At our church, there is a hymn that we sometimes sing, written by Timothy Dwight (a grandson of the theologian Jonathan Edwards, I think). The title is "I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord." In one of the verses, he writes:
For her my tears shall fall
For her my prayers ascend,
To her my cares and toils be given
Till toils and cares shall end.
With the hymn, we should pray for the church which is the visible, earthly expression of God's kingdom. Paul prayed "without ceasing" for believers in all the churches (Rom. 1:9; Eph. 1:16; Col. 1:9; 1 Thess. 1:2). On multiple occasions he asks for prayer for himself and his ministry (Rom. 15:30; Eph. 6:18; Col. 4:3). He mentions the prayers of one church for another (2 Cor. 9:14). He exhorts believers to pray for each other with all perseverance (Eph. 6:18). So there is no doubt that beyond the prayers we offer for ourselves and our families, we ought to pray for the church.
It has been often pointed out that Jesus teaches us in the Lord's Prayer to pray beyond ourselves and to include the saints when we knock at heaven's door, for the language of the prayer is plural, not singular. It is not "my Father who is in heaven" but "our Father who is in heaven." It is not even "forgive my sins" but "forgive us our trespasses."
But what to pray? There are of course plenty of references in the epistles to give material for prayer. For example, by reading how Paul prayed for the churches, we learn how to pray (cf. Eph. 3:14-21; Phil 1:9-11). But in addition to these explicit prayers of Paul for the early churches, I have found the following four things a good way to organize how I pray for the church, and especially the local church in which I serve.
1. Pray for Purity.
If you look at how Paul prayed, it was mainly for the spiritual health of the believers, not so that they could get a good loan on a nice house. It's not that we shouldn't lift those things to our Father - we should - but the burden of our prayers both for ourselves and other believers should be that we would walk in a way that pleases God. For the Thessalonians, Paul prayed "to the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God" (1 Thess. 3:13). For the Colossian saints, he prayed "that you might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God" (Col. 1:10). It is, after all, God's will to establish his kingdom in this world, and that begins when our hearts become wholly devoted to Christ. God's kingdom comes when we bow the knee of our hearts before the throne of our Lord.
2. Pray for Unity.
In his epistle to the Romans, Paul prays for a church that had problems in the area of unity. So he prays this: "Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (15:5-6). Next to purity, the church needs unity, and to hold both of these ends so that one does not cancel the other out. We need to recognize that both are equally important, and to seek both equally in the church at large as well as in our local assemblies. We need unity; we need it because we need each other in the church. We need unity because we cannot accomplish anything together without it. We need unity because we will never have much of a witness without it. Most of all, we need unity because God commands it (cf. Eph. 4:3)!
3. Pray for Visibility.
Some churches don't want to be visible. I've actually heard of churches that lock their doors during Sunday morning services, and if you want in you better be invited first! The problem is that this just isn't the picture you get of the local church in the New Testament. The apostle Paul envisions a church in which an unbeliever can just walk in and become convicted through the truth being spoken there (1 Cor. 14:23-25). But this obviously isn't going to happen if the church is not visible to the community. If the individual believer is to be salt and light (Mt. 5:13-16), and to be the kind of light that is not hidden but displayed for all to see, then surely the church - which is an assembly of such believers - ought to be visible. So pray for the visibility of your church in the community. And pray that it is visible in such a way that men will see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
4. Pray for Diversity.
Finally, pray for diversity. I don't just mean racial diversity, though that should certainly be included. What I have in mind when I pray for diversity has more to do with the diversity of the spiritual gifts that God sovereignly distributes to believers (cf. 1 Cor. 12). The church was not meant to be served by one or two people with spiritual gifts. God means for every believer to be engaged and active in serving the community of God's people through the gifts that God has given to them. What this also means is that for a church to be diverse, it needs people! You just can't have a diversity of spiritual gifts if you don't have a multiplicity of people in your assembly. So when I pray for diversity, I'm praying that God would bless our church to grow both spiritually and in number. In some sense, you can't have one without the other.
These are among the things that I pray for my church. How do you pray for yours?