The problem of prioritizing prayer

01 October 2020

How we do and don’t practise prayer

By Roger Helland, EFC prayer ambassador

Recently I enjoyed coffee and conversation with a Canadian national prayer ministry leader. We share a passion for Scripture and Spirit-empowered prayer that can ignite renewal and revival and can incite social and political impact in Canada. Part of my mandate as the new prayer ambassador for the EFC is to pray for and with its affiliates and to be a liaison with other prayer-focused ministries.

As we chatted, we both admitted from our first-hand observations that many pastors, churches, denominations, seminaries and ministries suffer from a shortage of prayer. We preach, teach, program and problem-solve – often with only sparse or superficial prayer.

“Hold it!” you might object. “I pray. We pray. We believe in prayer.” Of course! We all pray and have formal beliefs of prayer. But what about functional behaviours of prayer? Are we, in Paul’s words, “devoted to prayer (Colossians 4:2) and practice “unceasing prayer” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)?

In February 2020, leaders from the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University presented the results of their Canada-wide survey that asked respondents what the top six most important elements of parish/congregational life impacts their spiritual life. Participants included 8,110 respondents from 150 conservative Protestant, mainline and Catholic churches.

Here’s the order of importance:

  1. preaching/teaching (68.4%)
  2. music/singing (44.4%)
  3. eucharist/communion (34.7%)
  4. volunteering in church (26.4%)
  5. prayer (17.1%)
  6. small groups (16.6%).

It’s telling that prayer ranked fifth in importance for spiritual life, slightly above small groups.

So, how much, how often and to what extent is prayer a central practice in our lives, worship services, board meetings and ministries? Is prayer as central as preaching and worship, and as the time we expend plowing through jam-packed agendas? With permanent Covid-19 challenges ahead, we dare not be “shepherds who are senseless and don’t inquire of the Lord” (Jeremiah 10:21).

“Honestly,” we might reluctantly reply, “prayer’s not that central. We could do better.” Why? I asked this prayer leader: “What’s the problem – what are the top factors that hinder prayer in the lives of church leaders?”

“Well,” he replied, “I see busyness and the time factor, a shortfall in mentored prayer, and a lack of teaching and training in prayer in our seminaries and Bible colleges.” I agreed. People are busy, more’s caught than taught, and prayer isn’t a required course in most theological schools.

Since then I’ve recalled pertinent quotes from discerning spiritual leaders:

  • “Just as prayer is the cardinal evidence of faith, so prayerlessness is the salient hallmark of unbelief” –Donald Bloesch ("cardinal evidence" is a phrase from John Calvin)
  • “The neglect of prayer is a grand hindrance to holiness” – John Wesley
  • “Deficiency in prayer both reflects and reinforces inattention to God” – Richard Lovelace.

What’s the root problem of lack of prayer? Here’s my theory: it’s our functional theology – lived theology. Kierkegaard wrote, “As you have lived, so have you believed.” When left unchecked, we tend to succumb to our “inner atheist.” There’s a gravitational pull to live by humanistic unbelief without attention to God revealed in negligible prayer.

Like you, I can live frenetic days where I race from one Zoom meeting to another and not pray, unaware that God exists. My busy schedule and relentless drive to produce can crowd out my communion with God.

As Abraham Heschel states, “The issue of prayer is not prayer; the issue of prayer is God.” Or as Tim Keller states, “Everywhere God is, prayer is.” What do you think of such assertions?

Perhaps we don’t functionally believe that without Christ we can do zero (John 15:5) and that fruitful discipleship and prayer depend on continual abiding in Christ and his words (John 15:7–8). If our prayer is deficient could this mean we lack attention to God? Could it also mean that the more we lack attention to God the more this will reinforce deficient prayer and holiness?

If so, this is a scary circle that can produce hollow humanism or practical atheism. How would this look in a church, denomination, seminary or ministry organization? Early church leaders “devoted themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). Is staunch devotion to unceasing prayer core in our churches and theological curriculums?

Perhaps Karl Barth is right in saying, “The first and basic act of theological work is prayer.” That would lead us to ask: Will defective theology produce deficient prayer? Is the root problem of prayerlessness planted in our theology?

In future communication I’ll offer some positive suggestions for a life of fruitful prayerfulness. For now, join me in pondering a point made by Richard Foster: “All who have walked with God have viewed prayer as the main business of their lives.”

Author: Roger Helland

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