Do you have a list of questions you want to ask God, “When you get there?” I do. Here is one of them. “Who was praying for a John 17 kind of unity to burst out in the church in America during the 1980’s?” Why would I ask that question? Because within a few month of the last part of that decade three major movements of unity were born: March for Jesus, Promise Keepers, and Pastors’ Prayer Summits. There was no human coordination between these events, but they all had a very similar spirit and goal. All three were multi-denominational, they all were calling people to a fresh view of God, and each of them were calling people to a greater response to God. March for Jesus focused on the entire Church. Promise Keepers focused on the men of the Church. Pastors’ Prayer Summits focused on the leaders of the Church. And Christ-centered unity increased.
Of these three movements, Pastors’ Prayer Summits was the least known. Not as many people were involved as the other two. But they were key people. There was no advertising for Prayer Summits: only word-or-mouth. Those who began Prayer Summits did not lobby or tell others they needed a Prayer Summit. They simply responded to the requests as they came in. And come in they did. Since 1989, at least 3,000 Prayer Summits have taken place in at least 40 states and 30 nations.
These are estimates because for the last 10 years, Prayer Summits have been “out of the box.” We honestly don’t know when and where Prayer Summits have taken place. In the earlier years, if you wanted a Prayer Summit in your area you called their office and they took it from there. Now, enough people have been trained to facilitate summits that the office sometimes hears about summits after they have happened and (I am sure) sometimes never at all.
It began in the heart of Dr. Joe Aldrich who was the first pastor of Mariners Church in Newport Beach, California. He knew that “the level of the spiritual life of the congregation would never rise above the level of the spiritual life of the leadership.” So, he would ask his leaders to get away for 24 or 48 hours. These were not “planning retreats” as much as they were “renewal retreats.” They were not designed to communicate with one other or to figure out what they wanted to do as much as they were to communicate with God so He could tell them what He wanted to do. Dr. Joe would tell them not to bring their file folders, but their Bible. It was not a time to do “church business” but “business with God.”
A decade later he was the third president of Multnomah School of the Bible (now Multnomah University) in Portland, Oregon. He accepted the position after his father served that role for 35 years. Part of his desire as President was to use it as a platform to bring about a spiritual renewal to the Pacific Northwest. To help accomplish this, he soon began sponsoring Pastor’s Enrichment Congresses. His hope was to bring fresh life to pastors and therefore bring fresh life to the church.
Though these were successful times in many ways, Aldrich soon began feeling it was not accomplishing the renewal he felt God wanted. He envisioned congregations cooperating to demonstrate and proclaim the gospel together. He wanted to see the prayer of Jesus to “make them one” fulfilled in a community. So, a question developed in his heart. “What would it take to see a move of God initiated and sustained in a geographic area?”
He knew the answer to that question had to be more of an injection rather than a trickle. It should be a condensed time rather than a series of meetings. He also knew it needed to include leaders from across all “lines.” It needed to cross denominational, racial, generational and even gender lines. Finally, he knew it needed to focus on lifting up Jesus more than anything else.
He shared parts or all of this vision with pastors groups as he had opportunity. In the fall of 1988 he challenged the pastors in Salem, Oregon with these kind of questions, “What would it be like if all 50 of us went to the coast for 4 days simply to pray together? What if we went not to tell God what He must bless, but to listen to His plan to reach the people of Salem? What if the only agenda was to find His agenda?” They bit. In fact the owner of a car dealership in the room told them that if they were serious he would help finance it. A few months later, in February of 1989, the first Pastors’ Prayer Summit took place. God met them in powerful ways.
They sat in a circle. The only schedule was for meals. They eat breakfast, than gathered and prayed. They eat lunch and did the same. After dinner they prayed some more. There was no teaching about prayer. Just prayer. They shared in communion. They opened their Bibles and prayed. They sang song after song and prayed. There was no one worship leader. No instruments. Only hearts that wanted to meet God, crying out to Him. They prayed in the large group. They prayed in small groups. They prayed by themselves. They prayed for one another. At times, someone would pour out his heart in pain. Others would gather around them and share the pain. They would rejoice with those who rejoiced. The “leaders” were actually more facilitators. They did not “take prayer requests.” They sought to hear and pray the requests of their Father. The requests were fueled by worship. Many had never experienced God in this manner.
Soon these pastors talked with friends from other areas. As best they could, they shared about the amazing time they had experienced. It wasn’t long before Multnomah began receiving requests from pastors in other areas to help them do a similar thing. A few others who knew Joe began to answer these calls. More calls, more stories, more summits. Terry Dirks, a Vice President of Multnomah, was soon asked to take the lead of this new and budding movement. They asked some pastors at the summits to help facilitate other summits. By the mid to late 90’s there were over a hundred of summits taking place each year. And, since they were doing summits in other parts of the country and other countries, what started out as Northwest Renewal Ministries became International Renewal Ministries.
At one of the first Prayer Summits, they were going to share in communion. As communion was being introduced, one brother stood and said, “We can’t have communion right now.” All eyes shifted toward him. He walked across the room, got on his knees before another man and said, “We can’t have communion until I ask if you would forgive me for the way I have spoken against you from my pulpit. I have not treated you as a brother.” There was silence in the room. Soon the man in the chair said, “No.” More silence. “I don’t need to forgive you. I need to ask if you would please forgive me! I have not acted like a brother to you and spoken against you as well!” The two men stood and hugged. Now, God was in the room!
We rejoice that over the years there have been scores of stories where real reconciliation has taken place. It has not come about because one person told someone else what to do. It has come about as people hear one another spend long periods of time in worship and prayer to the same God. A real miracle of a Prayer Summit is that pastors from the same city – sometimes even the same block – who either don’t know or like one another go away to prayer together for a few days and come back as real brothers in Christ.
In addition to reconciliation, other common themes began to develop. After hours of spontaneous, Jesus-focused worship and prayer take place, following the leading of the Holy Spirit, it is not uncommon for a pastor to pray a prayer of deep repentance. Perhaps it is because he had made ministry more important than Jesus. Perhaps it was because he had not been treating his wife with the honor she deserves. Perhaps a long-covered-over sexual sin or addiction becomes more important to confess than to bear alone. Because the trust level has grown deep, pastors feel safe to be real with God and one another.
It has also become common for people to see they have not been honoring Jesus in their community like He deserves to be honored. Because walls and weapons have been laid down, there is often informal and formal conversation about how they can demonstrate the true unity of the Body of Christ. Psalm 133 may be read, or John 17:20-13, or Colossians 2:2-3 or perhaps Ephesians 4:1-7. But they are not just read. They are prayed. On several occasions the pastors have wanted to “take this back home.” So, multi-congregational meetings and service projects have flowed naturally from these times in God’s presence.
Joe retired from public ministry, because of Parkinson’s disease in 1997. Two years later, Terry died suddenly while sharing the vision of Prayer Summits in Japan. I have had the privilege of being the director of IRM since 2000. I attended my first Prayer Summit in 1990. It came at a critical time in my life and ministry. I remember the vulnerability of 55 pastors from Pierce County, Washington. I remember laughing harder, singing louder, and praying longer than I ever imagined. I remember finding out that “they” were really good people. I remember laying on the floor with my head under the communion table worshipping the living God. I also remember looking up to see nearly all the other men in a similar position. We left our congregations as individuals. We came back to the Church as brothers.
Dr. Joe’s dream of seeing a united, worshipping, praying, loving, serving, Church had begun to happen. A Prayer Summit has never been and never will be a magic pill for all that ails the Bride of Jesus. But, in many places, over the last 25 years, it has been a ministry-saving, re-envisioning, priority-shifting, relationally-connecting, catalytic few days that Jesus has seen fit to bless.