This article is part of the Open Letters series.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
It’s been a hard few years for the church. There’s a sense in which the pandemic sped up a transition we were already in. It took out old solutions that were propping things up, making room for new ones. I’m hopeful for the church in this season.
In times like these, we pray. We pray not so much out of discipline as out of “learned desperation.”1 These seemingly innocuous prayers accomplish something quite remarkable: they allow the very life of Jesus, by his Spirit, to flow into our lives, our families, and our churches, reflecting “the immeasurable greatness of his power.” Just as the gospel is power for us at the precise place of our need, so, too, prayer is help—real, powerful help—at the very place where we have need and weakness.
You see, the church is a spiritual force. It is animated by the Spirit of Jesus in our midst. So, if we want to see the church brought back to life, we have to make room to listen and be led by the Spirit as a community. The way we do this is to pray together.
How Prayer Works: The Powertrain
The apostle Paul is a powertrain. In your car, the powertrain moves power from the engine to the transmission, to the axle, and finally to the wheels. It transforms gasoline into usable power. The church’s powertrain looks like this:
Prayer → Spirit → Jesus → Power/Life/Glory
You can see it concretely in Ephesians 3 (emphasis mine):
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:14–19)
This passage reflects the third time in Ephesians 1–3 that Paul has prayed in this way.2 The complete powertrain looks like this: prayer → Spirit → Jesus → power → saints. Paul prays the powertrain because the saints have a capacity problem (see italics in quote). We don’t have enough capacity “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,” so we need to be “rooted and grounded in love.”
The powertrain transforms our prayers into usable power. Without the “spark” of prayer, the church quietly loses energy, doing only what is humanly possible. Now, we don’t even know why we are so powerless, because we don’t know our own story. We’ve lost any sense of the immensity of power that is released in the church by the Spirit of Jesus—and how praying together lets Jesus actually run his church.
How Prayer Looks
In our prayer seminar, we ask several confidential questions about a participant’s prayer life. After doing hundreds of seminars, we have found that about 85% of Christians in a typical church do not have much of a prayer life. Praying communities are, perhaps, even more rare. I was taken aback by the findings of a 2017 Barna study on the state of corporate prayer in America that said 94% of American adults who pray do so by themselves. Only 6% of us are praying with someone else.3
If we want to see the church brought back to life, we have to make room to listen and be led by the Spirit as a community.
I’d like to give you a window into three seemingly unremarkable times of corporate prayer that are part of a typical Monday for me. My hope is that their very simplicity will encourage and embolden you to break the statistical pattern and not only pray, but pray with a community.
Praying with Jill
My first prayer time is with my wife, Jill. Beginning at 5:45, we take 45 minutes to read the Bible and pray together. This is my most disorganized prayer time of the day, and yet it is the most powerful. Jill usually leads. It took me about ten years to realize that if I wanted to pray with her, I couldn’t organize her. Not only that, she prays better than I do. By that I mean her prayers are almost on the verge of lamenting. She talks to God like she’s talking to me when I’ve promised to paint a room and keep postponing it. She feels the growing evil of our day and prays passionately against it. She’s a fighter. Jesus’s repeated command to ask anything gives us the freedom to ask for even seemingly impossible things. Because of the loss of our beloved daughter Ashley to cancer, we especially pray for people battling cancer. We do have one systematic stretch of 10–15 minutes where we pray for our 25+ children, spouses, and grandchildren.
Praying with Kim
Next, I pray with our adult daughter, Kim, who is affected by disabilities. We pray together for barely five minutes, but I love hearing her “voice.” Using her speech computer’s icon language, she thanks God for multiple things. Usually, she slips in a prayer for our very bad Golden Retriever, Tully, who’s always stealing her things. If I’m biking to work, she prays that I won’t crash. If I’m skiing at night, she prays I won’t hit a tree. She prays for her 97-year-old grandmother in London. I usually encourage her to pick one niece or nephew to pray for. She often picks one she feels is too noisy or bad. Kim looks at her nieces and nephews like wine—they get better with age. Kim struggles with anger—it’s a symptom of her disability—but we try to not let her “diagnosis” define her, so she prays regularly for God to help her with anger. Lately, we’ve been visualizing her day together and praying for the parts where she might be tempted to get angry. That has helped. And then, as often happens, I notice my struggle with impatience, so Kim and I close by praying for each other’s struggle with impatience.
Praying at Work
My third prayer meeting is mid-morning with the ministry I direct, seeJesus. About thirty of us gather on Zoom for about an hour. We spend the first half hearing reports from around the world on our seminar and training ministry. It’s an open mic, so we also hear updates on personal and family needs.
As we pray together, it feels like we are weaving a tapestry as we move from personal needs to ministry needs and then back again to personal matters. With only five minutes left, pray-ers pick up their pace slightly, a bit like the fourth quarter of an American football game. We don't want to forget anything, so the conversation style of the prayer meeting disappears and short, quick prayers emerge to cover what we have not covered yet. I close our prayer time by inviting the Spirit of Jesus into our work to shape and lead us.
How Prayer Starts
Unless you are part of the 6% who already pray with others, you likely feel both the simplicity and the strangeness of these prayer times as you read. How do you start to help your church or family value praying together? How do you sustain your own new hunger for prayer? The answer is simple: you begin the way Anna did—by praying.
And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband for seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36–38)
Where did the gift of Jesus, which led to the destruction of all evil and to a new heaven and earth, begin? With Anna in the temple praying. Of course, it began from all eternity, and yet it needed a human instrument, a conduit. Anna’s praying was one of the sparks of the powertrain: Anna praying in the temple (Luke 2:37) → the “Spirit will come upon you” (Luke 1:35) → Jesus’s birth→ power.
All great movements of the kingdom begin low and slow, with hidden pray-ers—people just like you—who keep showing up to pray. They pray when they don’t feel like it. They pray when there is no change. They pray when they are discouraged. They are continually in prayer, and then they slowly attract other pray-ers to join them.
Like never before, our churches are increasingly discouraged and dispirited. Like never before, the church needs to be connected to the glowing power center at the core of our faith. God’s strange gifts, like the COVID-19 pandemic, slow us down and help us listen to God. We become teachable. Wouldn’t it be just like the Spirit of Jesus to use the church’s current weakness to make it a praying power center and, thus, a beacon of hope to a dying world?
With you in prayer,
- Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2017), 51-5
- See also Ephesians 1:3-14, 16-20.
- “Silent and Solo: How Americans Pray,” Barna, August 15, 2017, https://www.barna .com.
Paul E. Miller is the author of A Praying Church: Becoming a People of Hope in a Discouraging World.
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