ABOUT THAT TIME, I came down with acough that would not go away. Ihacked and hacked for six weeks, to thepoint that Carol could hardly get anysleep at night. I was spitting up phlegmevery day. One day I went out on a party fishingboat with twenty or thirty tourists. The skywas an azure blue, and the warm Watersof the Gulf of Mexico lapped soothinglyagainst the sandy shore. Seagullsswooped and squawked overhead.
The Sun felt good for my congestedlungs. As we launched out toward deepwater, the others laughed and talkedabout the fish they hoped to catchthat afternoon. I held a pole in my hands, too. . . butmy mind wasnt on fishing. I moved down toward the end of theboat, away from the crowd, andstared at the far horizon.
I began mulling over the manyideas and strategies I had heardor read on church growth. One Christian leader had told me; "Forget about the institutionalchurch building; home meetingsare where its at these days. Youmight as well sell your building;God is doing a new thing."
A once-large and historicBaptist church a few blocksaway had invested heavily ina fleet of buses, trying to bringin large numbers of children.The only results were highinsurance rates, chronicvandalism, and anunchanged church.
I had attended larger churchesthat seemed to center onbringing in popular speakers andsingers, whoever was hot at themoment.This helped market the church. . .at least to other Christians.As one pastor told me with asmile, "I dont steal sheep fromother churches, but I do like toleave my gate wide open."
"Whether that was a validapproach or not, it took money,so forget it-nobody would cometo downtown Brooklyn for the littlehonorarium we could afford. Moreover, Carol and I had franklyadmitted to each other thatunless God broke through, theBrooklyn Tabernacle wasdoomed.
We couldnt finesse it along.We couldnt organize andmarket and pro-gram ourway out.The embarrassing truth wasthat some-times even I didntwant to show up for a service-thats how bad it was.
We had to have a visitation of theHoly Spirit, or bust. "Lord, I have noidea how to be a successful pastor," Iprayed softly out there on the water. "I havent been trained. All I know isthat Carol and I are working in themiddle of New York City, with peopledying on every side, overdosing fromheroin, consumed by materialism,and all the rest. If the gospel is sopowerful. . ."
I couldnt finish the sentence. Tears choked me. Fortu-nately, the others on theboat were too far away to noticeas they studied their lines in theblue-green water. Then quietly but forcefully, inwords heard not with my ear butdeep within my spirit, I sensedGod speaking:
If you and your wife will lead mypeople to pray and call upon myname, you will never lack firsomething fresh to preach. I will supply all the money thatsneeded, both fir the church and firyour family, and you will neverhave a building large enough tocontain the crowds I will send inresponse.
I was overwhelmed. My tears intensified. I looked up atthe other passengers, stilloccupied with their fishing. Nobody glanced in my direction. I knew I had heard from God,even though I had notexperienced some strange vision,nothing sensational or peculiar.
God was simply focusing on theonly answer to our situation oranybody elses, for that matter. His word to me was grounded incountless promises repeated inthe Scrip-tures; it was the verything that had produced everyrevival of the Holy Spiritthroughout history.
It was the truth that had madeCharles G. Finney, Dwight L.Moody, A. B. Simpson, and othermen and women mightily used ofGod. It was what I already knew, butGod was now drawing me out,pulling me toward an actualexperience of himself and hispower.
He was telling me thatmy hunger for him andhis transforming powerwould be satisfied as Iled my tinycongregation to callout to him in prayer.
As the boat docked later thatafternoon, I felt wonder-fully calm. A few days later I flew hack to NewYork, still the same young pastor I hadalways been. But all the modern trends and newideas about church growth were nowirrele-vant. God had promised to provide, torespond to our cries for divine help.
We were not alone, attemptingthe impossible in a heartlessworld. God was present, and he wouldact on our behalf. A holy excitement came overme. I actually looked for-ward to thenext Sunday morning on AtlanticAvenue.
Lord let this Word cometrue in our church TheBridge Network, God isnot a respecter ofpersons what He did forthem He will do for us ifwe seek Him!
WELCOME BACK, PASTOR CYMBALA,"people said when they saw me thatmorning."Did you have a good rest inFlorida? Hows your cough?" I told them my cough was muchbetter, but inside, I couldnt wait to tellthem something far more important. Early in the service I said, "Brothers andsisters, I really feel that Ive heard fromGod about the future of our church.
While I was away, I was callingout to God to help us-to help me-understand what he wants mostfrom us. And I believe Ive heard ananswer "Its not fancy or profound orspectacular. But I want to say toyou today with all the seriousness Ican muster:
From this day on, the prayermeeting will be thebarometer of our church.What happens on Tuesdaynight will be the gauge bywhich we will judgesuccess or failure becausethat will be the measure bywhich God blesses us.
"If we call upon the Lord, he haspromised in his Word to answer, tobring the unsaved to himself, to pourout his Spirit among us. If we dont call upon the Lord, he haspromised nothing-nothing at all . It‟sas simple as that. No matter what I preach or what weclaim to believe in our heads, thefuture will depend upon our times ofprayer.
Lets call uponthe Lord to dowhat He hassaid he will do!
"This is the engine that will drive thechurch. Yes, I want you to keep comingon Sundays-but Tuesday night is what itsreally all about. Carol and I have set ourcourse, and we hope youll come alongwith us." A minister from Australia (or perhaps itwas New Zealand) happened to bepresent that morning-a rare occurrence.I introduced him and invited him to say afew words. He walked to the front andmade just one comment:
"I heard what your pastor said. Heressomething to think about: "You can tell how popular a church isby who comes on Sunday morning. "You can tell how popular the pastoror evangelist is by who comes onSunday night. "But you can tell how popular Jesus isby who comes to the prayer meeting." And with that, he walked off theplatform. That was all. I never saw himagain.
2 Corinthians 4:3-4 (3) But if our gospel be hid, it is hid tothem that are lost: (4) In whom the godof this world hath blinded the minds ofthem which believe not, lest the light ofthe glorious gospel of Christ, who is theimage of God, should shine unto them. We really do not pray for God to savepeople because He already has in ChristJesus but we pray To pull do strongholdsand barriers to their salvation
Joshua 24:15 (15) And if it seem evil unto youto serve the LORD, choose you thisday whom ye will serve; whetherthe gods which your fathersserved that were on the other sideof the flood, or the gods of theAmorites, in whose land ye dwell:but as for me and my house, wewill serve the LORD.
IF MY ANNOUNCEMENT to thatcongregation sounds strangeand overbearing, considerthat it was not a whole lotdifferent from what CharlesHaddon Spurgeon, the greatBritish pulpiteer, had said in asermon almost exactly ahundred years before:
The condition of the church may be veryaccurately gauged by its prayermeetings. So is the prayer meet-ing a grace-ometer, and from it we may judge of theamount of divine working among apeople. If God be near a church, it must pray.And if He be not there, one of the firsttokens of his absence will be aslothfulness in prayer.
That first Tuesday night, fifteen to eighteenpeople showed up. I had no agenda orprogram laid out; I just stood up and led thepeople in singing and praising God. Out ofthat came extended prayer. I felt a new sense of unity and love amongus. God seemed to be knitting us together. Ididnt preach a typical sermon; there wasnew liberty to wait on Gods presence.
In the weeks that followed, answers toprayer became noticeable. New peoplegradually joined, with talents and skills thatcould help us. Unsaved relatives and total strangersbegan to show up. We started to think ofourselves as a "Holy Ghost emergencyroom" where people in spiritual traumacould be rescued. In most hospitals, the ER isnt decorated asbeautifully or fashionably as the rest of thebuilding, but its very efficient in saving lives.
We were a prime example ofwhat the great Scottishdevotional writer Andrew Bonarwrote in 1853:"God likes to see His people shutup to this, that there is no hopebut in prayer. Herein lies theChurchs power against theworld."
We have sent politicians out therewithout the backing spiritual powermany have failed or given up likeGovernor Fayose who used to be inDeeper life to Obasanjo who gave his lifein prison & the former senate President tomention a few! It‟s our power against the world & tosucceed in anything at all we must takeadvantage of the only thing we havethat an unbeliever does not have;access to God!
So week after week, I keptencouraging the people to pray.And of course, as Samuel Chadwicksaid long ago, the greatest answerto prayer is more prayer. We were not there to hear oneanother give voice to eloquentprayers; we were too desperate forthat. We focused vertically, on God,rather than horizontally on oneanother.
Much of the time we called outto the Lord as a group, allpraying aloud in concert, apractice that continues to thisday.At other times we would joinhands in circles of prayer, orvarious people would speak upwith a special burden to express.
The format of a prayer meeting is notnearly as impor-tant as its essence-touching the Almighty, crying out withones whole being. I have been in noisy prayer meetingsthat were mainly a show. I have beenwith groups in times of silent prayer thatwere deeply spiritual. The atmosphere of the meeting mayvary; what matters most is that weencounter the God of the universe, notjust each other.
I also began to ease up in the Sundaymeetings and not control them: sotightly with a microphone. The usual format-two songs, thenannouncements, special music by thechoir, the offering, then the sermon,finally a benediction- was graduallylaid aside as God began to loosen meup. I didnt have to be so nervous oruptight-or phony. I had only beenprotecting myself out of fear.
After all, people werenthungry for fancy sermons ororganizational polish.They just wanted love.They wanted to know thatGod could pick them up andgive them a secondchance.
In those early days on AtlanticAvenue, as people drew, near tothe Lord, received the Spiritsfullness, and rekindled their firstlove for God, they naturallybegan to talk about it I on theirjobs, in their apartment buildings,at family gatherings. Soon they were bringing newpeople.
From that day to the present, morethan two decades later, there hasnever been a season of decline inthe church, thank God. By his grace we have never had afaction rise up and decide to splitaway. God has continued to send peoplewho need help; often I cant evenfind out how they learned of us.
The offerings improved to the pointthat we could make some buildingrepairs. We replaced the tumbledown pewswith fiberglass chairs that lockedtogether. More important, however, peoplebegan to sense the presence of theLord in that humble place. They feltloved. Hardened people wouldcome in and break down evenduring the singing. The choir began to grow.
Lets pray for people tobe committed to Godnot to the Church first.Its God first and thencommitment to thechurch and its people
CAROL HAD LOVED MUSIC fromthe time she was a teenager.She came by it honestly-herfather had been an operasinger before his conversion,and her grandmother was apianist.Growing up around the citymeant that she had absorbedthe sounds of many cultures..
Inside her head, the classicsblended with black gospel,traditional Scandinavian hymns withcontemporary worship chorusesand Caribbean rhythms. At the age of only sixteen orseventeen, a dream had enteredher heart of directing a large choirsomeday-not a stiff, formal choir,but a choir of the common people
Carol did not have acompetent accompanist atthe church, so she had to playthe piano and lead the groupsimul-taneously.She doesnt know how to readmusic, so she figured out thesongs in her head and thentaught the group by rate.
Even so, the number of singersbegan to climb, eventuallyreaching fifty or so. The platform was not nearly largeenough to hold them; they wouldjust stand all across the front andSing, overwhelming the smallbuilding with their sound. Practices were held on Fridaynights.
That may surprise readers who findthat other weekend events would betoo stiff a competition for peoplestime. But the urban schedule is dif-ferent;people are too rushed during theweek with their jobs and the longcommutes on trains, buses, andsubways. They finally relax when Friday eveningcomes, knowing they dont have toget up early the next day.
Carol would begin with a half hourof prayer. Often a spirit of worshipfell on the group. Someone mightvolunteer a testimony or feelimpressed to read Scripture. Carol might offer a shortexhortation. Many nights there was more prayerand worship than there waspracticing; sometimes the choirnever got around to singing at all.
This experience put people in awhole different frame of mind. The choir wasnt just coming up withtwo "specials" to sing before thesermon; rather, the members wereengaged in full-scale ministry. The band members were asuntrained as Carol. Joey Vazquez,who became the bass player,learned the instrument "on the job."
He had been plunking around ona bass at a friends house oneday; at choir practice the nextnight, his friend jokingly said thatJoey knew how to play. Carol assumed the friend wasserious and put Joey to work. Thatwas the beginning of his career asa bass player; he is still with thechurch today.
Our drummer, MichaelArchibald, a man from Trinidad,has likewise never had lessons.Jonathan Woodby, our organist(and one of the best in America,we think), cannot read music.Yet these two have performed ontwo Grammy Award- winningalbums.
They didn‟t winGrammys from skill ortechnical knowledgealone or even disciplineits Gods grace on themas a group that gavethem recognition in theworld
The choir played a crucial role when westarted hosting monthly rallies incooperation with Teen Challenge, amin-istry to drug addicts and gangmembers that was started in Brooklyn in1958 by David Wilkerson. Together with Teen Challenge, werented a big Baptist church. For the firstrally we advertised the film The Cross andthe Switchblade, which tells theconversion story of the notorious gangleader Nicky Cruz.
As more churches got involved in therallies, Carol formed a multiracial "NewYork Challenge Choir" made up ofpeople from the Tabernacle plus anyothers who wanted to sing-eighty ormore voices altogether. It was about this time also that Carolwrote her first song. She took theChristmas carol "Joy to the World" andcreated a new melody for it. Again, shedidnt know how to write it down, butsimply taught it to the choir by rote.
John 3:1-6(5) Jesus answered, Verily,verily, I say unto thee, Excepta man be born of water andof the Spirit, he cannot enterinto the kingdom of God.(6)That which is born of the fleshis flesh; and that which is bornof the Spirit is spirit.
That which is born of the flesh ishuman source but that which isborn of the Spirit is from heaven. Anything we come up with ourown thinking alone is flesh butwhen we allow the birth of ourideas and project be of the Spirit. No one is going to come to ourprograms or give us awards untilthey are spiritually birthed
The biggest distributor ofChristian choral music inAmerica got acquainted withus, liked the music, and atdown with Carol one day toask: „So what is the formula here?What makes this work?”
She began to talking about thechoir prayer meeting. The visitorsaid to himself, She didn’tunderstand my question. I want toknow what makes the music soinspirational. It was months before he realizedthat the life of the music comesfrom prayer. That‟s the formula.
Prayer cannot truly be taught byprinciples and seminars andsymposiums. It has to be born out of awhole environment of felt need. If I say,“I ought to pray,” I will soon run out ofmotivation and quit; the flesh is toostrong. I have to be driven to pray. Yes, the roughness of inner-city life haspressed us to pray…. But is the rest of thecountry coasting along in fine shape? Ithink not.
Then Lanny Wolfe, a well-known gospelsinger and songwriter, visited a service,he was captivated by the choirs sound,now up to one hundred voices. He encouraged Carol to write more."You have an eclectic feel thats totallydifferent," he said. “ The songs you write are unlike anything Iwould do, or Bill Gaither, or anyone else." Lannys encouragement meant a greatdeal to both of us.
Since then, of course, Carols musichas gone far and wide across thecountry and is sung in all kinds ofchurches, whatever the style of theirworship. After selling one million units ofBrooklyn Tabernacle sheet music,Word Music gave Carol an award in1994. Ironically, the Tabernacle has notbought a single piece of her music-itwouldnt do any good for a choir thatdoesnt read music.
PRAYER IS THE SOURCE of theChristian life, a Christians life-line.Otherwise, its like having a babyin your arms and dress-ing her upso cute-but shes not breathing!Never mind the frilly clothes;stabilize the childs vital signs.It does no good to talk tosomeone in a comatose state.
Thats why the great emphasis onteaching in todays churches isproducing such limited results. Teaching is good only wheretheres life to be channeled. If the listeners are in a spiritualcoma, what were telling themmay be fine and orthodox, butunfortunately, spiritual life cannotbe taught.
Pastors and churches have toget uncomfortable enough tosay, "We are not NewTestament Christians if wedont have a prayer life."This conviction makes ussquirm a little, but how else willthere be a breakthrough withGod?
If we truly think about what Acts2:42 says-"They devotedthemselves to the apostlesteaching and to the fellowship, tothe breaking of bread and toprayer" We can see that prayer is almost aproof of a churchs normalcy. Calling on the name of the Lord isthe fourth great hallmark in the list.
If my church or your church isntpraying, we shouldnt be boastingin our orthodoxy or our Sundaymorning atten-dance figures. In fact, Carol and I have toldeach other more than once thatif the spirit of brokenness andcalling on God ever slacks off inthe Brooklyn Tabernacle, wellknow were in trouble, even if wehave 10,000 in attendance.