The Twelve learned to pray by asking, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1 NIV). For that they received the Lord’s Prayer, which functions as Jesus intended, whether used as a model or prayed verbatim. In general the North American church fails to teach its people to pray. For some evangelicals the training begins and ends with, “Forget about formal prayers you may have learned. Prayer is talking to God, so just talk to him like you would talk to another person.”
This boggles the mind, when one considers that it is difficult to pray regularly; that it is difficult to pray well, that is, following biblical priorities; that it is difficult to pray with persistence.
We hear pastors bemoaning the sparse attendance at prayer meeting – that is, if it hasn’t been cancelled altogether. An American pastor might respond with the strategy: I will give a series on prayer. If prayer is unsatisfactory, then the truth of God’s Word will correct it. While I certainly affirm that instinct, to turn to Bible teaching, I must point out a pair of weaknesses with the specific program. Good praying is not the guaranteed result of good teaching alone.
First, good biblical praying is best created by providing a living model for people to imitate. When newly-converted pagans came to Christ, they were utterly adrift when it came to praying to one true God. Paul taught them the relevant truths; he also said, in effect, listen to me and pray as I do. What might start out as shallow imitation of a man with all his idiosyncrasies in good time flourished into praying like an apostle would.
Rather than teaching a class, why not select a smaller number of people and say to each individual, let’s pray together for 3 months and we’ll also talk about what the Bible says about prayer. We’ll think about it…and then we’ll do it together. Then we’ll split up, and you and I can go on and each enlist another small group of people.
The second problem is, pastors are not always such great models of prayer themselves. They have to grapple with the fact that they are models of a praying person, whether consciously or not. Leaders must first of all learn to pray in the apostolic fashion. D. A. Carson’s Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and his Prayers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992) is a great help. He shows how we might pray better by following the prayers of the apostle: their theological assumptions, their priorities, their language.
When it comes to prayer meetings, I have speculated whether people stop going for understandable (not justifiable!) reasons. Is a prayer meeting really just another teaching session, to which is appended a short prayer time? Does the prayer list seem disconnected from the Christian life as they experience it? Is the prayer list guided by the Bible, that is, do we pray big prayers or only for daily needs?
Paul, I am certain, was like us: he prayed for everyday issues, things he wouldn’t have bothered to note down in an epistle. When he couldn’t lay his hands on his No. 2 needle at the leather shop, did he ask God to lead him to it? I’m sure he did! Nevertheless, the higher priorities took up the bulk of his prayer life; and when he described his prayer life to others, he emphasized those priorities, giving out that this is how a Christian really prays [in 1 Thessalonians, for example, see 1 Thess 1:2-3; 3:9-13; 5:23-24].
Many churches have eliminated the “pastoral prayer” from their meetings. Assuming that there is something that resembles a formal prayer in your church, remember please that your prayer list is in itself didactic: it states, this is what we regard as the hierarchy of God’s values. I’ve done a totally non-scientific study of the prayers and prayer lists of a handful of churches. These churches communicated in unmistakable terms that the highest duty in prayer was for the sick or bereaved – to be sure, one NT teaching (James 5:14-15). Next in importance: people in the armed services. That is, good things, but which grew out of proportion to their importance. The missionaries seemed a bit squeezed. Nowhere were the people asked to pray as Paul did in the prayer passages of 1 Thessalonians: that the church would be steadfast, grow in love, be blameless, etc.
Addendum: a happy exception to the dismal last sentences. I visited a church – it happened to be an evangelical Episcopalian one – and its prayer list was focused on missionaries, and then to a lesser extent the sick. It also included prayer for growth: “Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure.” Come on, Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, let’s catch up!
“How to Teach your Church to Pray: Don’t tell them, show them!” By Gary Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica