What would bring 1,200 city-toughened New Yorkers to a Brooklyn church on a Tuesday night? Surely not an old-fashioned prayer meeting.

But prayer, says Brooklyn Tabernacle pastor Jim Cymbala, has become a mainstay of the thriving, multiracial church. Every Tuesday night, when the agenda holds little but two hours of intercessory prayer, members pack the balcony and spill out into the foyer. The congregation—once tiny, depressed, and barely holding on—is convinced the explanation for its flourishing ministries is spiritual. The earliest Christian church, Cymbala argues, “was born not in a clever sermon, but in a prayer meeting.”

According to some observers, stories like Brooklyn Tabernacle’s may become commonplace in North America. North American Christians seem drawn to prayer and spirituality like no time in recent history. They are trading in their activism and pragmatism for a new-fashioned accent on the spiritual life. It may mean prayer rallies or silent retreats; it may find expression as charismatic tongue speaking or even New Age-flavored meditation. Whatever the form, signs of a new interest crop up in sector after sector:

Denominational life. Southern Baptists have made prayer a top denominational goal for the decade. That is unprecedented, says Avery Willis of the Sunday School Board. In 1976, he explains, the denomination launched the Bold Mission Thrust, with the goal of getting the gospel to all people by the year 2000. “In the last few years we realized we just weren’t doing it. We realized prayer was the key.” Thus, this decade’s new emphasis: Bold Mission Prayer Thrust.

One outcome of the new emphasis is the Watchman National Prayer Alert, whereby 2,100 Southern Baptist churches have signed up to pray for ...

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