I remember those early late-teenage days. A new Christian mixing with other Christians (many of them also new) and doing new things that Christians do. It was like going to a new country where you see, smell and hear new things. Some things may seem similar but they are different.
Reading the Bible was new, but then in one sense not really new. I had read books before. The Bible was just different material. I had been to church before so there was no “cultural barrier” for me to overcome to get into a church.
The thing that was completely new was praying out loud with other Christians. Not just reading out a written prayer (I had even done that before), but praying something coming immediately from my mind and heart. To be honest I really had no idea what to do the first time I had the opportunity.
I remember sitting in a room with some other Christian students who were praying and then it became obvious it was my turn. But I just couldn’t get any words out. There was lots of huffing and puffing from me, and a few semi-syllables spluttering out in aborted attempts to form a single coherent sentence. I eventually muttered some brief prayer of thanks for salvation. In truth it was not really a prayer. I was more concerned about what others in the room were thinking. It was a bit of an ordeal.
I mention this anecdote because I know how hard it can be to begin praying with others. It is new and there are many temptations we can succumb to. For example: fear of what others think of our incoherence; resentment at the ability of others who seem effortlessly to launch in; unwillingness to make the effort to get to the place of the gathering even when it is possible (i.e. laziness); doing the hard work involved in actually articulating prayers that will helpfully lead others.
I also know that because of these factors many people never learn how to pray in a group, and therefore never share in the joy of fellowship in prayer together and with our triune God.
Some might argue that there is no need. The Bible teaches us to pray but can’t this be done at home? After all, didn’t Jesus teach us, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6a)? That’s an argument I hear often as a Christian and as a minister. It doesn’t matter where you pray. You don’t have to pray with others. Just do it at home.
There is a certain apparently indisputable logic to this. But it is only on the surface. Dig deeper and there are a couple of other factors at play.
Firstly, there is the attitude of the heart. The human heart is hypocritical. (“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9) I may talk to others about praying, even talk about my experiences of prayer, but all without actually praying. I may say that I pray at home, tell people I am praying for them, but at home, never actually get round to praying. I have come to know my own heart a little better than I did in those early days and I now know that I am a better pray-er at home when I am a pray-er with others. I don’t think I am alone.
The second factor is drawn from history. At times of great movements of God, Christians gathered to pray together. Take a biblical example: the days between our Lord’s ascension to heaven and Pentecost. Immediately after the ascension the disciples gathered together: “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14). This set up a pattern: “In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said,…” (Acts 1:15). So, there was speaking and corporate prayer. (And incidentally, we may conclude that Jesus’ words of Matthew 6:6 do not exclude groups getting together to pray. Why? A blog for another time…!)
This is a pattern that has been repeated throughout history. Look at any great movement of God – look hard enough and you find that the movement happens alongside the motivation amongst ordinary Christians to get together to pray.
So this is my plea: when you consider the act of praying, also think, “Who can I pray with?” If you are talking to a Christian friend about something, take a risk and pray about it together. In your family, don’t hesitate to take a moment to pray about what you are talking about. Make it a pattern of life.
But in addition to these informal, “accidental” prayer meetings, make use of those organised corporate gatherings for prayer. If your church has a prayer meeting, move heaven and earth to get to it! Get involved! Do you want God to do something? Get with other Christians and pray for it! After all, James warns us, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). Decide you are going to go, order your commitments as best you can around it, don’t make excuses, resist those temptations of fear, resentment and laziness and get busy!