Every Sunday morning, I lead the congregation of Third Avenue Baptist Church in a "pastoral prayer." I pray for many things during that time—congregational events, members who are suffering, evangelistic opportunities, various officials in government, missions opportunities, even events in the nation's headlines. The part of the prayer that elicits the most comment, however—both positive and out of sheer confusion—is when I pray for another evangelical church or two meeting in the city of Louisville.
Each week, I choose one or two churches and pray for their services that day. I pray for the church to be attentive to the Word of God. I pray for the pastor to speak boldly and accurately from the Bible. I pray for people to be convicted of their sin, for Christians to be encouraged in the faith, and for non-Christians to be converted. I also thank the Lord that we live in a city where we are not the only church in which the gospel is proclaimed.
Believe it or not, the practice of praying for other churches is so rare in many Christians' experience that many don't know exactly how to process it. More than once during my pastorate, a visitor to Third Avenue has walked up to me with a concerned look to express surprise that such-and-such church is having troubles. After all, why would the pastor of one church pray for another church if there weren't serious problems afoot there?!
Spirit of Competition
There are many benefits to doing this sort of thing week after week. For one thing, it helps me in the work of crucifying my own spirit of competition. It's so easy for pastors to subtly (if not less than subtly) begin to think of other churches as "the competition" instead of as fellow proclaimers of the gospel in their city. I want to go on record, in the most public forum I have, as praying for the success and faithfulness of those churches. We are not in this to make a name for ourselves; we are all in it to make a name for our King.
Not only so, but I think those prayers do the same work of crucifying a spirit of competition in the members of Third Avenue. Pastors are not alone in struggling with feeling competitive with other churches. Members do too, and it's good for them to see their leaders working publicly to counteract that tendency so that it doesn't take root in the life of the church.
Praying for other churches also communicates an important truth about the various churches in a city: We are all on the same team. We all have the same mission, and it's to proclaim the gospel of Jesus and make disciples of him. The last thing we should want as pastors is to communicate a provincial, myopic spirit among our members that recognizes good only in our church, and cannot see what God is doing more broadly. We serve a massive God, and an important way to show that truth to our people and teach them to rejoice in it is to teach them to care about God's work in the lives of other churches.
I have found that praying for other churches also helps me to cultivate friendships with their pastors. It reminds me, week after week, that there are others engaged in this same work that so consumes me each day, and it challenges me to strain against any tendency I might have to isolate myself in the work.
In our church covenant at Third Avenue, one of the promises we make to one another as members is that we will not "omit the great duty of prayer both for ourselves and for others." At its heart, that is a promise that we'll remember not only God's great delight in answering prayer and his unstoppable power to do so, but also the great truth that he is glorifying his Son through the work of churches all over our cities and the world.
Editors' note: This article originally appeared in the May-June 2013 issue of the 9Marks Journal.
Greg Gilbert is the senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of What Is the Gospel? (Crossway, 2010) and co-author of What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission(Crossway, 2011), Preach: Theology Meets Practice (Crossway, 2012), and The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Jobs (Zondervan, forthcoming).