The Hidden Prayers and Pray-ers behind Great Movements

Hidden in the Story

God designed his church to look like his Son who spent most of his life hidden, so the most important people in the church are often invisible. For example, the most overlooked person in the Christmas story is the last one mentioned—Anna.

And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36–38)

A Praying Church

Paul E. Miller

Paul E. Miller, bestselling author of A Praying Life, has written A Praying Church to cast a vision and provide direction for a return to the simple yet life-changing practice of praying together.

Where did the gift of Jesus—which led to the destruction of all evil and to a new heavens and earth—begin? With Anna in the temple praying. Of course, it began from all eternity, and yet it needed a human instrument, a conduit. Anna’s praying was one of the sparks of the incarnation in this way: Anna praying in the Temple for eighty years (Luke 2:37) leads to --> The “Spirit will come upon you” (Luke 1:35) --> Jesus’s birth.

Anna is largely hidden in this story. I doubt many of us spent much time recently reflecting on her as we moved through Advent and Christmas. Mary, Jesus’s mother, only met Anna after Jesus was born. So, Mary only saw in retrospect the Spirit at work. People like Anna are usually discovered only in retrospect. When you meet a young person who has become a believer from a non-Christian background, it’s not uncommon to discover a praying grandmother behind the scenes.

Maresa and Mary understood this.

Modern-Day Annas

When Maresa started attending Church at LifePark near Charleston, South Carolina in 2011, she came with an Anna-like burden to pray and to see her church becoming a praying community. She mentioned this to the senior pastor, and he connected her with Mary. In 2011, Maresa and Mary began to pray together weekly on Mondays. Gradually, a few others joined until in 2013 they numbered about a half-dozen. They all came with the same burden—that their church would become a praying church. They started praying that God would expand their prayer group to include men and other ethnic groups. God made their prayer group more diverse, but still no breakthrough.

In 2018, an elder at their church challenged his fellow elders and pastors to not just give lip service to prayer but to work towards becoming an “a praying church.” Chad, the senior pastor, bristled slightly at this challenge, but God began to work in him and in others. At a conference he attended, one presenter shared how for many years he’d been a man who prayed, but had more recently become a man whose life was saturated with prayer. That resonated with Chad.

Not long after this he asked the elders to put together a prayer team to explore how to become a praying church. The team visited The Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City. While meeting with one of their pastors, the team asked, “What’s the one thing we are missing to become a praying church?” The pastor said immediately, “Your senior pastor needs to catch a vision for prayer.” Chad and Maresa looked at one another; the Spirit had struck a chord. Later that evening at the prayer service, Chad went forward to ask for prayer for a loved one. Down at the altar he was very moved by the presence of God—God met him. He now knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he wanted LifePark to become a praying church.

Over the next few years, LifePark started a Thursday evening prayer service, a weekly noon time of prayer, and a prayer team. Maresa now serves full-time with the church as a prayer director. She’s thrilled to watch the Spirit stir more hearts to pray as they continue to explore what it means to be a praying church.

Prayer Bubbles Up

The pattern of Jesus’s dying and rising permeated Maresa’s story. Maresa was drawn to prayer by an ache in her heart—a dying—in her life’s circumstances. Aches are transferable if God has given you something in your life that breaks your heart, where the only thing you can do is pray. That weakness, and the prayer it fosters, is transferable to every other part of your life. Luke tells us that a personal ache drew Anna as well. When she was newly married, young and vibrant with her whole life ahead of her, her husband died, leaving her childless. Nothing could be harder. Like Hannah, she turned to the house of prayer and found a home there. She prayed the Messiah in.

Maresa and Mary also experienced the dying side of prayer when they prayed for seven years with no major breakthroughs. Maresa said they were able to persevere because God kept answering their small prayers. For example, praying that men would pray with them and/or that they would have greater ethnic diversity. That encouraged them to wait for answers to bigger prayers. During those years, God taught them to wait on him. They learned that in everything Jesus is Lord of the harvest. They also regularly encouraged one another’s faith by taking time to celebrate answers to prayer. It kept the Spirit’s resurrection power fresh and alive for them all.

They glimpsed the Spirit’s resurrection power more vividly in moments like their trip to The Brooklyn Tabernacle and the way it moved Chad’s heart to deeper conviction about getting their church to pray. And they glimpse it today as their weekly church-wide prayer meeting sparkles with life.

Maresa’s experience is not uncommon. Prayer often bubbles up from the bottom, from the Annas. Maresa said that their biggest challenge was simply the church’s success. It was growing by leaps and bounds. When answers to their prayers came, as is so typical of the Spirit, they came sideways. Who would have guessed that an elder would admonish his fellow elders for their weakness in prayer? Who would have guessed that their senior pastor, Chad, would be drawn, seemingly out of the blue, to become a “man of prayer”? Or that a pastor in New York would challenge him directly? Or that the Spirit would meet Chad as he was praying down front? “The wind blows where it wishes” (John 3:8) is the fundamental dynamic of the Spirit.

Don’t Be Discouraged in Hidden Work

I encourage the seeming lonely pray-ers like Anna not to be discouraged in their hidden work. The Annas of our churches are our hidden wealth. Mary, Jesus’s mother, honored Anna by telling her story.1 The Annas of your church are the nuclear power plant that fuels so many of the good things we can easily think happened because of good planning or talent.

You get to prayer by prayer.

Ole Hallesby, in his classic book Prayer, compares the work of revival to mining. It might take a week to bore a long hole in a mining shaft. After the hole is drilled, it’s packed with dynamite, a charge is set, and in an instant tons of rock break loose. Everyone’s attention is focused on the excitement of the explosion, but the real work was tedious and boring. In a revival, the speaker who electrifies the audience and leads many to Christ is the person who sets off the charge. The person boring the hole is the praying Anna, who really made it all happen.

Maresa did not respond to her church’s weakness in prayer with a spirit of criticism. She didn’t become a critical Anna. On the scale of irritation, a prayer Pharisee ranks fairly high. When we become our church’s critic, we are no longer hidden saints, but we’ve joined the growing ranks of prickly saints.

One of the delights of a hidden ministry of prayer is that you can do exactly what you want your community to do—pray. You get to prayer by prayer. And Jesus’s promise still stands: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20). So, finding a prayer partner, like Maresa did, is a wonderful way to begin.

A Forgotten Present

What sustains people like Anna to keep praying? A sense of anticipation of what God might do through prayer. I was delighted when one of the pastors in a prayer cohort I was leading wrote me this note six months after the cohort ended:

Something changed in me during or through that cohort. Something clicked in a new way with prayer. I know the focus was on the church, but God did something in me that I don’t know how to explain. I get excited about the “boringness” of praying for the same things again and again (low-level, no thrills farming work) to a God who hears—and then who does move the prayer stories forward. It’s like a surprise Christmas morning, getting to unwrap a forgotten present when he answers!

What “clicked” for this pastor was faith. He saw how life worked. That sparked hope, which spilled over into the work of love (prayer). When faith is weak, you are gripped by some combination of cynicism or lethargy—the kissing cousins of unbelief. Not surprisingly, Anna and Simeon are both older—they understand life’s deep structures, that the good things in life are gifts and prayer lies at the heart of God’s gift-giving.

Great movements of the kingdom begin low and slow, with hidden pray-ers who keep showing up to pray. Who pray when they don’t feel like it. Who pray when there is no change. Who pray when they are discouraged. They are continually in prayer, and then they slowly add other pray-ers to join them. As we listen to their stories, we catch glimpses of how the Spirit of Jesus is orchestrating more than we could ask or imagine.

I suspect many of you are in a relatively prayer-less church. How do you even start? How do you help your church value praying together? How do you sustain your own new hunger for prayer? The answer is simple. You begin the way Anna did—by praying.


  1. Scholars believe that Luke 1–2 came from Mary, Jesus’s mother.

Paul E. Miller is the author of A Praying Church: Becoming a People of Hope in a Discouraging World.

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