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.

Frustrations; or, stuff that needs to be said

  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?

Self-Disclosure; or, why I make it a weekly discipline to gather with others for corporate prayer

  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.

I’m praying that this post might spur more of you to join us on Wednesday nights. Additionally, I’d be interested to know: what hinders you from corporate prayer? Or – what motivates you toward it?


Leave a Comment

  1. I must admit that I am one who has often come to prayer because I “want to look good to others.” It is not true as much anymore, God is changing my motives. But he is not doing it on the nights I stay home because “I would feel fake and dishonest if I go to prayer.” He is transforming me when I am there.

    And even on the nights when I do come seeking approval (or a tasty FBS brew), I find myself enveloped in community, worship, and the Spirit. I also find myself growing. I am a bad listener and not very thoughtful most of the time. Praying corporately, as you point out here, helps that immensely.

    And finally, Bob, I really identify with #2 under self-disclosure. Solitary prayer does not come easily for me. Maybe it is the extrovert in me, but praying with others energizes my thoughts and worship.

  2. A glimpse inside the head of a reluctant corporate pray-er:

    What motivates me toward it is a desire to improve in this discipline. My thinking goes that if you want to get better at something, it’s often a good idea to hang around those who are good at it.

    The biggest hindrance to me is probably the idol of not wanting to look foolish in front of others. That one thing may color all of my perceptions and thoughts on the subject.

    As an “outsider” coming into what by all accounts is a small, tight-knit bunch who have been together since the beginning, is intimidating. What are you thinking when I show up? “Who’s the new kid? What’s he trying to prove? Probably won’t even make it two consecutive weeks.” I’m thinking these things of myself, so I figure there’s a decent chance others might too.

    If praying is a skill, then you’ve got good pray-ers and you’ve got bad ones. I have an acute sense that I’m one of the latter. I’d liken it to showing up at a game of pick-up basketball where most of the other players are an order of magnitude better than you. You spend the whole time just trying not to screw up. So if I show up to prayer and tank miserably, it messes up the whole “Josh has it all together” thing I’ve got going on. Can’t have that.

    There also seems to me to be a certain code of conduct that is followed, but which remains unspoken (or perhaps I’m just not getting it or I’m not paying close enough attention). The vibe is not just an “all skate” of prayer. It’s more like “here’s kinda what we’re praying about, let’s not trifle with your kids’ colds or your job search.” And I can kind of see a need for that dynamic. After all, there’s no end to what we could pray about and you’ve only got an hour. Perhaps I’d feel better if it were just stated explicitly. Maybe it’s all in my head and you pray for sick kids and job searches all the time.

    Typically, my desire to avoid looking foolish would cause me to re-read this post a half dozen times, checking for errors and making revisions (just added a comma after times). In the end I would delete it and post nothing.

  3. If you want to know how popular the pastor is, go to the worship service. If you want to know how popular Jesus is, go to the prayer service.

    I think this speaks volumes to your ministry Bob.

  4. I think there is a difference between “binding the conscience” of others and “legalism”.

    By the way, I think this post did neither. I think it was a well thought out, encouraging post. In the past, on this blog, I have felt the “binding of the conscience” on things that were extra-biblical. But, there was no guilt in this post Bob, and you’re right on.

    God ordains the ends and the means. . and he might be ordaining some prayers for some things he will bring about.


  5. Josh- Thanks for putting yourself out there. Your words emulate exactly what I was thinking. I think there are a lot more reluctant corporate pray-ers among us than we would like to admit. Coram Deo can be a pretty intimidating place to enter on your own. I too, have felt as if there is an unspoken code of conduct and that I missed the day where they passed out the manual. It’s taken me a while to assimilate to the god “language” many people speak at Sunday service and mc. I’ve heard through rumblings that there is a prayer session on Wed. night, but this is the first time I feel like I’ve actually been “invited.”

    My difficulty is realizing that it’s not about me or my comfort level. I need to get over feeling intimidated. I am not a bystander in my faith. I shouldn’t wait to get a golden invite to be a part of a prayer group. Then again, who wants to be the annoying person that invites themself or shows up to someone’s home when they really aren’t wanted? So……thanks Bob for letting everyone know we are wanted. Ultimately we’re responsible for our faith and it’s up to us to take in any opportunity we have to get closer to god.

  6. Ted, thank you for this post. I have provided a link over to your post from blog. I feel your words and thoughts can be a great encouragement for leaders to press on in trying to unite people to pray. I felt this was well-written, well-thought out, honest, and encouraging. Thank you for the post. I have prayed for your group that it may the backbone of your church.

    With regards to your question on what hinders corporate prayer… I find that at the start people come with different goals for the group. One person wants to pray for revival and another for unity. While these are not mutually exclusive, they can cause frustration which will lead them to bailing out of the group. Differing prayer style can have the same effect. Some want to talk through the request, while another just want to start praying through the requests, and another just wants to camp out on praise and adoration. Again nothing inherently wrong with any style, but it can lead to difficult group dynamics.

  7. Josh H – Were you thinking of last Wednesday night when you came to prayer in your comments above? Did you still get the same sense that:

    “As an “outsider” coming into what by all accounts is a small, tight-knit bunch who have been together since the beginning, is intimidating.”

    Just courious.

    Clatterbuck –

    That is a pretty widely used quote. I don’t think he meant anything malicious by it.

    I would just add that if you have had some sort of experience in the past at prayer (negative or whatever), I would appeal to grace. Grace that us that come are sinners. I think that you will find the atmosphere is relaxed and people there have no agendas. I would concur with Bob on how shaping it has been in my own life. In overcoming some deep rooted sin, identifying areas where I need to mature and grow, and center me for mission through worship and joy in Christ.

  8. Josh H – Were you thinking of last Wednesday night when you came to prayer in your comments above?

    I was. The intimidation factor was mostly prior to the very first time I attended a Wednesday night. The bit about getting a vibe that there was an unwritten/unspoken list of things that were either on or off the table as topics was true of both times I’ve attended.

    My comments weren’t intended primarily as criticisms of the group, but rather as a window on, or a confession of, my own messed up biases and thought processes. It’s not that you guys are really that threatening, or that changes need to be made to accommodate me or people like me. It’s much more likely I think that my observations reveal lies that I believe, sin in me, and work that the Holy Spirit still needs to do in me.

  9. I will be honest that I’ve used the excuses of “I’m too busy” and “I don’t pray that well” to hinder me from actually attending Wednesday prayer nights. I can relate to Josh’s comments because I feel intimidated as an “outsider” because there is a tight-knit group of people who have been commited to this for years! I’ve commited myself in various ways to this church, but I have failed to commit myself to corporate prayer for this church! I’ve been greatly convicted since this past summer, and even more so now, God has put this spiritual discipline on my heart to actually get outside of myself and seek his renewal by gathering in community.

  10. The biggest hindrance I have had to corporate prayer is what I have often perceived to be the people-oriented nature of it, when I long for it to be genuinely God-oriented. People talking in breathy voices they never use in real life. Pastors re-preaching their alliterated points. Prayers that sound more like a birthday wish list than anything else. Prayers that smack of gossip or superiority. Prayers that find their value in their length rather than their heart or their substance.

    It is sinners that turn me off to corporate prayer. Which shows I have the wrong attitude about prayer. Even though too often I don’t have the right attitude, I want to want the right things. I want to relish and pursue corporate prayer with a heart abandoned to God. I want prayer to usher me to Jesus’ side at the right hand of God.

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