When I graduated from seminary in Toronto in 1977, God spoke clearly to me about going to England. The immediate purpose was to do a PhD in New Testament studies, but I knew there was more to it than that. The “more than that” turned out to be more than I thought. This is how it happened. For two years, I worked with students in Durham University in northern England, as well as with my local church while working on my degree. The third and final year of my funding approached, and I was faced with a choice. What was I to do and where was I to go if God wanted me to stay in the United Kingdom?
At the same time, I made a good but sometimes annoying friend -- the kind of friend who, like the widow in Jesus’ parable, pesters her opponent until she gets what she wants. The “widow” in my case came in an unlikely form, a very proper upper class English gentleman called Robert Ward. Robert’s “problem” was he was convinced of the need to rise early and seek God. His early morning prayers occasionally aroused some resentment among the slumbering theological students in adjacent rooms, but he persisted.
Robert got the idea that we should start an early morning prayer meeting on the university campus, and furthermore, that he and I should lead it. That presented a problem for me, as sometimes I didn’t go to bed much before Robert got up! The fact is, and I admit it, I hated getting up in the morning.
But Robert had a plan. I needed a ride from Durham to London, and he was heading that way with space to spare. Once I was aboard, I became captive to a four hour harangue on the necessity of early rising if one was to be in right relationship with the Lord, and that an early morning prayer meeting had to be established, and that he and I had to do it. Like the unjust judge in the parable, I relented. Did I mention that Robert had previously been enjoying his profession as a barrister (a British term for top lawyer!) in London? Now he was also judge and jury. I was placed on the stand, cross-examined, convicted and thrown into the prison of early rising.
At the beginning of the next academic year, we received permission to use the thousand year old Norman chapel deep in the bowels of Durham Castle. It was completely sound proof, and we could pray and sing as loud as we wanted as early as we wanted. What happened astounded me. Within a short time, we had so many young men and women crowding into our meeting at 7 am every morning to seek the face of God, we had to find a second location in another college. The meetings continued six days a week for the entire academic year, with an average of 100 students attending. Many were converted as a result of the change in these students’ lives. God did miracles.
And in the midst of it, something else happened. I began to fast and pray about my own future. And he spoke to me words that changed my life: “I am calling you to stay in this city and found a church.” I can still remember exactly where I was that day in January 1980, when I heard the voice of God so clearly it was like another person speaking to me. What happened after that is another story in itself. Suffice to say that nine months later, Emmanuel Church Durham was born. In the years since, churches all over the world have been planted directly and indirectly from that base. Thousands have come to Christ. Leaders of stature have been raised up. All I did was plant the seed. Through many others, God brought the harvest. I am privileged to visit Emmanuel every year. It is still a dynamic church, for many years led by my good friend Alan Bell, winning people of all types and ages to Christ, and a vital witness in one of the great university cities of England. As this is being written, it is planting out another church just a few miles down the road. And what about Robert Ward? He went on to plant a pioneering church called St Luke's at the edge of the university campus in the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where prayer is still a prominent part of all that is happening there.
Have you got the important point in all this? History is changed when men and women begin to seek God. I saw that when I visited the Outer Hebrides (again with Robert, and a second time with Elaine). I heard how a small group of Presbyterian folk sought God through the night hours and vowed to stay in his presence till he brought revival, which he did. I have never felt the presence of God more in a geographical location than I felt it there. The agenda of every prayer meeting and church service we attended included beseeching God to send revival again.
Anything can happen when you begin to pray. Prayer is the most important thing a Christian can do. It is more effective than a thousand ministry programs or strategies. It is the lifeblood of the church. That is the testimony God gave me in 1980, and he hasn’t changed his ways since. The most effective way you can change history is the same way I did. Pray. Why don’t you try it?