the virus. Then we have people out in the world, engaging with the poor and the lost but often they are burning out because they have lost intimacy with God which is where you get the infection from. We want to breathe in God's presence and then breathe out in the culture.
You have always been honest about the difficulties you have had in your life with prayer. Why is prayer so hard?
Prayer is difficult because of the world, the flesh and the devil.
Firstly the world: we live in a very busy and very materialist world which can make prayer seem difficult and pointless. Of course no one really has a prayer problem. If you received a terminal diagnosis tomorrow you wouldn't go home and say I really ought to pray about his but I'm not very good at prayer. Our real need is to need. When you go to any part of the world where there is real persecution or poverty no one has a problem with prayer. So the first problem is to do with world we live in, the western culture we live in.
The second problem is the flesh - we're all just a bit lazy! Simple! I know I am. Sometimes I just need a bit of self discipline. Often when I go into a prayer room I am grumbling all the way in, thinking "this is dreadful, I'm busy." But when I get in I think "this is wonderful! This is what I'm made for. What else matters other than spending time in the presence of God?" So that is the flesh.
And the third thing is the devil. We have an enemy who doesn't mind us attending meetings. He doesn't mind us embroidering our bible covers but hates it when we pray. That is why every distraction in the world comes in when we try to pray. But he doesn't only distract us he also condemns us and makes us feel we're bad at prayer when we're probably not. We probably talk to God more than we think we do.
Often when I pray I don't feel any different or nothing seems to happen. Why?
Well we have to understand prayer on three layers. Prayer at its simplest is just asking. Prayer at its deepest is conversation. And prayer at its best is communion.
So layer one. If you're saying nothing ever happens, you're probably just asking God for things - my kids ask me for things all the time but I don't always give it to them.
Layer two, conversations. Hearing God isn't always easy. But he has given us the bible and if we start to use the bible in his part of the conversation and read it prayerfully, then you'll never run out things to pray about and never run out of revelations of what God is saying to you.
And then they are times in your experience of what I would call communion when its not just you talking to God and God talks back but where you are just aware of his presence and its not about words but about his presence. And we don't always live in that place but there are those times and those are the best times of prayer.
So have we got the focus wrong in prayer? We talk about results and answers but should we talk more about communion and listening to God?
Different traditions tend to focus on one type of prayer over the others. It is very exciting when you discover the full menu. Some traditions are very strong on petition, intercession and spiritual warfare. In other words prayer is all about asking God to do stuff and either he does it or he doesn't .
But of course there are other traditions which are very strong on contemplation and adoration and don't ever ask God to do anything. They would feel presumptious if they did.
If we are going to grow healthy as Christians we need to feast on the full menu. So that means we begin with adoration - we start with "hallowed be your name." We're not just rushing in with our petitions. Then we move to intercede: "your kingdom come, your will be done - what do you want to do Lord, how can I be part of what you want to do?"
So there are all sorts of different types of prayer and a healthy, mature Christian will learn to enjoy all of them.
And of course we have to accept that sometimes God will say no to our prayers and those times can be agonising. Those are the times we need to move beyond conversation to communion - to trusting him even when we don't understand.
24/7 started as a grass roots movement. With 24/7 growing and being international, do you fear being caught up in a big corporate movement and loosing the grass roots foundation?
I think as time goes on you have to work harder and harder at relationships and staying true to your original values. People think our values are just what we're in to and we can just relax about that but actually we have to fight for them harder and harder as time goes on.
I think we're still pretty wild. I am constantly surprised but what is happening. I think its still quite wild but we're surfing a big wave not a small wave.
How do you personally retain integrity and keep true to the original vision when you are leading such a large, international movement?
One of the best questions anyone will ever ask anyone is, do they know you are a fraud yet? I constantly feel a bit of hypocrite because nothing in my life prepared me to lead a prayer movement. Its such a peculiar thing to do! But I do know this - I love Jesus and he loves me in spite of all my failings. And I know I have close friends who tell me the truth. And although I may still struggle at times with prayer, I am certainly better at it than when I started.
This year is 15 years since the launch of 24/7 Prayer and Pete is publishing a new edition of his 'Red Moon Rising,' with new content, forward and study guide where he tells the story of 24/7 Prayer's journey.
To celebrate 24/7's 15th birthday, they are hosting a conference in Vienna. For more details, click here.