Fasting to Focus: a Day of Prayer and Fasting Helped a Congregation Prepare for Ministry

Is it possible to get people of the Reformed faith to set aside a day for prayer and fasting?

Our elders struggled with that question last fall. Prayer they were comfortable with—after all, it's always been part of our tradition. But fasting? That sounded a little "foreign."

We finally decided to give it a try. We set aside an autumn Wednesday as our congregational day of prayer and fasting, asking members and friends to spend the day praying for the congregation, its officers, and the future of our ministry. We offered the following guidelines to help people pray:

1. THANKSGIVING. God has done so much for us. Be thankful. Thank him for his work in the forty-five-year history of this congregation. Thank him for the people who have played such vital roles in the establishment and continuation of this ministry. Thank God for his faithfulness and for more treasures not yet revealed. Thank God for working in your life, for molding and making you into a loving image of Christ.

2. MERCY. Pray for God's mercy upon us. Pray that we will be a daring, understanding, forgiving, hopeful, and supportive fellowship of believers. Pray that we will be willing to promote the knowledge of all the good that is ours in Christ Jesus.

3. VISION. Pray that we will be faithful to Christ now and in the future. Pray for renewed faith and commitment. Pray for wisdom for our church leaders. Pray for a renewed vision of what God would have us do and be in this time and place. Pray that we can make effective plans and give generously to fulfill this vision.

It was easy to talk about a day of prayer. It was not so easy to talk about a fast. Members of the congregation needed to understand what a fast was—what purpose it might serve. They needed to be challenged to try something new. Again, we provided guidelines:

What is fasting? In the strictest sense, fasting is total abstinence from food for a certain period of time. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were commanded to fast on the Day of Atonement, but they chose to fast on other days as well. They fasted when they were in mourning, when they were troubled by their sins, or when they wanted to get closer to God. Unfortunately, many of them abused fasting. They used fasting as a means of trying to make God owe them something or as a way of impressing others with their pious behavior. Isaiah severely criticized this practice. He believed that real fasting meant being concerned about the hungry, the homeless, and the oppressed (see Isa. 58:6-7).

Fasting is not mentioned often in the New Testament. However, we do learn that Jesus fasted for forty days before beginning his ministry and that the apostles fasted for short periods when they were choosing leaders or seeking wisdom about a new course for the church. Jesus offers this warning about fasting: "And when you fast, do not put on a sad face as the hypocrites do [referring to the Pharisees]. They neglect their appearance so that everyone will see that they are fasting. I assure you, they have already been paid in full. When you go without food, wash your face and comb your hair, so that others cannot know that you are fasting— only your Father, who is unseen, will know" (Matt. 6:16-18, TEV).

These comments from Isaiah and Jesus reveal that fasting is more than mere abstinence from food—it is abstinence from food motivated by an unpretentious desire to honor God in all things. Fasting is not magical—it is simply a vivid reminder of our dependence on God and our need for prayer.

If you would like to fast, but have never fasted before, consider a partial abstinence from sunrise to sunset. You might eliminate certain types of food (e.g., sweets, coffee, bread), or eliminate one or more meals (e.g, skip lunch), or eliminate solid foods.

If you decide on a total twenty-four-hour fast, be sure to drink plenty of water during the day. Also, when you break fast, do so gently. Try juice or broth or a lettuce salad first. If you cram your system with junk food, you'll regret it!

In any case, fasting should free up some of the minutes of your day so that you can spend time in praying and reading Scripture. When you hear your stomach growl or feel a hunger pang, think of all that Christ went through on your behalf and praise God for his providential care.

On the evening of our day of prayer and fasting we gathered together to worship—to pray, to read Scripture, and to sing some simple hymns together (see p. 31). Our attendance was about four times larger than it usually is for a midweek service!

Although we have no idea how many people actually fasted, there were many hints of hungry bodies that night. And many members of the congregation told the elders they had come to a new understanding of prayer and fasting as a result of this day.

We encouraged congregation members to pray and fast on their own in the months to come as our congregation sought a new vision for our ministry. We knew that the prayers of the people were absolutely necessary for that vision and hoped that the day of prayer and fasting would convince our people of the importance of this quest.

As a result of our congregation's prayers, we have recently come up with a six-point plan for the future. The people are excited, looking forward to new challenges. Their prayer and fasting has shown amazing results!

Excerpt
A SERVICE OF PRAYER

PREPARATION

Meditation: Ask yourself, "Why am I here? Wliat does God want of me? How can I be part of building Ms kingdom?"

Moments of Welcome and Explanation

Prayer:

Dear God, silence all voices within my mind but your own. Help me to seek and be able to follow your will. May my prayers be joined with those of my sisters and brothers in the faith, that together we may glorify your name and enjoy your fellowship forever. In Jesus' name, Amen.

ADORATION

Scripture: Psalm 95:1-7

Song: You Are Worthy [PsH 232]

Unison Prayer:

"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty! All honor and praise and glory and majesty and wisdom and power are due your name, O Lord, now and forevermore. Amen."

Silent Prayers of Praise

Pastoral Prayer

CONFESSION

Scripture: 1 John 1:8-9

Song: "O Christ, the Lamb of God" [PsH 257]

Unison Prayer:

O God of mercy, you sent your only Son to save us from the pain of guilt and sting of death. We carry the burden of our wrongs; the things we should not have done, and the things we have failed to do. Take this burden from us, O Lord. Cleanse our hearts from sin and restore to us the joy of salvation; through Jesus who suffered for us. Amen.

Silent Prayers of Confession

Pastoral Assurance of Pardon

THANKSGIVING

Scripture: Philippians 1:3-11

Song: "Lord, I Want to Be a Christian" [PH 372, PsH 264]

Litany:

Gracious God, for causing light to come from darkness, for creating all things through your word, for giving us a home on earth, and for the joy of living,

We give you thanks, O Lord.

For speaking through the Law and the Prophets and for revealing yourself though your Son Jesus Christ,

We give you thanks, O Lord.

For Christ's loving sacrifice, the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life,

We give you thanks, O Lord.

For the apostles and their teachings and for the church universal,

We give you thanks, O Lord.

For Luther and Zwingli, Calvin and Knox, and all others who in every age seek to rekindle the faith,

We give you thanks, O Lord.

For Edwin Crawford and the charter members of Cleveland Drive Presbyterian Church, for their vision and commitment,

We give you thanks, O Lord.

For Lloyd Ellis and the continued ministry of the church, for officers and staff of the past and present,

We give you thanks, O Lord.

For your steadfast love and faithfulness and our sure hope for the future,

We give you thanks, O Lord.
May our lives, our wills, and our deeds be a continual thank offering to you, O Lord, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Silent Prayers of Thanksgiving

Pastoral Prayer

SUPPLICATION

Scripture: 1 Peter 5:6-11

Song: "Seek Ye First the Kingdom" [PH 333, PsH 209]

Unison Prayer:

Almighty God, in this world we are under great pressure. We are weak and weary. Strengthen our faith so that by the power of your Holy Spirit we may overcome temptation and persevere through trials; through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Silent Prayers of Supplication

Pastoral Prayer

INTERCESSION

Scripture: Matthew 18:18-20

Song: "Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying" [PsH 625]

Unison Prayer:

Heavenly Father, we seek your Spirit to help us in our weakness and to enable us to pray as we ought. May we be instruments of your will and channels of your love. We pray for our church and its ministry, that we may be faithful to Christ now and in the future. We seek a vision of what you would have us be and do. Hear our prayers, for we pray with confidence in Jesus' name. Amen.

Extemporaneous Prayers of Intercession

Pastoral Prayer

MAGNIFICATION

Scripture: Psalm 34:1-3

Song: "Bless His Holy Name" [PsH 627]

Benediction

The hymns in this service are taken from the Presbyterian Hymnal (PH) and the Psalter Hymnal (PsH).

Jeffrey Carlson is pastor of the Cleveland Drive Presbyterian Church, Cheekiowaga, New York.