Onwuchekwa, John. Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018, 137, $14.99
In his book Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church, John Onwuchekwa addresses deficiencies of corporate prayer in an ecclesiastical context. In 2015 Onwuchekwa helped plant Cornerstone Church in Atlanta, Georgia where he currently serves as the lead pastor. Those who have planted churches recognize the unique challenges and the need for faithful prayer in the midst of church planting. The author brings those experiences into his writing on prayer. He also comes to the topic with a personal passion informed by ministries like the Gospel Coalition and 9Marks where he regularly contributes his perspective.
Problems with Solutions
The book begins with a clear articulation of one of the problems the author sees in the church today regarding prayer. The reader might expect him to go so far as to say the problem is prayerlessness generally, but a more nuanced, precise analysis of the problem is given instead. It is not a complete absence of corporate prayer, but that prayer is done too little and without thoughtfulness and intentionality. Onwuchekwa writes, “And therein lies what I think is the biggest problem: not a complete lack of prayer, but too little prayer (18).” It is likely most pastors would receive this gentle rebuke as relevant to their own context. Thankfully, the author is not just concerned about identifying a problem, he also provides aid for growth in the area of corporate prayer.
In looking to Jesus’ example, the author defines prayer not assuming he and the reader start with the same understanding. “But it does us no good to talk about prayer and how it shapes the church if we can’t first agree on what prayer is (30).” Onwuchekwa provides a biblical overview in chapters two through five. He considers the concept of prayer generally but then moves to how the Bible informs the prayers of the church. He suggests one of the primary threats to Christian prayer is sinfulness expressed through selfishness, but he also points the reader to the hope found in the practice of prayer stating, “[Prayer] helps us to stop jockeying for position, but instead to plead for God to take his rightful position in our church and world (52).” Chapters four and five drive at praying together and the example Jesus gives through his model prayer in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:9–13).
The final section of the book focuses on the role of prayer in corporate worship, corporate care, and how corporate prayer impacts missions. Through a simple explanation of what Onwuchekwa has practiced in his own church, he seeks to give practical resources for the reader. One of these aids, which may already be familiar, is the prayer model that uses “ACTS” as an abbreviation (79-87). He concludes the main section of his book by pointing the reader to how corporate prayer motivates missions in the church. The author asserts that prayer is the fuel for evangelism because prayer changes the one praying. “Praying together does something wonderful to our evangelism. It doesn’t just erase the obstacles to evangelism; it replaces them (114).” Prayer replaces selfishness with selflessness and thereby overcomes sinful obstacles to reaching the lost with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Clarity and Passion
Onwuchekwa writes with clarity and passion in Prayer. It is clear it comes from a passion for the church and a love for Christ. Most importantly, his work is saturated with scripture. He brings both his passion for the church and the Bible’s instruction into a very concise work. Its concision is one of the greatest strengths of the book and what makes it so accessible. Anyone can read it, and many should. It is simple, short, and filled with stories and examples to illustrate the author’s points. It is a book for every church member, but I would also recommend it specifically for pastors and church leaders in order to challenge and encourage them to guide their churches to pray more often and more intentionally. Prayer is also a great resource to use to train others within the church through small group Bible studies, staff development meetings, discipleship training, and many other contexts.
In chapter seven the author calls for a recovery of the prayer meeting which I found particularly helpful. His intention is not to recreate something that is entertaining or attractive by adding crowd-drawing elements. Instead, he calls for simplicity stating, “The truth is, we don’t need to innovate. We only need to be intentional (96).” In my experience, prayer meetings are usually an inwardly focused time in which the congregation prays for its sick. While this is important, Onwuchekwa calls the church to something greater than a sick list. He calls the church to pray for the body and the kingdom of God, and he presents it in simple, accessible ways for all to participate.
A Hidden Jewel
The conclusion of Prayer is a hidden jewel in helping believers move forward in praying more faithfully together. This final chapter isn’t a conclusion as much as it is parting words as Onwuchekwa gives five temptations that threaten faithful corporate prayer. He addresses each of these with clear, practical steps on how to avoid these pitfalls. Each of these temptations is very relevant for the church adding further evidence of Onwuchekwa’s understanding of why churches struggle to pray together. The reader should not skip the conclusion thinking they have milked all the author wishes to communicate in the main chapters. If they do, they will rob themselves of the author’s final words of warning and encouragement.
One noteworthy shortfall in Onwuchekwa’s work is the absence of an analysis of prayer in contemporary liturgies or an example of how the elements of corporate prayer can be structured on Sunday morning. He addresses the general types of prayers in chapter six (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication), but he omits how these different corporate prayers fit together in a service. Perhaps this is because it is not just a book for pastors, but I believe church leaders would have been helped by a specific example on how to guide their congregations to pray on Sunday morning. This could have easily been included in an appendix at the end if it was too cumbersome for the main section of the book. Fortunately, these types of resources are plentiful and easily accessible outside this work.
A Small, Simple Book
Through Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church, John Onwuchekwa adds a helpful and needed edition to the Building Healthy Churches from 9Marks Ministries. I would recommend this book to any Christian willing to read it. The amount of wisdom, passion, and scripture that Onwuchekwa writes with is seldomly packed into such a small, simple book.