It is amazing how language which begins life in the laboratory, or in the halls of the academy, can quickly filter down into everyday use – often stripped of its more technical dimensions. We have become accustomed to referencing ‘critical mass’ to express how things inevitably come to a head in our lives, and the term ‘quantum’ has become an adjective of choice for things of a large scale. The idea of the ‘butterfly effect’ has also found increasing acceptance in how we speak of behaviours and reactions, reflecting the fact that small and seemingly inconsequential actions can have huge and unseen ramifications.
In a three part series of posts appearing this week (part 2 here), I want to borrow this last term as a way of thinking through why large scale activity and grand gestures are often not the way in which God does his most vital work, and why we should embrace the incredible potential of doing small things well, with a hope that stretches beyond our present horizon. Some key areas where we can be tempted to despise the small scale of our endeavours are in prayer, giving, and evangelism, and it is these disciplines which will be my focus in each of the articles. All of the examples given of the ‘butterfly effect’ spring the ministry of one gospel venture, Grace Baptist Partnership, who are currently holding their annual month of prayer and giving.
Big prayers for a little one
Perhaps the ‘butterfly effect’ finds no better test case than in our life of prayer. Many of us struggle to pray because its main activity is insubstantial, the One we are addressing is personally invisible, and the results are not readily quantifiable. We pray in praise of God’s name, and for the needs of key people, and while our hearts swell in worship, they sometimes shrivel in terms of expectation at what God can and will do. Living in a world where everything is effectively instant, where delivery is ‘same day’, and where replies and responses are expected within seconds, prayer is counter-cultural, counterintuitive, and (among our enriched and pressing schedules) seems counter-productive. The prayers of a single individual, or a small gathering of Christians can seem to be of little import or gravity, and as a consequence becomes a neglected discipline and a source of nagging guilt. If we could only see the outcome of this seemingly small endeavour our view of what we are doing might be radically altered, and we might embrace the butterfly effect of fervently seeking God for his grace.
Clint Morgan is a name which may find few memorials beyond his own family circle. He lived out his days in the rural community of Dell in North East Arkansas. On the 21st October 1964 he visited a family in his area who had just had a baby son. Standing by the hospital crib of this little one he offered a prayer unknown to everyone in the world, apart from the few people in the room. His wording was frank and unadorned, but his beating heart for the gospel was unmistakable. In words uniquely his own, he prayed,
Father, we pray for this young child. Some of us are getting too old to do very much. Father, we dedicate this young child to take up the reins and help spread the gospel to the ends of the earth.
The only record of the prayer lived unread in the personal diary of the baby’s mother, Sue King, who with wisdom and grace did not disclose it to her family. It was only many years later that her son, Barry, read what Clint had prayed by his crib those years before. By that time he had been used of God to preach on every continent apart from Antarctica, and had established a network to plant and revitalise churches in the United Kingdom and beyond, Grace Baptist Partnership. The butterfly effect of the simple intercession of a godly man in an Arkansas hospital was of great avail in seeing these ministries come into the world for Christ’s glory, a seemingly insignificant prayer in a largely unknown place used to great effect for the Kingdom.
There are times when God graciously lifts the veil for us, and allows us to see the tangible evidence of what James 5:16 tells us of the effect of fervent prayer of righteous people. Our moments before God, asking him to bless those around us, to further his work, to use his servants, and to raise up labourers can often feel like the least of things in Christ’s kingdom, but this perception is far from how God views and owns the intercession of his people. If we are praying, and if we are questioning how much of a difference it is truly making, we might remember Clint Morgan and the role his prayers played in building a gospel partnership which continues to impact lives and ministries all of these years later.
The Power of Improper Prayer
Wood Green is a highly populous district of North London. In that area a small Baptist church was dwindling to the point of almost certain closure. Three women, deeply burdened by the reality of the circumstances their church was facing, felt burdened to gather for prayer. Their then Pastor didn’t agree. He felt that more numbers were needed for a ‘proper prayer meeting’ to take place, and didn’t support the idea of interceding corporately without enough people present. This prompted a question for the three women – how many people are needed for a ‘proper prayer meeting’? Their Pastor, presumably thinking of the synagogue, suggested 12 men. The women, undaunted, convened what they called an ‘improper prayer meeting’ at which one of their chief requests was that the Lord would send 12 men to Grace Baptist Wood Green.
With the passage of time, these three women began to see God answer their improper prayers. Barry King, prayed for many years before by Clint Morgan in Dell, Arkansas, eventually became their Pastor. God graciously moved and brought more men along to the church family eventually granting Grace Baptist Wood Green sufficient numerical and spiritual strength to plant/revitalise a further 12 churches in the United Kingdom – a movement which would eventually culminate in the work of Grace Baptist Partnership. The first man baptised during this period was Daniel Shwe (part of whose story will appear in the next post in this series) whom God has used in North Watford and beyond for his glory. Grace Baptist Wood Green continues to know God’s mercy and help, receiving 16 new church members during the past year of pandemic, and reaching into the lives of spiritually needy people in a critically important part of London.
At times we can be tempted to take a ‘multiple signatories’ approach to prayer. We can begin to believe that God, much like parliaments across the world, requires 100,000 subscribers before he will hear a request or consider a petition. We can tacitly accept the idea of ‘proper prayer’ believing that a visible and vocal marshalling of people might in some way leverage God into action. The truth is that ‘improper prayer’ is often the more likely candidate for seeing big things happen. The butterfly effect of three women earnestly and urgently asking God to move in their area might not have carried the sanction of their pastor, but it enjoyed the favour of their Father. The history of revivals is littered with diminutive gatherings of God’s people pleading with him to work in ways which seem impossible. It appears that God is more concerned to weigh hearts than to count heads, and we should be deeply grateful for that fact.
As the work of Christ becomes more and more immersed in hostile cultural waters, as the influence of the gospel in public life wanes, our calling is not to wage a war but to bow our heads, even in small numbers, embracing the fact that God could answer an Elijah in the midst of the dynasty of Omri, and open the heavens through what could have looked like ‘improper prayer’.
Personally and publicly, prayer is of great effect. We should embrace the obscurity of Clint Morgan prayers, trusting Christ for ramifications which might outlive us, and we should delight to gather even in perishingly small groupings with the confidence that such prayer is of great power because it is vitally owned by the God who delights to answer the humble requests of obscure people.