The Neglected Power of Prayer

Exploring the 5th Dimension of Missions

What exactly is mission work all about? Is it about solving the mystery of God’s call on our lives? Is ministry about performance: going to the right people with the right message at the right time with the right strategy? Those certainly seem important, but there is much more to missions.

At Urbana 96, I met a man named Frank Murray. Frank was in his eighties, and we were together on the intercessory prayer team for Urbana. We prayed behind the scenes around the clock in three-hour shifts for God’s work during the convention and beyond. During the conventions of the 1970s, Frank had been the sole member of the intercessory team, as he prayed from his home for requests called in by Urbana director David Howard. As I got to know Frank, I learned that he had personally been praying for ministry among students in this country since his own college days. He began ministering to students and publishing a prayer newsletter for them before organizations like InterVarsity or Campus Crusade even existed!

It was amazing to pray with Frank. His life and his manner of prayer exuded a confidence in God’s power and a sense of God’s presence. Even more amazing to me was the experience of attending Urbana plenary sessions with Frank, where he wept openly with joy as he watched God at work. In worshipping with 19,000 students interested in missions, Frank was experiencing the direct answer to more than 60 years of consistent prayer. My relationship with him deepened my conviction that missions is God’s enterprise, and that we participate in it as we pray.

Frank helped me see that God is working out his purposes in his own way and time, regardless of our human efforts, successes and failures. Frank knew that God is good and will fulfill his own purposes. Frank worked hard in ministry as a student, a campus minister, and a pastor, yet he knew that God was the one to accomplish his plan. As he prayed over the years, Frank experienced the hand of God working in his life and ministry. He had entered the “fifth dimension of missions.”

Enter the Reality Zone

Have you ever imagined being limited to fewer dimensions than we currently perceive? We experience life in the three physical dimensions of space (length, height and width) plus a fourth dimension of time. All we do and observe can be expressed in these four dimensions as what happened, when and how. But what would life be like if we could experience fewer than these dimensions? Take the example of seeing only a two-dimensional (flat) representation of a three-dimensional object: I recently handed a group of people a photograph of a man sitting in a creatively-designed rocking chair. As we looked at the photograph together, we could describe many aspects of the chair. We could even imagine what it would feel like to sit in it. Yet when I asked if anyone in the room had experienced that chair, the answer was no. Even sitting on the photograph wouldn’t qualify as sitting in the chair itself. We could only imagine the reality of the chair, because the photograph was a limited, two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object. In order to experience the chair fully, we need to do so in all of its dimensions.

Lamentably, we often perceive Christian missions in too few dimensions. We are like those who look at a photograph of a chair and believe in the chair, yet never experience the chair in its fullness. As we pursue God’s mission, we usually perceive and describe missions in the four dimensions of our own worldly experience: length, height, width and time. Yet the essence of God’s mission is not limited to our four dimensions any more than the essence of the chair is limited to a flat photograph. The mission of God includes our activities in time and space, but the essence of missions lies in what I am calling the “fifth dimension,” God’s own choices and actions.

The mission of God includes our activities in time and space, but the essence of missions lies in what I am calling the “fifth dimension,” God’s own choices and actions.

We typically assume that ministry is all about being in the right place at the right time, saying and doing the right things in the right ways to the right people. We believe that God works in missions, yet we usually experience missions in terms of strategies, activities, programs and needs. How often we forget that the fifth dimension of God’s sovereign activity among people is the controlling dimension of missions. Like the three-dimensional chair in two dimensions, we can describe God’s work in missions in our day-to-day four-dimensional concepts. We see evidence of the salvation God brings, the transformation of hearts and lives, the hopes and prayers and activities of ministry - but we do not personally experience the movement of God unless we enter into his work on a spiritual level.

Through intercessory prayer, God invites us to enter directly into his spiritual work. As we pray for missions, we stand as mediators in the spiritual transaction between God and people. Exodus 32 and 33 give us a wonderful example of intercessory prayer. Moses cries out to God for his mercy instead of the judgment his people deserve after their idolatry of the golden calf. He confesses their sin and pleads for forgiveness, offering his own life in exchange for theirs (32:30–32). As a result of Moses’ intercession, God eases his judgment on Israel, and Moses experiences the presence of the Lord. In intercessory prayer, God invites us, like Moses, into his own decision-making process about people and history. Only then do we experience the fifth dimension of missions.

Gaining a New Perspective

As a student leader, you too are in missions. God has placed you on your campus. He has given you a heart for some aspect of the ministry he is doing among people around you. Within your fellowship, you serve in some way to advance the mission of the group.

How do you perceive the mission that God has given you? Do you think of it in terms of responsibilities you carry, or tasks you need to accomplish? A clear indicator of this misguided perspective is when we feel the pressure of responsibility. We feel that we need to perform well for the sake of God or others. Most of us believe that God is at work in us and in our ministry, because we see evidence of his power in our own lives or in others. We live, however, as if missions were completely dependent on our own efforts. We are stressed and busy, hoping that the next strategy or program or relationship will bring success and relief.

God calls us, his campus missionaries, to live in the fifth dimension of his sovereignty, trusting completely in him and experiencing his work in the lives of those to whom we minister. Through prayer, we center our ministry in him and gain the perspective of the fifth dimension. We see that our own actions bathed in prayer give us the privilege of participating in the ministry that God is already accomplishing. To the degree that we make prayer the place of perception, discernment, refreshment and power in our ministries, we are released from the stress of performance.

Yet prayer is often a difficult area of growth, because it requires us to trust more in the presence of the Kingdom of God among us than in those dynamics which we can experience with our five senses. So how does one seek to grow in prayer? How can a campus fellowship make prayer central?

In the coming three years, my staff team and I have set our goal to “become a people of prayer.” I think student leaders can do the same. We want to center our team and our ministry in the fifth dimension. In pursuit of this goal, we are considering the following practical possibilities, some of which might work for you:

  • Ask God to grow us in prayer.
  • Learn from the prayer lives of those in Scripture and throughout church history.
  • Seek mentors in prayer.
  • Use good books on prayer or devotional prayer guides, such as A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants (The Upper Room).
  • Approach some of our Bible study through prayer, using traditions such as contemplative meditation on Scripture or lectio Divina, a tradition where we listen to the Word read aloud several times slowly, allowing God to speak to us personally.
  • Pray more. Take every opportunity possible to pray alone as well as with groups of believers.
  • Give quality team time to prayer. We want to begin our team meetings with extended prayer, so it isn’t just an afterthought.
  • Give quality individual time to prayer. Hold one another accountable to consistency in devotional prayer.
  • Seek to pray with everyone we meet. (Instead of saying, “Well, I’ll be praying for you,” let’s say, “Hey, why don’t we pray right now!”)

We look forward to the ways God will transform us into a people of prayer as put these into practice and trust in him.

Joshua in the Zone

Joshua is one biblical example of a mission leader profoundly centered in the fifth dimension. While we usually associate Joshua with the amazing things he accomplished in leadership, Scripture makes clear that he led his people primarily in spiritual ways. Consider some examples taken from the beginning and end of his life.

In Exodus 33, we see the source of Joshua’s sense of mission and reality. He was Moses’ disciple and personal servant from his youth. Joshua formed his values and perspectives by observing and serving his mentor. In this passage, Moses meets with the Lord in the tent of meeting, and intercedes for himself and the people. Although God proposed that his sinful people enter the promised land without his presence, Moses begs of the Lord, “If your presence will not go [with us], do not carry us up from here.” Moses makes clear in passionate word and deed that the presence of the Lord is more important than the fulfillment of Moses’ mission. Moses knows that he can not accomplish his goal by his own effort. He longs for the people of Israel to be in the presence of the Lord. Exodus 33:11 points out that Joshua was the only person who was with Moses during his meetings with the Lord. This is the foundation of Joshua’s leadership: learning from a prayerful leader that the presence of the Lord is of utmost importance. He begins his lessons in leadership from the perspective of the fifth dimension, God’s spiritual action within his people.

At the end of Joshua’s life, we get a glimpse of his own legacy. “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work which the Lord did for Israel” (Joshua 24:31). It’s fascinating that Scripture doesn’t even mention Joshua’s great military and political accomplishments. Rather, his legacy is the two generations of Israelites who had relationship with God. Somehow in Joshua, people were able to see through his leadership to “. . . the work which the Lord did for Israel.”

I want to leave a legacy like that, the legacy of a true missionary—one who gives his or her life to active ministry and intercessory prayer together, in an indivisible way. The very manner of Joshua’s leadership points to the reality of God’s presence, goodness and faithfulness. He led people to see and know the work of God, by seeing and knowing it himself.

What legacy do you want for your life? If you live in the urgency of performance, your legacy will be about your work. If you, like Joshua and like Frank Murray, live a life of mission that is soaked in prayer, you will experience the five-dimensional mission of God first-hand. Your legacy will be about the story that God tells through your life.


Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this article for educational purposes provided this permission notice, and the copyright notice below are preserved on all copies. Not to be reprinted in any other publication without permission. © 2000 InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. All rights reserved. This article first appeared in the Fall 2000 issue of Student Leadership Journal®.

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