Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Salvaging Corporate Prayer

“Hello? Hello? Is there anybody here?”
How awful is corporate prayer in your church?

You know, that thing that happens when one or more Christians publicly address the Lord on behalf of the entire congregation.

Are such prayers predictable? Painfully long? Full of clichés? Do the same requests get repeated multiple times, sometimes within the same prayer? Do you find yourself struggling to stay awake? Do some of the requests seem merely pro forma? Are there fellow Christians whose prayers make you grind your teeth? Do you feel guilty for occasionally thinking that you’re wasting your time, even though you know prayer is a staple of church life and, in principle at least, pleasing to God? Are there ever meetings entirely dedicated to prayer, or has your church given up on such things? If there are, do you avoid them?

If you answered yes to many or most of these questions, it’s possible you’re completely unspiritual. On the other hand …

… You’re Not Alone

When I talk to fellow believers, dissatisfaction with our public prayer life and patterns is incredibly common. Anything that we do regularly runs the risk of becoming stale. Our private prayer life too can become lethargic if we don’t pay attention to our habits. But the thing about private prayer is that … well, it’s just you. It’s just me. When we recognize there’s something missing, repetitive or hypocritical in our prayer life, we can easily remedy it on the spot.

But try changing the prayer habits of a roomful of men (or nowadays even women, notwithstanding the teaching of the apostles), some of them believers for twenty, thirty or forty years, many of whom learned how to pray in public from loved and respected believers before them.

Yeah, good luck with that.

I don’t mean to be cynical. It can be done. I’ve seen (or rather heard) it done, in fact. I walked into a meeting at a church 400 km from home two summers ago that was so beautiful it made me cry. Half the tears were from appreciation. The other half were … I was going to say “aspiration” but, honestly, I think it was more like jealousy. But I had been to that church many times before, and their prayer wasn’t always that lively, energetic and impressively real. That night it was.

What Makes the Difference?

There is no magic “fix” for a lousy corporate prayer atmosphere. The problem may be spiritual, format-related, the product of years of bad habits by well-intentioned people or a combination of all three. Where I have seen situations improve, though, it is always because someone — often someone in leadership, but not always — starts to apply a principle found in scripture to their own public prayers, and other people catch on.

The following few thoughts are not offered from the lofty position of having spiritually “arrived”, but from many years of watching what sort of prayer brings a group of Christians to life, and what sort is a recipe for creeping slumber:

If you mean it, once is enough: The scripture warns against what, back in the day, we referred to as “vain repetitions”. The ESV puts it nicely when it says “do not heap up empty phrases”. A phrase is empty when it repeats or parrots a previous phrase, or when it’s a religious cliché. Has a particular need or situation been prayed for this week already? The Lord has heard it. The rest of the Christians have heard it. We don’t need to hear it again from you, unless you have some new twist to add. There are plenty of other things we ought to be praying for.

Effective prayer is fervent: Don’t bring a laundry list to the Lord, especially in public. It’s boring, for one thing. Pick one, two or three things that matter most to you right now and pray for those. Pray like they matter, and tell the Lord and those attempting to pray along with you why.

Hey, if you can’t explain why you want them, maybe you don’t.

Keep it short: There are four good reasons for this:
  • One, reducing the number of things you allow yourself to pray for in public increases the likelihood that you’ll select subjects you really care about. That matters to the Lord, and it matters to those who are trying to join with you in prayer.
  • Two is pattern: the longest public prayer recorded in scripture may be read at a reasonable pace in about 4:45. That’s right: under five minutes. If that was enough for Solomon, it’s more than enough for us.
  • Three is to give maximum opportunity to others. If I pray for three minutes instead of my usual 15 minutes, four other brothers are able to pray for three minutes each. I bet that would make for a livelier meeting, and a more meaningful one.
  • Four is that we are teaching when we pray. Our prayer habits may become the prayer habits of the next generation (or maybe their cautionary tales).
Scrap the spiritual buzzwords: Could your prayers be easily imitated because they always start and finish the same way? Are they full of spiritual jargon terms and pious-sounding phrases? A brother strung together three of these platitudes in our meeting last week, one after another, in a single sentence. They had no connection whatsoever to each other, and together they conveyed nothing meaningful. But they were familiar, so we all grunted agreement. Until I stopped to repeat to myself the sentence I had just heard, that is.

We are to pray with our minds, not just our mouths.

Reintroducing worship: How much actual contemplation of the person of Christ is part of your corporate prayer life? My experience is that it is usually not a lot. I suspect genuine occupation with the Lord may freshen the prayer atmosphere in a way nothing else will. After all, “Hallowed be your name” is one essential component of the prayer the Lord taught his disciples. In Acts, the apostles establish the pattern of speaking about God’s works and glories prior to voicing their requests.

Worshipful contemplation of our Savior should not be unique to any particular meeting of the church, should it? Should it not characterize all our prayers?

A Cautionary Note

Now, not everyone who prays a lengthier prayer is automatically unspiritual. If you have only a few men show up for prayer, it may be sensible to each take a little longer. It might be even better to pray more than once, which gives you an opportunity to assess what may have been forgotten and to bring it before the Lord passionately.

Some folks defend praying lengthy prayers by pointing out that they only pray as long as they do because younger men don’t participate. The Catch 22 is that if you pray for 20 minutes, nobody else has opportunity to participate. Younger men may not pray because they can’t imagine being able to hold forth for minutes on end as seems to be expected. So they don’t even bother to try.

Silent meditation bothers some folks. But a few minutes of quiet between prayers is preferable to the sort of endless blathering that drives Christians to surreptitiously check the time and speculate about whether this would be a good opportunity for a washroom break.

The Real Danger

Of course the situations I’ve described may not be the worst reasons for stale and meaningless corporate prayer. They are often simply the result of inattentiveness, tradition, false assumptions and bad habits that have crept in over time. But corporate prayer is like individual prayer: it is ineffective when we are concealing sin, dishonoring or being insensitive to our wives, harboring grudges, consumed with doubt or disingenuous in our requests. Tweaking the length, repetitiousness, subject matter or even the intensity of our prayers will not salvage a prayer meeting crippled with unaddressed spiritual issues. These require repentance, not a change of format or even an influx of energy and effort.

How bad is corporate prayer in your church? Bad enough to consider trying something different?

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