Perplexed about prayer

  • 23 May 2010

Here's some interesting thoughts from a pastor who wants to see more people at his prayer meeting. We could apply much of this to our own Wednesday night meeting. Coram Deo is the name of the church by the way.

Perplexed about prayer

Since the launch of Coram Deo, we’ve gathered every Wednesday night for an hour of communal prayer. And when I say “we,” I mean a dozen or two faithful people. The faces change from time to time, but rarely are there more than 15 people in the room.

This causes me great angst as a pastor. I want to see more people show up to pray. At the same time, I despise legalism. I refuse to bind people’s consciences. Showing up at Wednesday night prayer doesn’t merit God’s favor, nor does it necessarily indicate a healthy prayer life. People may come because they’re motivated by guilt or they want to look good to others. People may stay home and yet be deep and vibrant in prayer.

In calling people to corporate prayer, I have erred on both sides. I have given off shades of performance: “If you really love Jesus, you’ll come to prayer.” I have been apathetic and passive: “The Lord will bring whomever he wants.” Even now, I confess that I am mystified about the proper biblical approach to this subject. The parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) and the radical promises of Jesus (John 15:7, 16) convince me that prayer matters more than we think it does. On the other hand, “performance praying” is a classic mark of a Pharisee (Matthew 6:5).

So here I am, gingerly stepping out in a blog post to address the matter. I will begin by airing some of my frustrations. I will end with personal narrative, explaining why corporate prayer is good for my soul. I’ll leave it to the Holy Spirit to do what he needs to do in your heart.


1. It is not legalism to call people to spiritual disciplines. Many Christians have a nervous twitch toward anything that smacks of fundamentalist rigor. Anytime someone uses the word “should” (as in “you should gather with other Christians to pray”), we accuse them of legalism. But this is foolish and misguided. The New Testament is full of imperatives. Telling, urging, commanding someone to do something is NOT legalism. Legalism is what happens when we forget the proper motivation (gospel grace) or when we measure God’s acceptance of us by our good performance.

2. You cannot have a healthy prayer life without corporate prayer. Some people assert that they pray in private instead of gathering with others to pray. I question whether these people are very mature in their practice of prayer. Corporate prayer shapes you in a number of ways that private prayer cannot. It makes you humble yourself and engage with the prayers of others. It forces you to quiet your straying mind. It forces you to confront your judgmental attitudes toward that guy across the room who prays too long or that person who just asked for something completely selfish. Corporate prayer is an essential component of spiritual formation.

3. Yes, prayer meetings are often lame and feel like “a waste of time.” I’m happy if we experience a unique sense of the Spirit’s presence one out of every four Wednesdays. Sometimes prayer is lame. That’s OK. It’s still shaping. And isn’t the nature of relationship about “wasting time?” We live in a very production-oriented society, where everything is measured by efficiency and productivity. Except friendship. When you are with friends, you expect to “waste time” together. To those who are “too busy” to commit an hour of the week to corporate prayer, I would simply ask: what other time-wasters do you commit an hour to? Facebook? Revising your fantasy football roster? Watching television? Talking on the phone? Arguing with friends about really life-altering issues like who should have won American Idol or which Avett Brothers album is the best?


1. My soul needs it. By Wednesday nights I am often beat down, dejected, and spiritually tired from pastoring and teaching and discipling and counseling and rebuking and problem-solving. An hour of praying with others recharges my heart, refreshes my vision, and renews me in the promises of the gospel.

2. It’s too easy for me not to pray. I need a regular weekly rhythm to keep me disciplined. Otherwise I could easily go months without really devoting myself to prayer, keeping alert in it (Col 4:2).

3. I meet with God. Regularly I experience a deep sense of God’s presence while praying corporately with others. I feel a greater sense of burden and urgency than I do praying alone.

4. It’s a rebellion against my flesh and my culture. We live in an entertainment-saturated, convenience-driven culture that idolizes work and busyness. Setting aside one hour of my week for corporate prayer is one way for me to live counter-culturally. It’s rest. It’s reflection. It’s dependence. It’s admitting my need. It’s worship.

5. It humbles me. I’d far too easily drift into thinking that Coram Deo is successful because of something I’m doing. Prayer reminds me that I can do nothing apart from him.

6. It shapes me. When I pray with others I have to learn to listen, not speak; to trust, not doubt; to believe the best, not assume the worst. Over the past decade God has graciously made me slower to speak and quicker to listen. Much of that spiritual formation has come through corporate prayer.

7. It’s the most important part of our mission. We are out to see people repent of sin and trust in Jesus. And yet that’s not something we can make anyone do. If we’re going to succeed, we’re going to succeed on our knees. Because unless God works, our work is useless.

8. I’m trying to set an example. Too many Christians think that spiritual leadership is about doing something to lead others. But spiritual leadership is primarily about being a certain kind of person. A worshipful, prayerful person. I’m doing my best to become that kind of leader, so that those who follow me will become those kind of people.

9. I like it. For all the reasons above and many more, I look forward to Wednesday evenings from 8 to 9 PM. It’s one of the highlights of my week. Even when it’s lame and awkward and laborious… I like prayer.

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