Podcast: Prayer as an Invitation, Not an Obligation (John Onwuchekwa)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Help for Our Prayer Lives

John Onwuchekwa, author of Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church, discusses what it means to have a real relationship with God through prayer. He shares about the day he received a phone call letting him know that his older brother had just died unexpectedly, and the impact that news had on his prayer life, ultimately leading him into a new level of honesty and deeper intimacy with God. He also talks about what we should do when we feel guilty about our prayer lives, and why prayer is intensely practical even when it feels like we're being unproductive while praying.

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John Onwuchekwa

Examining what Jesus taught about prayer and how the first Christians approached prayer in the early church, this book offers practical advice for those eager to prioritize prayer in their churches. Part of the 9Marks: Building Healthy Churches series.

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Full Transcript

01:23 - Welcome

Matt Tully
John, thank you so much for joining us on The Crossway Podcast today.

John Onwuchekwa
Glad to be here, Matt. It’s an honor.

01:30 - Life-Altering Event

Matt Tully
So a few years back just before you planted your church something pretty dramatic happened in your life. What was that?

John Onwuchekwa
Yeah, six weeks before our church started I was at a conference and I got a phone call that my older brother died suddenly. Thirty-two years old, in good health, in the best shape of his life, and just kind of one minute he was here and the next he was gone. And that news was unexpected and it totally wrecked me.

Matt Tully
Do you remember your initial thoughts about God upon hearing that and kind of trying to work through what had just happened?

John Onwuchekwa
I don’t know if it was my initial thoughts right in the moment—not to be sacrilegious—but in the moment God wasn’t in the picture, right? Now I’ve gotta call my parents and my brothers and sisters . . . it was just kind of all of that stuff.

But in the days and the months to come all the things that I thought that I knew and believed about God were questioned and it was all thrown upside down. C. S. Lewis writes about the death of his wife and one of the things that he talks about is how death takes the temple that we think is our faith and it shows us that our faith really at any point in time is nothing more than a house of cards, right? It just crumbled. So that’s kind of what I saw when I felt like this strong faith that I thought that I had, this faith that I thought that I was ready to impart to a bunch of people as we were getting ready to start this church with—I just felt it all crumble.

03:39 - The Effect of Suffering on Ministry

Matt Tully
Was there a time when you felt like walking away from the church plant and pastoral ministry even as a whole?

John Onwuchekwa
I don’t know . . . it wasn’t like I had like thoughts daily about, All right, what do I do about the church? It was just getting up each morning and just like, Man. I don’t want to get out of bed. But then it’s like, But I don’t want to stay in bed either. Right? So I didn’t want to face the world but man, whenever I turn my face toward the pillow, I just think of him and I see him. And so it was this perpetual discontentment wherever I was and I just felt like I wanted to get away from life.

04:36 - Relating to God through Pain

Matt Tully
Yeah. In your book you write that “pain felt like a truth serum that forced me to confess all of my unworthy thoughts of God.” And at one point you actually called him a liar. As you think back on that time of your life—and I can’t imagine how painful that season must have been—what do you think about how you were thinking about God and how you were relating to God?

John Onwuchekwa
It’s two-fold. The ways that I thought about him were erroneous—I thought that he lied, that he didn’t care about me, that he wasn’t good like he said he was, that he was like, right? Those things were false in the way that I thought was wrong. But I felt like the way that I related to him couldn’t have been more right because it was like all of those those doubts that I had about God, though they were doubts, they kind of laid the groundwork for me to have a consistency of dialogue with him that I didn’t have prior to then? So the thoughts that I thought were wrong and the relationship was filled with accusations, and frustrations, and angry words; but it was a relationship that was filled with words, right?

So there was a relationship being cultivated where prior to that the relationship was filled with silence. There just weren’t many words. And so from one standpoint it’s a gain. I kind of look back on that time—not on the sequence of events that brought that time about—with a little bit of fondness in that. Even though the feelings and the thoughts are wrong, there’s a peace that comes with, Oh, I’m relating to God and he’s relating back. I got a better sense of what we mean when we say things like, Christianity is not a religion. It’s a relationship. There was lots of relating that went on.

07:12 - Relating to God through Prayer

Matt Tully
So it’s not like we can do no wrong in our prayers, but there is a sense in which you were being more honest and thinking of God in terms of a relationship more than maybe you had before. Is that what you’re saying?

John Onwuchekwa
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Matt Tully
I’m sure we all resonate with what you’re saying—why do you think it can be so hard for us to approach God in prayer like he’s a real person who’s listening to us, and cares about us, and has his own thoughts about things that are going on in our lives? Why is that such a hard thing for us to do in everyday life?

John Onwuchekwa
Well, I would guess most of the people that would have access to a podcast live lives that are relatively comfortable, right? And prosperity is like anesthesia. It just kind of numbs us to the reality of the broken world that we live in and that one day the brokenness of the world is going to break in to our lives and it’s going to break us.

So I don’t think we use our everyday lives to prepare for those hard times. We kind of live our everyday lives and as long as things are fine, alright, that’s good. We may thank God for the fact that things are fine. But the prosperity kind of just leads us to think, Oh! All right. Now I can go about my business of trying to either enjoy my life, or make the life that I have better. And those are our north stars I think. There’s very little time for a God or a King that wants to direct the course of our lives. And when we think that we’re already sure the destination that we want to head in, and life is good, we just don’t feel like we have any need for God. And God warns Israel about that in Deuteronomy, right? Hey y’all, when things go well, like don’t forget me. Yeah, and I think we tend to forget him and he often has to use tragedy to wake us up out of that numbness.

09:58 - Overcoming Guilt in Prayer

Matt Tully
I think it’s safe to say that for many of us, the first thought that comes into our minds when we think of prayer is, I’m not praying enough. Right? We feel this persistent, low-grade guilt. I just wanted to know if you struggle with that at all? Do you feel that in your own life?

John Onwuchekwa
Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, I think we’re just so prone to create laws for ourselves, like rules, or standards, or rubrics. So when we hear about things that God calls us to do, we can just kind of fall into the pattern of trying to justify ourselves by how well that we do those things.

So I feel it. I think everybody that’s honest feels it, because we know how often we forsake prayer for so many other things. But that’s why I love Scripture, and Jesus, and what he does for us. You would expect that when it comes to instructions for prayer, the Bible would constantly guilt us and just tap into that shame we feel, but there’s almost nowhere in the Bible where prayer is mentioned that the big lesson behind it is that you don’t pray enough. Almost everywhere that Christ talks about prayer, he’s always gracious and he pairs it with an incentive. Right? So when prayer is brought up it’s never like, Here’s an obligation that you have and you are failing to do this obligation. So do more. When prayer is mentioned, it’s always tied to an outcome. Right? I know you want peace. Look! There’s peace that surpasses all understanding and it comes through prayer. No, look, no look. You’re forfeiting your peace by not praying.
So I think the Bible is always going to kind of draw us in, it’s trying to pull us in toward prayer. Not push us, Bad guy. Bad job. Pray more. It’s saying, Nah. Look at what you’re missing. And it’s here. Right now. Pray.

13:00 - The Results of Prayer

Matt Tully
When I think about my own life, and I’ve heard this from other people too, one of the temptations to not pray is that sometimes it feels like it doesn’t really accomplish as much. It’s not as practical as going and doing something, whether in the context of your own personal life and trying to figure out a problem, or in the context of a church, where we can focus more on actually trying to do things ourselves. But it’s interesting because you’re saying that Scripture, when it portrays prayer, it often is portraying it in a very results-oriented way. Like, there is a real practical reason to pray.

John Onwuchekwa
Yes, and it accomplishes something better than what you do on your own. And it accomplishes something that you don’t get even after you practically accomplish all that you hope to.

Sometimes we don’t pray because we’re like, Ah, I’ve got to be productive. I’ve got to get stuff done. But we know the feeling of not praying, being productive, getting done what we need done; and then it falls apart or it doesn’t work like we hoped that it would, or we go to bed at night anxious that things won’t stay that way. So even though we’re productive, what we find out is that our productivity doesn’t bring us peace, right? Peace is what we want. So prayer, I think brings us the peace that we want. So now when we pray, and we ask for God to bless his work, we pray and ask for God to save somebody, and we go out and evangelize and share our faith. When we’ve prayed about that, then we can go home and just just kind of sit in peace. Alright, God. I’ve done my job. You work. Hudson Taylor says, When man works, man works. But when man prays, God works.

I think it’s one thing to spend a day sharing your faith, not praying, and then you come home and you feel like, Did I say all the right things? Did it work? I really hope that it worked. You think about all the stuff that you did. It’s another thing to be involved in the same activity, but for it to be bathed in prayer, then you come home and it’s this peace like, Oh, all right. I did what I did and now the rest is God’s. God, take it. And when I feel that anxiety start to creep up. the way that I get rid of it is not me trying to go out and work and do more because the more work I do, the more I have to worry about. The way that I get rid of that is saying, All right, God. I’ve worked. I’ve done all that I can. You’ve got to work.

16:08 - What Prayer Is Not

Matt Tully
Obviously non-Christians often have certain conceptions of prayer that aren’t biblical, but we often misunderstand prayer even as Christians in the church. I wonder if this is a more fun way to address that: complete this sentence in as many ways as you can. So the sentence would start, “Prayer is not . . . ”

John Onwuchekwa
Prayer is not waking God up from off his throne to pay attention to what you have going on in your life.

Prayer is not twisting God’s arm to get him to do what you want.

Prayer is not wishful thinking aimed in God’s direction.

Prayer is not merely therapeutically talking to a god that won’t change things in order to just calm you down and give you peace.

Prayer is not—and this one may rub folks wrongly—just about aligning your will with God’s. In that, I think sometimes folks are well-intentioned, but I they’re misguided when they say things like, Prayer isn’t about getting God to change his mind or getting God to do things. Prayer is about trying to make sure you align your will with God’s. And I don’t think that’s completely true. I think it’s a half truth. I think that if you read your Bible, you see at times that God has determined that the way he would change his mind or the way that he would change his course of action is through the prayers of his people, and had people not prayed, God would not have worked.

17:54 - Prayer in the Local Church

Matt Tully
Yeah, that’s so good. So one of the main things that you are trying to help Christians to see in your book is the importance of prayer in the context of the local church and the corporate worship of the church. How does your church prioritize prayer, in terms of your weekly life together as a body? What does it look like to prioritize prayer?

John Onwuchekwa
Matt, we’re four years into the life of our church, and I feel like now we’re just starting to understand how it needs to change. So I’m going to tell you all the stuff that I talked about and that I wrote in the book, and then I’m going to tell you how I think a lot of that stuff may fall short, and a shift that needs to be made. There are systematic things we put into life or church, right?

On Sunday, when we come together to worship, we spend a significant amount of time—probably ten to fifteen minutes sprinkled throughout or church service—praying. We do a prayer of praise and adoration at the front. Prayer is its own thing, it’s not just a transition for the praise team to come on and off the stage. We start and we praise, we thank God for who he is. We don’t ask for anything in the first prayer. It’s just this extended meditation praising God for being who he is.

We’ll sing some songs, we’ll read from God’s word, and then we’ll have a prayer of confession, where we are together confessing our sins. Somebody up front leads us and the goal is that everybody in the church would be able to sit, pray along with them, and be able to chime in and say, Me too. Yeah, man, I didn’t have the words to pray that. I didn’t know that was sin. I didn’t know that God disliked that.

Then the Assurance of Pardon comes out and we read from 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” and people that are sitting in the church can say again, Me too. Y’all I just confessed my sin so this is true about me.

After the announcements we will probably have an extended time of prayer. It can go anywhere from five to seven minutes and it is a pastoral prayer, a prayer of petition, where we’re thanking God for being good and we’re asking him to continue to be good in our church, in our community, in our nation, in our families, in our friendships, in our world. We’ll just pray these big, long, bold prayers, and we ask God for things.

So the first systematic thing that we do is, whenever we gather as a church, we pray. And again, prayer is its own thing. Once a month we also have a prayer meeting as a church. We always pray when we gather, but once per month we stop and we gather just to pray. It’s the first Wednesday night each month for an hour. We come in and talk briefly about the things we want to pray about and we spend most of the hour praying, asking God to continue to be good to us. So we just try to weave that in systematically into the life of our church.

And for four years, it’s been great. It’s been awesome. I think folks come and are part of the church and they’ll say things like, I really loved it. This is a praying church. I love how much we pray.

But just recently it’s hit me that if the only way that prayer is being massaged into the life of our church is through those systematic things, then I don’t know if we’re as much of a praying church as I would like to be, right? I think there’s a difference between things being systematic and things being systemic, right? When it’s systemic, it doesn’t need a formal structure. It just kind of breeds on its own. And regardless of what changes there’s still this something that permeates the culture of our church.

So right now in our church, if you want to come and be a part of our church and you stuck around for some time, we don’t have any formal structure in place, but somebody would invite you into their home for a meal relatively quickly. If you stuck around for some time and you’ve been there a few months and people had seen your face and you come up one day and it’s like, Y’all I do not have a place to live. I’ve been evicted. I’ve fallen on hard times and I need to live with somebody for some time. Somebody in our church would invite you to live in their home. That type of hospitality, by God’s grace, just permeates through the life of our church.

So the systematic stuff that we put in, in terms of prayer, has been a good first step, but we’re struggling right now with how to make it systemic. Because if tomorrow I were to say, Hey, we’re no longer going to pray during Sunday service and I’m going to replace our prayer meeting with a Bible study, and somebody started to come to our church from tomorrow onward, I don’t think they would be as impacted by how much of a praying church we are—I don’t think that’s what they would say about what we do. And for me, I’ve just felt like, All right, that’s a way that we have to grow. So we start to talk about how we make prayer systemic in the life of our church.

So I do feel like the structural things we put in place are great training wheels, they’re great first steps, those are the baselines. But now we’re starting to as how we build on all of those baselines.

22:28 - Advice for Leadership in Prayer

Matt Tully
Maybe there’s someone listening who is a small-group leader, or they lead a Sunday School class or something like that. What kind of advice would you offer to that person related to leading a group in prayer?

John Onwuchekwa
Yeah. I was taught to teach the Bible with the goal of application. So you’re not ready to preach, teach, or lead until you can answer two questions: What does this have to do with my life? And now what do I need to do in light of this? God’s word does need to be applied. But I think the end of my application, what should come next is supplication. Right? So I need to teach not just toward an end of application—try harder, do this better—but I need to teach toward the end of supplication—ask God more, depend on him greater, trust him more to do the things that we’ve called him to do.

If you’re leading a small group or teaching, somehow there’s this unwritten rule like: pray at the start, teach for as long as you need to do, and when you pray, that means that you have to close things, and it’s not like there’s something powerful that can take place. But if you get to a part that you’re trying to teach or lead through, and it’s tricky, and it’s hard, or it’s emotional, then just say, Hey, we’re getting ready to step here. Let’s take some time and pray that as we move on that God would continue to guide us. And you just kind of shatter the boxes that folks have confined prayer to, and now it’s not just a formality, but we have this full and free access to God because we frequently need to come back to him, and we’re free to do that as many times as we want. It’s not a ticket at a carnival.

24:56 - Putting Limitations on Prayer

Matt Tully
Yeah, it strikes me that some of the things we’ve talked about today all sort of hit on that idea that we have these preconceived ideas about prayer. We have these sort of rituals with how we pray which aren’t necessarily bad. But they often limit how we think about prayer, what we can say to God, how often we can say it, when we can say it, how it fits with other things that we might be doing. And it feels like we put limits on our prayer, which is hurting us ultimately.

John Onwuchekwa
Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, we talk about the John 14:14, where Christ says “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” And he just speaks to how merciful God’s going to be in the reply, and we know that there are conditions to that. But as Jesus says those things, he doesn’t put the conditions on it. Right? So I think there’s something powerful about speaking and saying those things and coming into prayer asking for things and letting the providence of God put the conditions on what he’ll do or what he won’t do.

And I think we need to to remind folks: This does not mean that God’s going to say yes to all that you pray for, but it does mean that everything that you pray for, God’s going to give a merciful reply. And if you knew everything that he knew and you were as good as he was, then with every answered prayer you would agree with the answer. And so pray. Be bold. Pray for impossible things, and trust that God’s going to be the one that guides these answers toward the most merciful and beneficial outcome for you, your soul, and the people that you’re praying for. That’s the promise. That’s the incentive that he wants to use to draw us in.

27:27 - Closing

Matt Tully
John, thank you so much for taking some time today to speak with us and to share not only a little bit of your own personal story and discovery of a deeper experience of prayer to God but also how your church thinks about these issues and how you are seeking to lead them in this.

John Onwuchekwa
Yeah. Thanks, Matt. I appreciate you, Matt.

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