Along with my previous article on expository preaching, allow me to approach this short article anecdotally. Earnest prayer has long been dear to me because I found it to be so lacking during my teenage years in my broader PC(USA) context. Now, my home congregation was rather more conservative. However, we were active within the wider networks of the PC(USA) and therefore my description is intended to tell of the general milieu of the mainline denomination as I experienced it, as a foil to what I found in the PCA.
Stale and Stagnant
One of the things I first noticed about the prayers in many of these services was how utterly bored the speakers sounded. They seemed listless and stale and as if the speakers had no sort of emotional investment whatsoever in the words they were speaking! Now, I realize that a lot of this is subjective evaluation; simply because a man is animated is no indicator of the sincerity or piety behind his prayer. But nevertheless, many times those who were leading in prayer prayed with a painfully dry, tedious monotone that left one in doubt as to whether they believed the words they were saying at all.
In many of the services I attended, there was no element of free prayer at all. Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I am not opposed to pre-written prayers being employed in worship services. We make use of such prayers and liturgical elements every week in my own congregation. What I’m saying is that in many of these mainline environments, every last utterance of prayer was pre-scripted. Often, there were sentiments expressed about vague sins we had committed or struggles that the congregation was enduring, and there would be a pre-determined congregational response. But (being a fairly recent convert) I wondered why we weren’t praying for the lost or for the cause of missions and evangelism or for spiritual/numerical growth. I inquired about this on more than one occasion. Apparently, there was no room for last minute items, because, (as I was told once by a pastor) “We can’t interrupt or change what’s printed in the bulletin.”
In my adolescent estimation, the prayer life of these congregations and networks was devoid of any life, and, having few models of prayer to imitate, it was to the detriment of my own piety.
Lively and Dynamic
Fast forward to my college years in a rural PCA congregation. I heard prayers that were warm, sincere-sounding, and lively. I heard us pray for the conversion of the lost, adoring God for his being and perfections and for his goodness and grace to sinners; for the cause of world missions and evangelism; for families struggling with infertility; for sicknesses; for those in mourning; for families who had suffered gross injustices and pains; prayers for God’s guidance and wisdom to be given to our governing officials; prayers for our own souls’ growth in godliness and reception to the Word of God, etc. Here–at last!–I found meaty, biblical prayers that I could sink my teeth into.
One of the elders in my church introduced me to the concept of studied prayers. As he explained, while there was nothing wrong with “extemporaneous” prayer, it is helpful in leading the congregation to have given some thought and preparation to the prayer beforehand. While it was not required to write out a full “prayer manuscript” per se, he would often think of items to highlight: issues, theological ideas, etc. and outline them on paper to remind himself, as well as allowing for “wiggle room” to add prayer concerns based on the congregation’s need for the day or season.
Moreover, I was introduced to an entirely new concept: prayer meetings. Usually taking place on Wednesday nights, a good portion of the congregation would gather for the specific purpose of spending an hour or so in prayer together for various items in the life of the congregation and the kingdom of God more broadly. “What a wonderful concept!” I thought. I was there every week. Hearing the prayers of the elders and other seasoned saints was so incredibly encouraging and it was such a helpful model to me in learning how to structure my own prayers.
I heard prayers that were short and simple, and prayers that were longer and more eloquent, but every time, I heard prayers that were earnest, sincere, and biblical. Whether it was confessing sin, or longing for the conversion of the lost, or praying for growth in grace, or for health concerns, I heard prayers that were serious and hopeful and reverent. And my soul was edified and greatly encouraged.
Our Lord Jesus himself models for us what the priorities for prayer should be, doesn’t he? In Matthew 6:9-13, he demonstrates for us the great contours and content of our prayers ought to include adoration of our God in light of his holy perfections, praying for the advance of his kingdom (the reign of Christ in the souls of men, among other aspects) and accomplishment of his will, confessing our sins, asking his help for the living of the Christian life, and acknowledging our dependence on him even as we seek his aid in supplying our daily needs.
Moreover, the Psalmist describes a raw, unfiltered, and earnest experience of prayer as he cries to his God, as his soul pants for God, thirsts for the living God, and as he pours out his soul to this God (Psalm 42:1-4).
Friends, this is what the precious souls in our churches need and this is the biblical model: prayers that are sensitive and sincere, warm and winsome, passionate and pastoral. Let us not lose sight of how paradoxically simple and yet how profound and vibrant earnest prayer can be in the care of souls, in our witness to the world, and to the honor of King Jesus.