3 Reasons to Pray with Other Believers

The church prayer meeting has fallen on hard times, for many churches going the way of sword drills and catechisms.

To paraphrase Tim Challies, more people say they want to be part of a praying church than actually commit to praying with the church.

There are many reasons for this, among which might be that prayer meetings aren’t very glamorous, refusing to accommodate themselves readily to an entertainment gospel. Imagine the anachronisms posed by juxtaposing biblical prayer with contemporary notions of church life, in the form of sermon titles:

  • “Four Easy Steps to Lamentation and Penitence”
  • “God Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Intercession”
  • “Three Personal Advantages to Forsaking Your Own Desires and Submitting to the Will of God”

Continue Reading »

Purging Barren Prayer

Prayer for the Christian is one of those subjects about which discussion is akin to holding water with your hand. We are told in Scripture that we should pray, and without ceasing, and not to be seen by men, and with faith in God. We are not told, however, how often we should pray, how long we should sit there, what posture to assume, or what elements should be included in each prayer.

Teaching prayer, then, must be done while steering between the Scylla of legalism (requiring things that aren’t required) and the Charybdis of license (acting as if believers don’t need to pray).

In Mark 11:22-25 Jesus takes an occasion to tell his disciples something about prayer after he has cursed the fig tree, which is symbolic of the eventual withering of the Temple in Jewish life. Peter has expressed marvel that the fig tree is withered, and Jesus tells them that their faith should be in God, and that they should expect to receive anything they ask of God.

If we aren’t careful, this passage might lead us to a name-it-and-claim-it or believe-it-and-receive-it view of blessing, as if God were a cosmic bellhop waiting to fulfill our desire for a new Cadillac or high-paying job. That we know is not true. God didn’t rush to take the cup away from Christ, and he didn’t remove the thorn as Paul requested. He doesn’t promise to freshen your coffee and fetch your slippers.

Boldness. Prayer to a great God who sent a perfect Messiah to establish a radical kingdom should be bold. And by bold I don’t mean going one step further to ask for leather seats in our new Cadillac, but requesting of God that the kingdom come with even greater results. The immediate context of Jesus’ teaching is the withered fig tree and the promise of an obsolete Temple: pray accordingly.

Expectation. Prayer is informed by, permeated with, and reliant upon faith in God. When we pray boldly for great things to occur in the advancement of the kingdom, we should expect that God is able and willing to accomplish his glory.

Forgiveness. Even bold prayer to a great God with expectation that he will honor requests that advance his glory should be characterized by humility. And what better tool to increase our humility than to forgive those who have wronged us? We can’t well pray for the advancement of the kingdom — which brings reconciliation with God through Christ — while harboring our own warfare with our enemies.

Prayer, as we see in the rest of the New Testament, is more than these things, but it is certainly not less. How rich our prayer — and how glorified our God — when we follow Christ in his example of prayer.

Toward More Fervent Corporate Prayer

Part 3

What Can Be Done?

(from Part 2: “Jesus warned us against using ‘vain repetitions’ and attempting to be heard ‘for our many words.’ If we pray that way, then our reward is simply what happens on earth. Instead, we should pray with the heavenly reward in mind.”)

If we recognize our weakness in prayer and if we desire to change, what can be done to improve? Although prayer cannot be reduced to a formula or program, there are several things that can help us engage in more dynamic corporate prayer.

1. Consider the audience. Unlike individual, private prayer, in which the only one hearing is God, corporate prayer has a dual audience: God and the congregation (I know: just hear me out…). That we should only seek to please God is no less true for corporate prayer than it is for private prayer (probably even more so). But an additional consideration in corporate prayer is that it should also edify the congregation. The one praying is not only praying for himself, but also for the entire assembled body, which must be able to identify with the content of the prayer to truly join the petition as its own. Otherwise, the congregation is merely a rather large group of prayer voyeurs. This means that while a request for God to forgive the congregation’s sin and for unity of the body is appropriate, it is not appropriate during corporate prayer, for example, to launch into a confession of the supplicant’s most intimate sin details or to pray for disruptive members by name.

2. Consider the occasion. Prayer should be appropriate for the function or circumstance in which it is offered. While petitions for the collective forgiveness of sins and for the salvation of God’s people are always appropriate, some topics are not. One would not want to engage in a detailed request for the ill and infirm during the invocation, which is a time to invoke God’s presence in worship, his mercy, his aid and his Spirit as we celebrate his worth together.

3. Prepare. Despite conventional wisdom, “preparation” in relation to corporate prayer is not a dirty word, and does not quench the Spirit. Any reading of the Psalms reveals that most of them were the result of quite a bit of thought and preparation, and were not likely composed without deliberation. But does their preparation make them any less sincere or inspiring? To that end, it is entirely acceptable to write your prayer beforehand. You would not want to use a canned prayer that someone else wrote, but jotting down your prayer thoughts beforehand enables you to focus on the audience and the occasion, to be concise, and to be sincere.

4. Plagiarize. It is also perfectly acceptable to plagiarize in prayer, provided, of course, that you are plagiarizing the right source. In prayer, God does not enforce his copyright. In addition to studying the prayers and supplications of Scripture, the whole of Scripture is suitable material for prayer language. When praying the invocation, use the language of the Psalms in describing the majesty and glory of God, of approaching his tabernacle, of his promises to dwell among his people in worship. When praying for the ill and infirm, use the language of Scripture related to the frailty of the body, of God being glorified in our weakness, of the hope and assurance of the future state when the bodily effects of sin are no more. When praying before the offering is taken, use scriptural language of God’s ownership of all things, of our stewardship over the created realm, of our complete and utter dependence upon God for every thing, cheerful giving, and sowing and reaping bountifully. In short, pray God’s specific promises over specific needs for specific results.

5. Practice. Not in public, but in private. Our corporate prayer is a reflection of what we do in private, and if our corporate prayer is insincere and spiritually thin, it is likely because our private prayer is no better. Worse yet, it may be nonexistent. Practice using the language of Scripture in private prayer and reciting God’s promises, his character, his glory as the basis of your heartfelt petition and supplication, and you will likely begin to see a much more dynamic prayer life develop. Follow the scriptural example of prayer and make specific requests about specific results based upon specific Scripture and you will likely realize a much more healthy individual prayer life, which will spill over and effect much more dynamic corporate prayer.

6. Pray for help. Any attempt to be more faithful in corporate prayer should be preceded, accompanied, and followed by our individual petition for God to help us — which he promises to do — as well as gratitude for his equipping us.

Corporate prayer should not be dull, drudgery or difficult. Prayer can be invigorated to the benefit of the individual and the congregation, as well as to the honor and glory of God.

Toward More Fervent Corporate Prayer

Part 2

Why Are Ours So Different?

(from Part 1: “The truth about biblical prayer leads us to ask several questions: Why is ours so different? Does it matter? What can be done?”)

Our prayer is so different from those expressed in Scripture for several reasons.

1. We are slaves to “impromptu” prayer. This may sound, at first, to be contradictory. How can you be enslaved — bound to a pattern — to something spontaneous? But when we examine the content of our corporate prayer, we find that we are not truly “impromptu” or “spontaneous” at all, but repeat the same content, use the same phrases, echo the same words in all our prayer. While the idea of permitting the Spirit to move and prompt in us “off the cuff” petitions to God is laudable, the reality is that the Spirit is excluded from prayer that is simply repetitious.

2. We are unfamiliar with the prayers of Scripture. The prayers of the Old Testament saints that we find in the historical books, in the Psalms, and in the books of prophecy are recorded as examples for us of both their content and their style. Each prayer reflects the personality and passions of the one praying, yet maintains a godward focus and humble honesty. They recognize specific attributes or acts of God and make specific requests for specific reasons. They assume a mighty God to whom the prayer is made, expect God to respond for his glory, and rejoice to participate in God’s plan through prayer. Similarly, the New Testament prayers are replete with references to the promises God made in the Old Testament, acknowledge how he has fulfilled them in the new covenant in Christ, and make specific requests of God based upon our knowledge that he is the promise-keeper.

3. We are unfamiliar with the God to whom we speak. This assessment sounds incredibly harsh. But if we knew the God who miraculously heals us, who graciously sustains us, and who mercifully loves us, would we actually give a typical visitation prayer? If we truly knew the might God — the consuming fire — whose awesome presence we invoke to heed our feeble worship, would we actually pray as we do in invocations? If we knew the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills, who sustains the universe with the word of his power, who provides us with every good gift, would we pray the same way before the offering?

Does it Matter?

Does it matter how we pray in public? Absolutely. We must remember first and foremost that prayer is audience with Almighty God. If we were called upon to give remarks to the President of the United States, before an assembled crowd of citizens and statesman, we would not dare repeat someone else’s words, or use content that was painfully familiar to everyone, or “wing it,” depending upon our powers of impromptu speech or the spontaneous production of a fertile mind. We would prepare and we would speak with reverence. If we would do so with the President, how much more should we do so with the God who placed him — and all other earthly rulers — in his position of power?

The substance of our corporate prayer sets the tone for what is to come. If we use trite appeals for God’s mercy over the sick, then our prayer meetings will be little more than lists of the infirm and opportunities for gossip. Banality and familiarity in the invocation establishes the expectation that not much is really going to happen in this worship gathering. Repetition before the offering leads to the impression that this exercise is little more than paying my dues to be a members of the club.

Jesus warned us against using “vain repetition” and attempting to be heard for “our many words.” If we pray that way, then our reward is simply what happens on earth. Instead, we should pray with the heavenly reward in mind.

(Coming soon: Part 3, What Can Be Done?)

Toward More Fervent Corporate Prayer

Part 1

Why “Impromptu” Corporate Prayer Dishonors God

There are likely times that all of us could anticipate the content of most of the prayer offered in our corporate church settings. We know all the pet phrases and favorite words. During “prayer meetings” the short, perfunctory prayer by the deacon who is reporting on visitation for the week will always refer to “unspoken needs” and will request that God “heal them according to Thy will,” but won’t contain much more. The invocation to start the Sunday morning service will repeat bland requests for God’s favor “on those who could not attend,” for God to “be with them” and to “be with us,” and give half-hearted thanks “for this beautiful day of Sunday.” Before taking up the offering someone will, quite familiarly, ask God to “bless the gift and the giver.

Prayer during deacon meetings (when it’s done: one deacon chairman eliminated prayer on the ground that everyone should be “prayed up” before they got there), committee meetings, Bible studies and other settings does not fare much better, and is usually comprised of a mix of well-worn expressions and spiritual-sounding phrases to which no one really knows the meaning any longer and that are simply rearranged to disguise their age and to fit the occasion.

But it should not be this way!

Prayer is one of those activities that is both a great privilege and also absolutely crucial to the spiritual health of the both the individual believer and the body of believers of the local congregation. Something about prayer unites us i true spiritual communion with God, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, and on the basis of the work that Jesus Christ has done to reconcile us to God. The trinitarian aspect of the godhead is truly demonstrated in prayer: the Son enables us to approach the holy God in prayer; the Spirit helps our weaknesses and shapes our prayer; God receives our prayer and communes with us through it.

Prayer in Scripture is vibrant, excited, inspiring, which leads us to ask several questions about our: Why is it so different? Does it matter? What can be done?

(Look for Part 2 “Why is Ours so Different?” soon…)