Our church is journeying in prayer this month. Our preaching series is “Questions of Prayer,” which aims to be honest about questions we share about prayer and give us orientation points for our praying. An optional step past Sunday morning is working through Steve Harper’s book, Talking in the Dark: Praying When Life Doesn’t Make Sense.
Chapter 3 in Talking in the Dark is titled, “The Church Problem.” Steve Harper confesses for us: “Sometimes the church amplifies both the God problem and the human problem” (p. 45). Here are some of the “church problems” that we encounter. Again, they reflect problems that Steve has called the “God problem” and the “human problem” but they are, unfortunately, distinctly experienced when we come together as the church.
- Underselling Prayer
- Overselling Prayer
“We undersell prayer through our silence about it,” writes Steve (p. 46). If we don’t teach on prayer or pay attention to developing the prayer lives of the people of the church, how can we expect people to grow in their praying or even to think it important? We get into the habit (and as the one leading the praying in my church on Sunday morning, this is helpfully convicting) of sounding “like a broken record.” Most of our praying, Steve says, is about “getting well when you’re sick, being safe when you travel, or having success when you try something.” These are certainly appropriate and even important issues to pray about, but they are far, far from the only needs or concerns that we should bring to God in prayer as a church.
Sometimes our praying is focused on how to pray correctly in order to have God do what we want. Steve writes, “The undertone of such prayer becomes, ‘Okay, God, we’ve prayed; now you must answer—and answer when and how we say.’ When such an attitude prevails, prayer as ruthless trust and abandonment to divine providence gets lost under a pile of ‘have it your way’ expressions.” We emphasize ourselves even while we use God-language to do it. In doing so, we oversell our ability to have our prayers answered in the way we desire. It becomes more formula-for-success than relationship-of-trust.
A final church problem lies in our assumption that prayer is natural. That assumption is correct, but we misapply it. We act as if because prayer is natural, people should be able to pray and pray fairly well on their own. Breathing is natural too, we reason, and it comes naturally to us. So we think prayer should be the same way.
Questions: What challenges have you faced in your praying that relate to you church experience? When has your church been most helpful to your growth in praying?