When it comes to church planting in the 21st Century, how should we pray? 

I found myself inspired recently by the passionate prayer of Psalm 80. At its heart it helps me express my frustrations, remembering what God has done in the past, and urging me to cry that he’ll do it again in my day!

Psalm 80 has been helping me in my praying – not just to see a few church plants to be added, but for a multiplicatory movement of church planting in the coming years that not only changes the landscape of church, but also transforms society. You might want to use this psalm in these semi-locked down days, to help you to pray in a similar way.

Introduction (read 80:1-2)

This prayer doesn’t mess around. The psalmist, Asaph, begins by stating exactly what’s on his heart and what he wants the Lord God to do:

‘Hear us, Shepherd of Israel … Awaken your might, come and save us.’ 

He’ll pray about this in more detail later, but for now these introductory words simply express what he wants to pray about.

This is a prayer-song, addressed to their Shepherd’ – the One guarding and leading his people (Ps 23) here on earth. But he’s also the One in heaven who ‘sits enthroned between the angels’ – reigning in glory. That’s why the prayer asks him to ‘shine forth’ – for his kingdom to come on earth as in heaven (Mt 6:10).

As you begin praying, acknowledge who God is: powerful and supreme, reigning in glory, and yet also with us, in our midst by his Spirit. Tell him what’s on your heart and what you want to pray. Pray for his kingdom to come. ‘Pray’, as Archbishop Donald Coggan put it, that ‘in the world, God’s supremacy may be seen, His sovereignty manifested.’

Refrain (read 80:3,7,19)

Then comes the chorus:

  ‘Restore us, O God; 

   make your face shine on us, 

   that we may be saved.’ 

It’s repeated three times. As well as providing structure, this refrain summarises the prayerful hope of the psalm. It’s a prayer for restoration, illumination and salvation. You can imagine the congregation learning these words, while a worship leader or choir perhaps led through the rest of the song. If this chorus was all that was remembered, that would have been sufficient to pray the core of this heart-felt prayer.

When you pray, it’s OK to do just this: find a pertinent phrase and keep coming back to it. It shapes our praying, drawing us back to the heart of what we’re praying for. That’s what a good chorus does as it becomes liturgy.

After this, and in between the repeated choruses, the rest of this prayer can be described in three big themes.

1. The Frustration of Unanswered Prayer (read 80:4-6)

We then hear the prayer of someone discouraged and disheartened. Things are not as they should be. This person knows that God answers prayer, but it feels like he’s just not listening. Many psalms are like this – with Psalm 13 beginning with the same phrase picked up here: ‘How long, Lord?’ This is a desperate prayer of someone who’s been weeping and weeping for change. It’s lament – a kind of praying which Pete Greig has noticed features ‘in more than half the psalms and an entire book of the Bible. It is vitally important, often forgotten, expression of prayer.’ In this heavy place of grief, Asaph pours out his heart. Is God angry? That must be why they’re mocked by those who don’t share their trust in God. Will this never end? 

Speak aloud the words of these verses, and feel the frustration. They echo the heart-cry of all who’ve known the experience of God on mute. However many of us don’t pray with such passion like this, maybe because we think that discharging our dissatisfaction in this way dishonours the Lord. But the psalmist doesn’t think so. And neither does the Lord. The fact that it’s included in the Bible urges us to be honest and real in our prayers. Indeed there’s a godly dissatisfaction that needs pouring out in prayer, for holy frustration is often the womb from which vision and faith is birthed.

2. The Remembering of Mission History (read 80:8-13)

After the next chorus break, the prayer changes as the psalmist recollects history. But it’s not just any old history. He recalls their mission history, explicitly using the language of planting. In his imagination he relives the missional work of God (the so-called missio dei) – of how they were planted (v.8), established (v.9) and then influenced the culture of their region (vv.10-11). It’s good to look back like this for, as Ann Voskamp says, ‘God reveals Himself in rearview mirrors.’

As we pray in this way, looking back at the wonderful work of God in our history, give thanks not just for good things in church history but how, through God’s kingdom, society has been transformed. That’s always God’s bigger intent for church planting – that a movement for cultural change is calalysed.

So why aren’t we seeing more today? More questioning prayers are asked about why things have declined (vv.12-13). This reminds us that while having a historical perspective is important and can helpfully inform our prayer and action, it doesn’t actually alter the present and future. Something more is needed.

That’s why the prayer then changes again.

3. The Cry of Resilient Pioneers (read 80:14-19)

Now the prayer gathers real pace, becoming more focussed and more direct, expressing the pioneering heart of this pilgrim who won’t take the status quo for granted. It becomes what Mark Sayers calls ‘contending prayer’ which is common in all moves of God. ‘Such prayer’ says Sayers, ‘asks God to change our churches, our culture, and our world, yet it also changes us as we pray, reshaping us in the patterns of the kingdom.’ This prayer is now essentially asking for two things: first, for God to come – asking the Lord to ‘return’ (v.14). And second for leaders to lead – to be ‘raised up’ (v.17). 

These are two specific prayers that we must also pray. 

a) God to Come

The ancient prayer of the church ‘Come Holy Spirit’ is a prayer like this. It’s a prayer to see again God’s presence, provision, life and love powerfully at work in our midst. Like Habbakuk (3:2) who asks for God to ‘renew … in our day and in our time’ what he did in the past, we can pray like this. We can invite and invoke the Lord, asking him like the psalmist, to ‘revive us’ (v.18).

b) Leaders to Lead

One of the key ways this will happen, is through leaders leading well. We need anointed leaders – upon whom God’s ‘hand’ of blessing rests (v.17), who are trained, equipped and released. Asaph probably had David initially in mind, although followers of Jesus know it’s ultimately about the best leader ever, Christ the ‘son of man’ (v.17). So pray for servant leaders who are inspired and empowered by Jesus Christ, ‘raised up’ not to work for themselves, but for God (v.17).

Conclusion (read 80:19)

The prayer ends with the refrain. God is called upon again. Such repetition reflects the persevering prayer of those who long to be part of a fresh move of God in their day.

To pray like this, when our present circumstances are uncertain, unsteady and unsettled requires a certain kind of prayer-leader, who is realistic and resilient, yet passionate and persevering. They need to be people of grit.

To work for this, when our fast-changing culture often discomforts, disappoints and discourages requires a certain kind of planting-leader, who is adaptive and adventurous, yet steady and servant-hearted. They need to be people of hope.

Why not join me in praying Psalm 80 for your city, your region and your nation? It’s the gritty, hopeful prayer of leaders who long for transformation.

Matthew Porter is author of A-Z of Prayer and Overflow, and Vicar of The Belfrey in York, a church with a vision to be serving God’s transformation of the North.