New National Day of Prayer Leader Ronnie Floyd Seeks Unity Across Racial and Worship Differences
On Tuesday, the National Day of Prayer board of directors announced that Dr. Ronnie Floyd — longtime senior pastor of Cross Church in Springdale, Arkansas — has been named president of the ecumenical ministry, which mobilizes prayer across Christian denominational lines.
The annual event has a storied history. Recognized in federal law, the National Day of Prayer has been observed on the first Thursday of May since 1988. Its legacy dates back to 1775, when the Continental Congress called the nation to prayer. Three women precede Floyd in directing the National Day of Prayer: the late Vonette Bright, Shirley Dobson, and, most recently, Anne Graham Lotz.
Floyd, who has led Cross Church since 1986, has his own track record of urging united prayer. His church in northwest Arkansas has five campuses where more than 8,800 people worship every week. Recently president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Floyd issued a call to pray and fast in 2014 joined by many Christians.
Conveying an eagerness and sobriety about his new mission, Floyd shared with The Stream his vision for prayer uniting people across racial divides, political views and faith traditions.
Why is prayer in the public square important?
Dr. Ronnie Floyd: People need to know that evangelical believers and followers of Christ are together. They need to know we are unified, locked arm-in-arm — not fighting each other, but standing together to pray publicly.
Private prayer is vital and wonderful. But sometimes we need to be public in our prayer because it becomes a testimony about who we are. People can see that we follow Christ. And our country needs us now more than ever before.
We have an extraordinary opportunity in this critical season to step up and answer the call. We’ll work with other ministries to forward a strong, positive prayer movement. I pray people will join us in answering the call to pray for our nation.
How long have you been involved with the National Day of Prayer?
Floyd: For decades, I’ve participated in prayer gatherings during the first week in May. After the Lord began to open doors, I’ve led prayer in all kinds of towns and cities.
I recall joining civic leaders at the Bentonville mayor’s prayer breakfast. One year, traveling to a little town called Eureka Springs, I walked into a full room of probably 200 people. It was an energizing morning interceding together in prayer. Also, at the height of Focus on the Family, [founder] Dr. Dobson invited me to help lead the National Day of Prayer with employees.
One experience really stands out. At a pivotal point in the late 1990’s, our church united in a rally with local congregations. We had 7,500 people packed into the University of Arkansas basketball arena! Joining together to pray for our country — that was powerful, needless to say.
When did you engage with the transition facing the ministry?
Floyd: The last few years, I have come to Washington to be a part of the national event. This past year I assisted by offering a prayer when Anne Graham Lotz, who led it, called upon me.
Then I was asked to be a part of a vision team that met for several months in settings across America. Some folks were inside as ministry staff or board members on the National Prayer Committee. Then they had people like me, on the outside but familiar with the National Day of Prayer. Together, we began to formulate a vision.
We asked and prayed: What do we do at a time of transition? Mrs. Dobson has retired, so what does this mean for the long-term future? Everything began to be charted toward a strategy around this powerful statement: our calling at the National Day of Prayer is to mobilize unified public prayer for America.
What did you see that Anne Graham Lotz brought to leading this ministry?
Floyd: Anne is a great woman. She’s a tremendous Bible teacher and deeply devoted prayer warrior and intercessor. She provided the voice and leadership on a high national level. Transition is always challenging — it doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, or what kind of organization you lead.
What will be endeared forever, until the Lord comes, is she convened a remarkable gathering this past May that God blessed in a special way. She was able to move the national observance to an evening event held inside Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol building.
Just the presence of being in the Capitol makes a difference. It reminds you of the significance of what we’re doing on that particular day. I have such deep respect for Anne Graham Lotz.
As a member of the White House evangelical advisory board, the Faith Initiative, how do you believe the annual event impacts elected public officials?
Floyd: Most of them, if not all of them, know about the National Day of Prayer. They know of the importance of it. Many of them participate in some format, whether it’s back home or in Washington.
I hope that they all come to the national event in May 2018. At a time when our country is where we are, it could be one of the most dynamic moments the public sees.
I am of the strong conviction that government has to do what it’s supposed to do, but government cannot solve racial tensions.
Imagine if Democrats and Republicans, people from all walks of life, walk into a room, put aside partisan politics, and just lay it all out there to say, God, we do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.
Your stated vision is to foster greater racial and ethnic diversity through the National Day of Prayer. What steps will you take to get there?
Floyd: That is a very important question today. Let me share some recent events that show how I want to operate.
Right after I was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, occurred that was so unfortunate. Racial tensions simmering in American culture came to the surface. I immediately got involved. Working with many leaders — not just ones who look like me, but committed brothers in Christ who are African-American, Asian, Hispanic — we released an article that ended up in a lot of different places.
This began a real movement toward racial unity. I leaned into that during my tenure as SBC president. We joined with the National Baptist Convention, the largest predominantly African-American Christian denomination. Their president Reverend Dr. Jerry Young led a national conversation on racial unity with SBC leaders. Then he and I led a group to Jackson, Mississippi, which even the New York Times wrote about in a favorable way.
I am of the strong conviction that government has to do what it’s supposed to do, but government cannot solve racial tensions in America. Local churches must go into their communities and model racial unity. When that happens, it will make a difference long-term in this country.
The way to lead the National Day of Prayer forward is to bring people together. One way you do that is by having honest conversations. You provide a platform where people of all backgrounds are represented in relationship. We need to be worshiping together, because the gospel is about making disciples of all nations.
Some have criticized how you seek to unify Christians, such as when you preached at an International House of Prayer conference last year. How will you bridge the divide between the largest Protestant denomination and lay leaders whose Christian faith looks different?
Floyd: When you look at a ministry like the National Day of Prayer, which is multi-denominational, one of the key tensions is How can we remain balanced in what we do and what we believe? I am committed to being balanced.
It will not be my desire to run one way or the other, rather doing everything I can to unite the masses. I will always be grounded in the Word of God. I will be very faithful to Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation. I know what I believe.
When we pray for our country, stand for the rights of the unborn, or speak on various cultural issues — I’m going to have arms open to men and women who love the Lord, live for Jesus, and want to join with us. It’s tough terrain to walk through, but we have to elevate our vision.
We may not be able to all start a church together because we have various beliefs about this or that. What we can do is love one another and pray for one another. I’ll let God work out all the details of what that’s going to look like in Heaven.
People know I’ve been president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Cross Church is anchored there with strong roots and commitment. But people also know Ronnie’s a little more kingdom-minded than some, because I don’t think anyone has an answer on everything.
I pray that I have modeled having a kingdom heart. The kingdom of God is a lot, lot bigger than a bunch of Baptists, I can assure you of that.
Uniting people towards a common goal takes wisdom. We should be passionate about the need for prayer! Yet we don’t need to do things that offend a brother in Christ. With every opportunity, our team will evaluate, Is this good for the overall body? I appeal to fellow believers: pray God gives us wisdom at that very moment.
When you encounter people who doubt the power of prayer, how do you respond?
Floyd: People doubt the power of prayer because they don’t see God for who He really is.
If your God is big, then you believe that God can do anything, anytime, anywhere with anyone. If you believe that God is big, then you believe God can do more in a moment than you could do in a lifetime.
It doesn’t matter who you are: Prayer should always be your first choice, not your last resort. That’s what I would tell them.