Before joining FCA staff, Mark Stephens was a pastor for 15 years. Over time, he found that his approach to prayer had changed.
“Praying is easy,” he admitted once thinking. “You take prayer requests. You check the box.”
But in more recent years, Stephens, now the Regional International Coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic Region, became convicted of that lax mindset.
“There’s got to be more,” he said. “That’s not good enough. We’ve got to do better.”
Stephens consulted with prayer warriors and representatives from ministries such as Intercessors For America. Then he organized a prayer meeting and continued looking for new ideas. One Sunday morning, his pastor was preaching on 1 Thessalonians 5:17, where the apostle Paul famously instructs believers to “pray without ceasing.”
“The pastor was teaching us that our lives need to be one long prayer—an unbroken prayer,” Stephens recalled. “So it just hit me in the middle of church. Unbroken prayer. That’s what we need for our ministry here in the Mid-Atlantic, and as we reach out to our global partners in East Asia.”
Taking inspiration from his pastor’s sermon, Stephens put together a game plan for a 24-hour prayer chain that he aptly named, “Unbroken Prayer.” The Mid-Atlantic region is exactly 12 hours behind the companion East Asia region which makes for challenging communication. But in this case, it was actually one of the factors that allowed the concept to work.
“When I’m getting up, they’re going to bed,” Stephens explained. “When I’m going to bed, they’re getting up. So our messaging is sometimes a little messed up. In this case, however, we were able to seamlessly merge the two staffs and our volunteers as we engaged in continuous prayer.”
Stephens utilized an online software program called TimeToSignUp.com and created 48 half-hour slots. He then worked closely with Mid-Atlantic Region Chris Rich and East Asia Global Region Coordinator Jin Kang to spread the word. All teammates promoted the event through social media, email contact lists and personal text message invitations.
The next step was to collect prayer requests. Fortunately for Stephens and the collective FCA staffs, the East Asia Directors Meeting had recently concluded. They were able to take points of need from that meeting and use them as prayer requests along with others that were submitted from both regions.
“The requests were usually aligned with the individual’s roles and responsibilities,” Stephens said. “Directors asked for help with their board or funding. Area representatives asked for help with coach and athlete relationships or Huddles. In general, there were requests for health concerns, family issues and personal finances.”
By September 20, there were 54 participants who had signed up to pray along with two groups who prayed in organized face-to-face meetings. There were several individuals that texted Stephens later to let him know they didn’t sign up but took part in the event, which bled over into the next day.
“I was excited to have so many people seeking the Lord for the work He wants to do in and through our people,” Stephens said. “It was short and sweet. It had a beginning and an end. That made it easier to gauge what came out of it.”
Although he acknowledged that the results of intercessory prayer are “always a little bit of a mystery,” Stephens did learn of some positive occurrences that took place shortly after the event had concluded. For instance, some leaders gained financial support without asking. There was also an influx of encouraging communications going back and forth between teammates. Stephens sensed that everyone who participated took the prayer time seriously.
“But mostly, for our region, I felt the Lord’s momentum,” he added. “We were doing the right thing. We were engaging in prayer together. We were crying out to God for our needs, for wisdom. For me personally, I felt a closeness to the Lord. I don’t know how else to say it. It just felt right. I felt like I was walking in the Lord’s will.”
The concept runs even deeper for Stephens who explained that his family “has a legacy of prayer.” His grandmother, Ernestine Stephens, passed away when he was three, but when he was seven years old he went back to her church (Glenwood Baptist in Atlanta, Georgia), some of her friends told him stories that are even more relevant today.
“Let me tell you about your grandma,” one lady told him. “She would come to the women’s missions meetings and lie down flat on her face, crying out to God that He would use one of her four sons to become a missionary or pastor.”
In 1988, her prayer was answered when Stephens’ brother became a pastor. Stephens himself became a pastor in 1990. In the mid-90s, his father Lynn Stephens went on his first mission trip. Then in the past 15 years, Stephen’s four daughters all went on mission trips.
But it wasn’t until Stephens joined FCA staff that he started to reconnect with that legacy. His friendship with the late FCA Director Barry Spofford served as a catalyst. Spofford was famous within the organization for his intense prayer life. At one point, he was looking for volunteers to pray with him at 6 a.m. for a monthly prayer meeting—a practice he continued for nine years.
“I learned a lot about prayer from Barry,” Stephens said. “He was an indirect influence on the 24-hour concept and someone who inspired me to dive deeper into my own prayer life.”
Moving forward, Stephens is planning to have another Unbroken Prayer event during spring 2019. He believes that these coordinated events will become more common throughout FCA and has been working with the FCA International Office to develop some resources, including prayer-themed devotionals, which will encourage other leaders across the U.S. and beyond.
"I think it will spread," Stephens said. "The prayer meeting is a lost thing in America. Prayer ministry is not where it used to be. We need to recapture the concept of prayer."