Interview: Pete Greig, founder of 24-7

21 October 2016

‘Prayer meetings can be terribly boring’

 

24-7

The most complicated and rewarding thing I do at the moment is attempting to be a half-decent dad to two teenage boys. But I also lead a church in Guildford, write the odd book, and remain bewildered by the demands of the 24-7 Prayer movement, which is growing faster than ever, all around the world.

 

24-7 was inspired by the 18th-century Moravians in Herrnhut, Germany. They prayed non-stop for 100 years.

 

Very tentatively, we opened a night-and-day prayer-room in a Chichester warehouse, figuring that if those Moravians could pray non-stop for a century, we should at least try a month.

 

We were just trying to pray, because we were pretty terrible at it. It was bewildering when such a simple thing went viral. Seventeen years later, we’ve been praying continually ever since, and there have been 13,000 other prayer rooms in churches, palaces, police stations, punk festivals, schools, and even a brewery in Missouri.

 

More than two million people have been involved, and we’re working with everyone from the Salvation Army in Australia to the Catholic Church in Austria. The last time we counted, we were in more than half the nations on earth.

 

I had a pizza with the Catholic author Brennan Manning soon after the start of the 24-7 movement. He helped me to understand that the hour I spend in a prayer room can often be the time in the day when I don’t pray. By recentring on Christ’s presence in that time, I’m equipped to live the other 23 hours of the day more prayerfully — carrying his presence into the world.

 

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s top priority is “the renewal of prayer and the religious life”, because there’s never been a renewal in the Church without a renewal in prayer. So it’s inspiring to think of all the young people in prayer rooms around the world right now, worshipping, interceding, and enjoying the presence of God. We do have a particular emphasis on young people. One of the great areas of growth for us lately has been our Prayer Spaces in Schools initiative, which is growing exponentially.

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There is a great deal of prayer in Anglican churches, and I see it increasing. We’re getting desperate, and this is a great thing. Thy Kingdom Come initiative last year at Pentecost unexpectedly sparked 3000 prayer initiatives, and packed five cathedrals with people praying. At Winchester, there were hundreds forced to pray outside who just couldn’t get in. But, of course, the mobilisation of prayer presents challenges.

 

We need a revolution in corporate prayer to match the renewal we’ve witnessed in contemporary worship over the past 50 years. To capture the imagination of a rising generation, we must deploy all five senses in prayer.

 

And so many people in the pews on Sunday carry profound disappointments around unanswered prayers. Others love contemplative prayer, but don’t understand why we need to intercede. Won’t God just do it anyway? Still others feel overwhelmed by the needs of the world, and don’t know how to start putting words around the chaos.

 

Another problem is that prayer meetings can be terribly boring. We provide prayer resources that people can use individually, in small groups, or as a church. We do a devotional podcast every Advent and Lent, which goes to No. 1 on iTunes. We really encourage people to establish prayer rooms all round the country; we had 3000 of those in Britain alone last Lent. We have the prayer course on the Lord’s Prayer. It’s been translated into a number of languages. What’s nice is that people can sit with it on their iPhones in Starbucks, or use it in church groups. We also run training courses, which tend to attract gap-year people, and send mission teams all over the world.

 

Some of us within the 24-7 movement have been living by religious rule for 11 years, and we’re in the process of more formal acknowledgement of this Order of the Mustard Seed by the Bishop of Manchester. A very relaxed, simple rule, derived from Count Zinzendorf in the 18th century, I’m afraid, but we’re discovering the power of promising, and that’s a very important aspect of our community.

 

This is vocation, not job; so it’s not nine-to-five; but over the years in ministry I’ve developed a rhythm. August’s a time for the family and recharging. I have prayer days, writing time — times that make a quite busy life sustainable. I asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu how he managed to do all the things he did and still have joy. He responded like a shot: “That’s because I trained for ordination in a monastic environment, and they taught me that prayer is the heartbeat of everything else. Without prayer, I couldn’t keep the fire alight within.”

 

Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna invited the 24-7 Prayer network to celebrate our 15th birthday in his cathedral. We began with a ninth-century invocation to the Holy Spirit in Latin, and continued with Tim Hughes. There were Catholic nuns, Salvation Army officers punching the air, big-bearded Orthodox priests, and hipsters with even bigger beards. It was fantastic. Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin both sent personal greetings.

 

[The book] Dirty Glory describes the hard-won insights and the astounding things that have happened as we’ve prayed non-stop over 17 years, and shares lessons we’ve learned about prayer, mission, and justice. It’s a sequel to Red Moon Rising, which became a bestseller. There are stories about a hippy giving God a joint in Oregon, a prostitute dancing with a pastor in Mexico, money materialising in a cupboard in Switzerland, and an Irish ex-con running an ambulance service in Ibiza. It’s for anyone who wants to grow deeper in prayer, and to engage more compassionately with the world’s brokenness.

 

As a teenager, I gave up on God. I made a really depressing discovery: I was even worse at being an atheist than being a Christian. I kept talking to God about the fact that he didn’t exist. After that, I resigned myself to a sort of beige agnosticism, until an extraordinary set of circumstances took me to Hong Kong to work with Jackie Pullinger’s ministry. That’s really where everything changed.

 

These days, I’m comfortable with far more complexity and paradox in my faith. I guess I’m just getting older. The more I learn, the less I know. I often find great comfort in the sovereignty, mystery, and transcendence of God.

 

There are no easy answers when God doesn’t seem to be there, but I wrote a book, God on Mute, about the Holy Saturday experience. It was a painful book to write, springing from my experiences of leading a prayer movement, and witnessing wonderful answers to prayer, while my deepest prayers about my wife’s chronic illness were unanswered.

 

The truth of scripture transcends subjective experience. I like the image of ancient mariners’ navigating vast, dark oceans by the feeble light of stars which may already have burned out. We can steer by lights that are distant. We may even doubt their existence. But, by trusting the certainties of yesterday, we find ourselves guided safely home eventually.

 

My dad was 30 years older than my mother, and a year older than my grandfather. We lived in Reigate, Surrey. We’d be sent to church in kilts because my mother was Scottish and my father believed in “Sunday best”. I ran away from boarding school because I hated it. I was passionate about wildlife, and would spend hours hand-rearing abandoned chicks and scavenging for interesting fauna and flora.

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I had a godfather, a quiet man, who prayed for me every single day of my life until he died in a climbing accident on the Isle of Skye. I shall never know, this side of eternity, the debt I owe to Michael Curry.

 

I’m angry about Aleppo. I’m angry at our Government’s refusal to receive more refugees. I hate bullying, whether it’s in a playground or a presidential election. I also get irrationally angry when people post pictures of their food on Facebook; or when lyrics on a screen at church lag behind the actual singing.

 

I’m probably happiest laughing with good friends, around a good fire with a good malt. Or puttering around in my 1964 Morris Minor convertible.

 

I’d give almost anything for time with my own father, if I could choose any companion for a few hours in a locked church. There are questions I would ask him now that I could never have asked as a teenager. I’d also love to have met the artist, conservationist, and Olympic sailor Sir Peter Scott. He was irrepressibly happy. I think he and my dad would get on. And if we could also invite Bear Grylls, I reckon he’d get us out of that locked church in minutes, and we could retire to a pub with an open fire and a bottle of Laphroaig. That would be a fun night.

 

Pete Greig was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. Dirty Glory is published this week by Hodder & Stoughton at £13.99 (CT Bookshop £12.59)www.24-7prayer.co.uk

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