What’s his secret? People ask things like that sometimes. What’s the key to Terry’s life and ministry? Why is it that Newfrontiers continues to thrive? I’ve heard all sorts of answers suggested, in personal conversations, online, and even in public contexts: it’s because of his emphasis on grace; it’s because he has been strong at holding together an emphasis on the word of God and the power of the Holy Spirit; it’s because of his wife; it’s because of the year he spent evangelising and trusting God for finances. I don’t doubt that all of those and more have contributed to the effectiveness and impact of his work in the gospel. But I have another theory.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend an evening with Terry and two other leaders, talking about an important theological issue. I had written a paper, prepared myself theologically, and come ready to engage in discussion and (if needed) debate. On arrival, I was eager to get into the material, and aware from the outset that a couple of hours might not be long enough. But I knew Terry would begin the evening with prayer. He always does.
When we had prayed for a while, he explained how he thought we should start our theological discussion. “I was thinking about our conversation this afternoon,” he said, “and I was praying, obviously, and I thought the best place to begin would be to ask you, Andrew: what are your hopes for this paper, and this discussion? What outcomes were you looking for when you wrote it?” The question caught me out, in part because that’s not always something people ask you when they know you might disagree with them about something. More than that, though, it caught me out because of the two words, “praying, obviously.” He hadn’t said them to make a point, and he certainly hadn’t said them to impress anybody; he’d just said them because they were true. But they hit me right between the eyes.
I hadn’t prayed, you see. I had thought, I had reasoned and argued, I had written, I had planned - but I hadn’t prayed. And I certainly hadn’t prayed obviously. I don’t think anyone who knows me would, on hearing that I was talking about a theological issue that evening, know that I was obviously praying about it in the afternoon. (I don’t mean muttering about it to God for a few seconds, while really thinking about something else. I mean bringing it to God in prayer.) They might wonder if I was; they might hope I was; they might know that it was the sort of thing I sometimes did, but often didn’t. But I can’t believe anyone would say that my praying about it was obvious. I know I wouldn’t.
That experience changed my thinking in two ways. Needless to say, it increased my view of the importance of prayer, particularly when it comes to things I wouldn’t necessarily pray about. It has encouraged me to pray more, and more regularly, and to go through D A Carson’s classic A Call to Spiritual Reformation again in detail. That, of course, is the important outcome of that conversation. But it also made me wonder whether it is Terry’s strong emphasis on prayer, both personally and corporately, that is the main thing we should learn from (and imitate in) his life and ministry. Naturally speaking, leaders tend to attribute success to good leadership, theologians to good theology, evangelists to fervent evangelism, and so on. Consequently, my default has often been to assume that Terry has been fruitful because of his strong teaching gift and his passion for theology. But without being reductionist, I think that if someone who didn’t know him was to ask me what I thought was most distinctive or significant in the shape of Terry’s ministry, I would say that it was his prayer life.
There are many good reasons to pray fervently - Jesus did, the prophets did, the apostles did, the Bible tells us to, we have a loving Father, it changes things, and so on. The fact that Terry Virgo does is nowhere near the top of the list. But contemporary examples can be very helpful in challenging us, modelling things to us, and encouraging us to persevere in prayer if we don’t find it easy (and who does?). So I thought I’d share that with you, not to make you feel bad or to pre-emptively canonise Terry, but to provoke and encourage you to pray, just as I was provoked and encouraged to pray. Who knows? Maybe one day, without thinking about it, the phrase ‘praying, obviously’ will slip out of our mouths. Whether we lead an international movement of churches or not.