At the time, Tipper was a deacon at his church in south Georgia. He taught Sunday School, even served as the church's discipleship training director. There was just one problem: Tipper wasn't a Christian.
"I knew I was lost," he said, "but I'd been in church my whole life."
That truth ate away at Tipper's insides until he couldn't ignore the Holy Spirit any longer. During the invitation at church one Sunday morning, he stood up from the choir, walked down to his pastor in tears and told him that he needed Jesus.
It was a life-changing moment, Tipper said. Today the retired educator is experiencing that same kind of spiritual transformation again -- this time in his prayer life.
Tipper, now 63, was among 15 students who graduated from the inaugural class of the School of Prayer for All Nations (SPAN), July 29-Aug. 2, at the International Mission Board's missionary training facility near Richmond, Va. The class represented a wide cross-section of Southern Baptist life, drawing laypeople like Tipper, pastors and even former missionaries from states as far as Indiana and Texas.
"Before I came here, I would say that I could pray with the best of 'em," Tipper said. "But now, I don't want to pray with the best of them, I want to pray the way that Jesus prayed. That's the transformation I'm talking about."
It made such an impact that Tipper phoned his pastor to tell him that he would personally pay the pastor's SPAN registration fee if he would attend. "He said, 'Is it that good?' And I said, 'It will change your life.' ... Now the only reason he can't come is because he don't want to," Tipper added with a grin.
For Ashley Allen, a 33-year-old women's missions and ministry director with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, coming to SPAN was all about the numbers.
"Over the last several years, the Lord has really burdened my heart for all these big numbers -- 258 million lost people in the U.S., 6 billion lost people in the world," Allen said, adding that there are an estimated 5.8 million lost people in her home state of North Carolina alone. "We sometimes forget that each number is attached to a soul -- people who are eternally separated from God, who, if they died today would be going to hell."
Marty Sampson,* an associate pastor in Auburn, Ala., said he was drawn to SPAN out of deep, personal conviction that Southern Baptists have forgotten the importance of prayer. (He asked not to use his real name because he often travels to areas of the world that can be hostile to Christianity.)
"Most people don't know how to pray for the fulfillment of the Great Commission because they don't even know how to pray for themselves," Sampson said. "I'm convinced the church lags behind in spreading the Gospel because we are depending on ourselves, our strategies and our plans as opposed to the power of God in response to intercessory prayer.
"I've been on a personal journey in my spiritual life of learning to be dependent on Him. And the key to that is absolute surrender. Everything about my life, everything that I value, I'm going to put on the altar so that nothing takes precedence over God."
What is SPAN?
SPAN began in 2012 when IMB President Tom Elliff called on Southern Baptist churches to recognize prayer's indispensable role in the Great Commission and to redouble their efforts to bathe the denomination's international missions efforts in a "blast furnace" of prayer for the nations. Elliff said a "school of prayer" was needed to help fan the flames, and in July that vision became reality as SPAN held its first training session.
The school is led by Gordon Fort, IMB senior vice president of prayer mobilization and training, who said its purpose is to teach students to walk closer with God, pray more fervently for spiritual awakening, intercede for missionaries and the nations and mobilize others to join in prayer.
The disciples didn't ask the Lord to teach them how to heal people, cast out demons or feed 5,000, Fort said. "The only thing they asked Him was to teach them how to pray. In this spiritual discipline of prayer, I believe there are things that can be taught."
Things like spiritual warfare, how to listen to God while praying, the role of fasting in prayer, how to pray Scripture and how to pray for the nations are just some of the subjects SPAN students cover.
Just studying the meaning of some of the Greek and Hebrew words for prayer made an impact on Tipper.
"The thing that hit me the hardest was that one of the words for prayer means 'to cry out desperately, lament,'" he said. "Why don't we pray that way all the time? To cry out for the missionaries? That God's presence would be on them as the Holy Spirit leads them, that they would have a fruitful ministry, and that people would come into His Kingdom."
SPAN classes are designed to be intimate, no larger than 21 students. Sessions run monthly; registration for the five-day experience is $250 per person or $450 per couple, which covers lodging, meals and conference materials. Students must complete homework before attending, including enlisting at least five prayer intercessors who will commit to pray for them before, during and after their time at the school.
But SPAN isn't focused on lectures and notes. Students spend as much time living out what they've learned as they do in class.
Large blocks of time are carved out of each day's schedule for prayer. While some is done alone, students are also assigned to small groups of three called "prayer triplets." These groups are given daily prayer assignments, often praying over something that was just taught in class. One evening, students were asked to pray through the night, signing up for 20-minute shifts to provide real-time prayer support for missionaries working in other time zones around the world.
"Everything has been interactive," Allen said. "It hasn't been like, 'From 8 to 5 we're going to fill you with a whole bunch of information, you're going to take a whole bunch of notes, and then good luck with that when you go back home.' It's been, 'We're going to teach you how to do this and then you're going to go do it.' And that's the best way to learn because each one of us can walk out of here at the end of this week saying, 'I can teach people in my church how to do this.'"
"It's not a retreat," she said. "This is serious Kingdom business that we've been engaged in. A lot of people might say, 'C'mon, they're just praying!' But we've been constantly on our faces before the Father interceding for the lost and for missionaries around the world."
Housing the school at IMB's International Learning Center also comes with the added benefit of proximity to dozens of missionaries. The chance to regularly connect and pray with them during the week left a deep impression on Tipper, who says missionaries are his heroes.
"I met a family that's got three children, all probably under 5 years old, and they're going to the Horn of Africa," he said. "They can't tell me where they are going, but they're giving it all up, ALL of the American dream -- a house, car, money in the bank -- all of that we say we have to have, they've given it up in obedience to Jesus saying, 'Here am I Lord, send me.'"
Concert of prayer
On their final night together, SPAN students gathered for a unique finale that Fort called the "concert of prayer," two hours of worship and focused prayer. As thunderstorms rumbled outside, the SPAN classroom resonated with the murmur of soft voices lifted to heaven. Some were moved to tears. Others displayed creases of deep concern and concentration on their faces as they asked God to soften hearts to the Gospel. It was an intimate moment with the Father and with each other.
"Maybe ... we can be carriers of that fire He's implanted in us and take it back to set our churches on fire," Sampson said. "And maybe our churches will set other churches on fire. And maybe the whole denomination will catch on fire.... And maybe that revival in our nation that many people have longed for would come and the shockwaves would be felt to the uttermost parts of the earth. That's my hope."
*Name changed. Don Graham is an International Mission Board senior writer. To learn more about SPAN or to register for an upcoming session, visit imb.org/span. Questions can be emailed to SPAN@imb.org. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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