We’d been inspired by the 18th century Moravians who somehow prayed non-stop for a hundred years, and figured that if they could keep going for a century we might maybe manage as much as a month. (And besides, even if we gave up after a week, it‘d still be six and a half more days of praying than any of us had ever done before).
We weren’t trying to break any records and certainly weren’t expecting to start a movement.
We simply wanted to learn to pray – and that was because we’d made two very awkward discoveries:
The first discovery was that prayer is actually the most important thing in life. Think about it and you’ll realise this is true. Whether you’re desperately needing a miracle, urgently needing guidance, or just needing to know if God’s actually really there, nothing matters more than prayer.
The second discovery was that we were embarrassingly bad at the most important thing in the world. We were lazy, distracted and confused when it came to prayer.
And so, on this day – September 5, 1999 – we made a decision that would change our lives. We set aside a specially designed room, divided the month into hours, and started trying to pray. I want to tell you that those first few hours were heavenly but they weren’t. They were tedious and horrible. We quickly ran out of things to say. How on earth were we going to do this thing for a whole day, let alone an entire month?
But then something shifted. I can’t really explain it, but as we began to use the room alone or in pairs we discovered the thrill of being with God in the “wee-small hours” of the night. Instinctively we began to pray and worship non-verbally with creativity and silence. And gradually prayer – this thing we all found so hard – started to get easier. It even became enjoyable and exciting. The atmosphere began to change. The room became charged with peace and a sense that anything was possible (which is I guess what faith feels like).
Within a few days, exciting stories began to circulate. Atheists came and experienced God’s presence. Someone became a Christian one day and spent two hours in prayer the next. A girl called Anna said she heard an angel praying in there. A girl called Vicky claimed to see an angel and fell flat on her face in fear. I wrote a poem called The Vision and posted it on the wall. It was just my attempt to make sense of the weird thing that was happening to us but within a month that poem was being sampled by DJs, had been played at a massive event called ‘The Call‘ on Washington DC’s Capital Mall, it had been choreographed in Spain and published in the newspaper of the underground church in China. More and more people were reporting that an hour in the prayer room felt like 10 minutes. Prayers were being answered. Miracles were taking place. It became exciting to go to that room just to hear the latest stories of God in the move.
And then, in our third month of non-stop prayer, God sneezed and the virus began to spread to people we’d never met in places we couldn’t spell. (You can read more of these stories in books like Red Moon Rising and Dirty Glory.)
Twenty years later (I can hardly believe I am sitting here now writing these words) we are growing faster than ever. Somehow that first prayer room has impacted millions of people. It has self seeded into prisons, palaces, schools and cathedrals. It has reached more than half the nations on earth and every denomination from the Salvation Army to the Catholic Church.
This weird, accidental movement has kick-started new ministries and movements from Prayer Spaces in Schools to 24-7 Ibiza. It has given birth to a global family of 24-7 Communities – churches, Houses of Prayer and modern-day monasteries. It has created and curated many resources to help thousands of people encounter God the way we did in that first prayer room – from apps and articles to devotionals and courses to best-selling books. The Prayer Course alone, which was originally filmed in a couple of days and pretty much written in the back of pieces of card, has been downloaded more than a million times
Along the way 24-7 has somehow managed to relaunch the ancient Moravian Order of the Mustard Seed, gaining official recognition from the Anglican House of Bishops and Abbots last year. (In fact, right now there are people on all five continents preparing to take the OMS vows next month when we gather in Belfast to celebrate twenty years).
As for me, as I look back today I find myself overwhelmed with gratitude to so many friends and especially to the Lord. He really does do “immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3). He really is utterly and completely faithful. It’s been a wild ride – much scarier, deeper, and more exciting than we could ever have possibly imagined in those first few hours trying to pray in that warehouse twenty years ago.
We have made so many mistakes but the one thing we have got right is this: we have never stopped saying yes to the Holy Spirit. Whenever he has told us to do a thing we have tried to do it and the results have been incredible! If he is asking you to do something today – do it! The most dangerous thing you can ever do is to say ‘no’ to the God who knows you best and only wants the best for your life. The safest and most sensible thing you can do, however scary it may feel, is to say a big fat ‘yes’ to his ideas.
I am writing this on an island in the middle of the Arabian Sea where this morning, in my regular prayer time, I read some words that made my heart cry out ‘Amen!’
“My mouth shall recount your mighty acts and saving deeds all day long, though I cannot know the number of them.”
I cannot possibly know the number of “God’s mighty acts and saving deeds” over these past two decades and I’m glad because none of us can take credit for the fact that God answers prayer. Millions of people in thousands of prayer rooms have talked with him in different languages, places and predicaments and he has answered in countlessly wonderful ways.
Here I am with half my beard grey, my sons are young men and I’m wondering where the time went. But I am more determined than ever to keep recounting God’s faithfulness to this generation and the next, to keep seeking his face night and day, and to keep preaching his gospel, wherever he takes me, whatever it takes, today and every day for as many years as he chooses to give me breath.