Cities are an integral part of 21st-century life.
Much as we all still enjoy the beauty of the rural countryside and the lure of a small-town community, the majority of us around the globe live and work in urban sprawls. They’re the seats of government and commerce; hubs of immigration and diversity; places of outstanding education and employment and centres of culture in all its forms. And our cities are set to grow. A recent UN report estimates that almost all of the world’s population increase over the next 10 years will be centred on our cities, with a staggering 5.1 billion people expected to be dwelling in one by the year 2030.
Cities are an integral part of God’s plans too. Throughout the Old and New Testaments we see God’s story unfold, largely, in the arena of cities. It is in the cities that we find some of the depths of rebellion - the godless ambition of Babel (Genesis 11) still describes the self-seeking striving that typifies many an urban centre today.
But it is also in the cities that we see beacons of hope (the building of the temple in 1 Kings 6), great acts of undeserved grace (who could have imagined the turnaround of Nineveh in Jonah 3?) and, ultimately, the awesome work of Jesus Christ, nailed to a cross just outside the city walls and raised to life again on the third day (Matthew 27). It was in a city that God poured out his Spirit on his people, in a city that the first church came to be. It was to cities that Paul travelled with the gospel and it is a city to which we are all headed: the perfection of eternal life is not played out on some sandy beach but in the new Jerusalem of Revelation 21. Indeed, cities provide a picture for the whole mission of God: Augustine – a teacher in the 4th century - summarised the whole of Christian history as God’s work through Jesus Christ to redeem the ‘city of man’ and transform it into the ‘city of God’.
But how often do we pray for our cities? Maybe the few streets around our home or church are the subject of our intercessions, of course, but how often do we see our capital as a whole and pray for its needs in all their depth and especially for the priceless and eternal blessing of the gospel? To put it another way, how much do we long to emulate Isaiah’s call to swathe our city in prayer? His plan? To post “watchmen on your walls, Jerusalem; they will never be silent day or night. You who call on the Lord, give yourselves no rest” (Isaiah 62:6). Or how much do we want to be like Jeremiah? He instructed the people of God to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7). When Paul wrote his letters, they were for the equipping of all those in Rome (Romans 1:7) or the saints who were in Ephesus (Ephesians 1:1) with an understanding of gospel-shaped lifestyle - not just a small gathering in one corner of those great metropolises.
Do we long to be people who see our capital, London, like that?
Maybe it feels a bit overwhelming. After all, many of us struggle to keep up with our own personal prayer-lists as it is! There are only a certain number of hours in every day and, for many of us, our diaries are pretty full with church things already.
But if we are truly passionate about our own local city; if we are really committed to the ministry of Co-Mission across London; if we genuinely want to see new people coming to Christ, new churches being planted, new ministries being established, new ministers being raised up for gospel-work, then surely we have to begin with prayer? Why wouldn’t we want to talk to the king of creation about the spiritual and practical needs of the millions of people on our doorstep who are without hope? It’s a privilege beyond compare. He’s our perfect father and loves to not just hear us but answer us in the ways he knows to be best. And, let’s face it, all this evangelistic effort in which we are investing our time and money, this is the Lord’s work, and unless he builds the house, labourers like us will – rather depressingly – be labouring in vain (Psalm 127:1).
So, what might this kind of prayer look like?
Prayer that's ambitious for God's kingdom growth
God’s plans for this city are much more exciting than we can imagine. It might feel like London is hard ground for gospel proclamation and, in some ways, it is – but there is so much hope. When the imprisoned John was writing to the discouraged early church suffering Roman persecution, he started by encouraging them to remember just how huge God and his purposes are: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:8) That same God is reigning today. The eternal God, our powerful God, the one who will be ultimately victorious, is active across our city so we can pray big prayers. How many unchained hearts would you like to see across London in 2020 and beyond? Go ahead and ask! How many new church plants? Why not add a few more? Think that resources are too tight?
Well, we have to be wise but the Lord who owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10) isn’t limited by our current purse. Think there are some groups of people whose religion, language, sexuality or socio-economic circumstances make them too hard to reach? Think again! Or, more importantly, pray again – the Messiah who ate with sex-workers, had quiet chats with the wayward religious elite, hung out with an outcast woman at a well and chose both doctors and fisherman to be his closest friends, has not gone to sleep. It’s impossible for our prayers to be too big – the only “restriction” is that they need to be focused on God’s kingdom and the glory of Christ.
Prayer that's passionate about people we don't know
London is a hyper-diverse city. In some areas, the majority of people won’t have a Bible-believing friend to pray for them. The context of each borough, the ways to connect with each people group, are unique and worthy of our understanding and care. There are statistics to fuel our head- knowledge (reports like the English Indices of Deprivation, 2019 can give a fascinating insight into what different areas are like). And there are opportunities for each of us to pick one group of people and love them well by talking to God about their salvation. Who will you pick? The homeless, refugees from Syria, Muslims from Somalia, those trafficked into slavery, those enslaved to the pursuit of wealth, the actors in the West End, the athletes training in Crystal Palace, the commuters on the Jubilee line? The options are limitless!
Prayer that's equipping for God's people
But just as it’s good to pray ambitious prayers, it’s helpful to focus in on detail too. Paul, when he wrote to the churches of Asia, didn’t just cast an aspirational vision for kingdom work, he prayed for deeply personal things (the removal of his thorn in the flesh – 2 Corinthians 12:7-9), deeply practical things (that he might be bold in gospel proclamation – Ephesians 6:19-20) and deeply pastoral things (that anxious Christians would know an overwhelming peace – Philippians 4:6-7). The work of Co-Mission in London is being undertaken by real people with real struggles. Why not commit to praying for one of our church planters? Why not encourage your small group to regularly intercede for and encourage another Co-Mission church? How about adopting a Co-Mission ministry (be that a lunchtime talk, a pregnancy advice centre or the London Church Planting Academy) and making it a matter for prayer once a month? Or simply texting someone from a different church and asking them how you can pray for them today? We can’t all intercede for everything but, between us, we can bathe the streets of London and our Co-Mission brothers and sisters in prayer.
And we can be confident that any such prayer will bear fruit. Our God is not a slot machine who dances to our desires but he is a generous king, eager to see his kingdom grow! It wasn’t on a whim that Paul penned these words and it can be with utter assurance that we can turn to our God and say: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)
Helen Thorne is a member of Dundonald Church and co-author of 5 Things to Pray for your City