Why We Hate to Pray
Introduction and offering:
Super Bore Poll: Who is rooting for the Patriots? The Rams? Don’t care? Just watching the commercials? Just looking forward to the food?
Last weekend I talked about why we hate to pray personally—but that’s nothing compared to how much we hate to pray out loud with others! How many of you don’t like to pray out loud with other people? This is almost universal! In a recent Barna survey, 94% said they had prayed at least once in the last 3 months. Of those 94%, only 2% most often pray with others. Prayer tends to be almost entirely a solo activity. Most people do not like to pray with others! If you doubt this, just call a prayer meeting and see who shows up! Prayer meetings are consistently the least attended of all church meetings—almost everywhere! Why is this? Praying together (the way it’s usually done) is awkward and uncomfortable, dare I say boring, not to mention terribly inefficient—so people stay away from prayer meetings in droves!
And yet Jesus taught us not only to pray alone, but to pray together, and even said it was especially powerful. Why is it so hard for us? What if I could show you a way to pray together that is natural and even fun? It’s very different from what you’re used to, but once you get the hang of it, you’re going to love it! It’s revolutionary!
Last week we said, “Prayer is a conversation between two persons who love each other.” Building on that model, when we pray together, it’s a conversation with God and each other. Rather than taking turns making speeches to God, we’re having a conversation with God together. Our text is:
Matthew 18:19-20 (p. 844)
“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
There are two verbs I want you to think about: agree and gather.
The verb “agree” in v. 19 is the Greek word, Sumphoneo: literally, it means “to sound together.” (sum = with or together + phoneo = to sound.) It was originally a musical word, and we get the English word, “symphony” from it. It also came to mean “to be of one mind, to agree, to be in harmony.”
Jesus said that if two of us agree about anything we ask God for, He will do it. It’s an extravagant promise: if two of you agree in prayer, God will do what you ask! Evidently, there is great power in praying together in agreement, in harmony—symphonizing in prayer! Let that sink in. Jesus teaches us to pray together and tells us it’s powerful and effective.
Jesus expects us to pray together and there is great power in praying together. So why don’t we do it more?
The second verb is “gather” in v. 20. It is the Greek word Sunago, which combines sun = with or together + ago = to bring. To bring together, to gather. We get the English word “synagogue” from it; a synagogue was a gathering place.
There is another amazing promise associated with this verb. Agree—God will do it. Gather—Jesus is there. When 2 or 3 (or more) of us gather in Jesus’ name (because of Him), “there I am with them,” or “there I am in the middle of you.” When two of you get together for a cup of coffee and conversation because of Jesus—He is there. When your Rooted group or mission group gathers, Jesus is there—He is in the midst of you, literally, in the middle of your gathering. It doesn’t matter if it’s 2 or 2,000, Jesus is there. It doesn’t matter if it’s at church or school or work or home or the coffee shop or the gym—Jesus is there. Any time we gather because of Jesus, He is there, in our midst. Because of the context (v. 19) this is especially true when we gather to pray. When 2 or more gather to pray, Jesus is there.
Would you say, “Jesus is here.” Tell your neighbor, “Jesus is here.” That changes everything. We’re going to apply these ideas to praying together. Here’s:
The Big Idea: When we pray together, we’re not taking turns making speeches to God; we’re having a conversation together, with God.
Offering: Before we dive in, let’s have some fun! Let’s give to the Lord! Some of you give by putting a check or cash in the bag as it goes by. Some of you give online or use bill pay at your bank, so you just pass the bag on. I gotta ask: if you do online or bill pay, is there anybody who when the bag goes by wants to tell those around you, “Hey, I give—alright? I just give online.”? However you give, one of the Biblical principles is that it is planned and regular.
1 Corinthians 16:1–2 (p. )
Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. 2 On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.
Paul instructed them to set aside an offering in keeping with their income. How often? Every week. In other words, your giving is regular (whether it’s every week or every month) and it’s planned, rather than haphazard. You’ve given it some thought. This is one reason why my regular offering is set up as a recurring gift—every month—regularly. I give above and beyond that as the Lord leads, but my regular offering is planned. Thanks for giving!
A tale of two prayer meetings.
I want to start with a story about two prayer meetings.
Prayer Meeting #1: When I was in high school, my youth group had a prayer meeting every Wednesday. We’d sit in a circle—there would usually be about 15-20 of us. We’d start by giving prayer requests. We’d go around the circle and each person had a chance to mention someone or something they wanted prayer for. Sometimes people had “unspoken requests,” meaning they didn’t want to name it out loud. “Pray for me, but I won’t say what.” Very curious! Sometimes, the prayer requests took up almost the entire time, so at the end we had no time to pray and had to appoint someone and they’d pray, “Lord, we lift up all these requests to you.” It was more of a talking meeting with a short generic prayer at the end.
But if we did finish prayer requests in time, then we’d pray. Someone was asked to go first, and then we went around the circle. We held hands and if you didn’t want to pray when it was your turn, you squeezed the hand of the next person. It was like the game “Electricity” and God was it! Each person who prayed made a little speech to God. And they were all pretty much the same speech. “Dear God, we thank you for this day. We ask you to bless us. We pray for so and so’s request, and so and so’s request. We pray for the boys in the Viet Nam. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” It was so repetitive—the same speech over and over. I wished one person would pray it and everyone else would just say, “Ditto.” I remember thinking that I was bored, and wondered what it was like for God! Can you imagine? Of course, when everyone else was making their speech to God, what was I doing? Was I listening? No, I was preparing my speech! I kept thinking, “There must be a better way.”
Prayer Meeting #2: My sophomore year in college, I was asked to become the youth pastor at a church in Eugene. The high school students met on Thursday night—it was called “The Hour of Power” but it was really just a bunch of stupid games and I was a glorified babysitter. After three weeks of this, I sat the students down—about 25 of them—and said, “Next week, I’m going to teach you how to pray. If you want to learn how to pray and follow Jesus, come back. If you just want to fart around, stay home.” One of the adult advisors rushed up alarmed. “You just killed our youth group.” But the next week, there weren’t 25 students, there were 40. They were just waiting for someone to challenge them and they rose to the challenge. And six weeks later, there were 100 students. What did we do in that six weeks? We had prayer meetings! But these were unlike any prayer meetings you’ve ever been to. Students—both Christians and their pre-Christian friends—were laughing, crying, hugging, loving each other, pouring out their hearts, listening and talking to God like He was their friend and Father. They’d pray for an hour and could hardly wait to come back next week and bring a friend.
What was the difference? What did I teach them? I taught them that praying together is simply having a conversation with God and each other. Prayer is a conversation between two persons who love each other. And when we pray together, all that changes is the number: 2-3-4-…
Here are four simple things I taught them that revolutionized praying together.
- Conversation: one subject at a time.
In typical prayer meetings, we take turn making speeches to God. But prayer is a conversation, a dialogue, not a monologue. It is not a speech to God, it is a conversation with God. This is true when you pray alone, or with someone. So first, toss out the old idea that we take turns making speeches to God. Toss it out!
So we’re going to have a conversation. How do conversations work?
First, we talk about one subject at a time. Someone brings up a subject, and whoever wants contributes something on that subject. And when we’re done, we naturally move on to a new subject. But we don’t bounce all over.
“Lord, I pray for my dad. Please help him find Christ.”
“God, I’ve been depressed lately. Pick me up.”
“Lord, you told us to pray for our government officials, so we are.”
“Father, help the Rams win today.”
That’s not a conversation—that’s just talking chaos. No one is listening or responding to what anyone else is saying—but that’s how we often pray. Toss it out!
Good conversations are one subject at a time.
“Lord, I pray for my dad. Please help him find Christ.”
“Yes, Lord, send people to Joe’s dad who will love Him and share Jesus with him.”
“Agreed. And soften his heart so he’s willing to listen.”
“And, Lord, give Joe wisdom and words to share with his dad.”
“Father, help the Rams win today.”
Ok, the last guy botched it—but you get the idea. We are having a conversation with each other and God—and it goes one subject at a time. How do you know when it’s time to change subjects? How does that work in a conversation? There’s a pause, a sense that we’ve covered the subject and it’s time to move on.
First, we talk about one subject at a time. Second, everyone gets to contribute. If you have something to add on this subject, you chime in. You don’t need to make a speech, just add your thoughts to the conversation. Short and simple. If you don’t have something to add, that’s ok.
So the first principle is conversation. We are having a conversation with God and with each other. Usually, when we pray we close our eyes to avoid distraction and focus on God. Nothing wrong with that. But it’s also not required. When Laina and I pray together in the car, I keep my eyes open. She’s happy about that. When I pray with others, I often have my eyes open, because we’re having a conversation together with God. Remember, where two or more gather, Jesus is in the midst. Jesus is here—we’re talking with Him…together.
Sometimes in our group conversation, I’m addressing God; sometimes I’m addressing someone in the group. Which leads to the second principle:
- Honesty: be genuine.
Prayer is a conversation, not a monologue, and honesty is the basis of any good conversation. If you’re not honest, no genuine communication happens. So let’s get real! Here’s some examples.
First, address the person to whom you’re speaking. Usually when I’m praying in a group I’m speaking to God, but sometimes, it’s you I want to speak to. Have you heard this: someone wants to pray for something and realizes that no one else in the group knows the background. “Lord, I’m praying for Bob. You know that Bob is married with three small kids, ages 8, 6, and 4; and you know that Bob has a healthy mortgage. You know that Bob just lost his job. So I’m asking you to provide a new job for Bob.” Question: did God already know who Bob was and that he’d lost his job? Of course. So who was all that information for? The rest of the group. So why not just address the group. “Hey gang, my friend Bob is married with three kids and just lost his job.” Then, “So Lord, provide a new job for Bob.” Say what you want to the group—and say what you want to God. It’s ok to go back and forth—we’re having a conversation.
Second, be yourself. Be genuine. You don’t have to use King James English. You don’t have to sound holy or spiritual. You don’t have to use a prayer voice.
ILL: I remember once I was praying and tried to sound spiritual, and I felt like God interrupted by laughing at me. Not a derisive laugh or a scornful laugh—just an amused laugh. He said, “Who are you trying to impress? I know who you really are—and I like you. Just be yourself.”
Third, say I when you mean I. Often, we cloak our struggles by using the “royal we.” “Lord, you know that we all struggle with unforgiveness. Forgive us our anger and bitterness.” Really, what I mean is, “Lord, you know that I’m struggling with unforgiveness. I’m really torqued; help me to let go of my anger and bitterness.” That’s honest. What might be a good response from the group? “Tell us what’s going on.” Then pray.
Good conversations require honesty. Let’s get real. Let’s be honest and genuine.
Third principle of conversational prayer:
- Listening: to God and people.
In typical prayer groups, what happens? While someone is making their speech, rather than listening, I’m busy composing my speech. Or I’m daydreaming. But we’re not making speeches—we’ve tossed that idea. We’re having a conversation with God together. And good conversations require active listening. And since we’re praying in a group, it means that I listen to you when you pray, and I listen to God.
First, listen to the person who is talking. I’m not daydreaming, I’m not composing my speech, I’m listening to you. This is a powerful act of love. When you listen attentively, actively, you are expressing interest, concern and love for the person who is talking. If you don’t listen, you express the opposite—I don’t really care about you or what you’re saying. This is part of what made that second prayer meeting so powerful. Students were pouring out their hearts, and others were listening and loving them. Listen!
If we are having a conversation, then when you are talking, I’m listening so that I can respond. In a moment I’ll show you how to let others know that you’re listening. First, listen to the person who is talking—it’s active love.
Second, listen to God. Jesus is here—He is in our midst, in the middle of our circle. And He has things to say too. So listen to Him.
This means that we don’t have to be afraid or uncomfortable with silence. If we finish a subject and everyone is quiet, it’s a good time to listen to God, to see if He has anything to say on the subject.
And if He does, if you hear something from God, and you think it’s for the group, don’t be afraid to say it. Again, be yourself. You don’t need to thunder, “Thus saith the Lord.” You don’t need a holy voice or King James English. You can just say, “Here is what I’m hearing…” or “I think the Lord might be saying…” These are powerful moments! I’ve seen people overcome by God’s word to them.
Listen. Listen to the person who is speaking. Listen to God—He’s part of the conversation too!
The fourth principle of conversational prayer:
- Agreeing: everyone prays all the time.
Jesus said, “If two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” There is great power in agreeing. How does this happen in a conversation? How do we communicate our agreement? By looking the other person in the eye and smiling, nodding, affirming by voice—a sound, a word—and even by saying, “Yes, I agree with that.”
In a typical prayer group, one person makes a speech while everyone else is silent. One person prays, while the others don’t. But in a good conversation, everyone participates all the time. Everyone contributes and everyone listens and responds, usually with agreement.
The word “agree” is the Greek word, sumphoneo. We get the English word, “symphony” from it. How does a symphony work? One instrument, maybe the first violins, take the melody for a stretch, and everyone else harmonizes. Then the melody moves to the cellos, then the bassoon, then the flutes, then the kettle drums. And as the different instruments take turns carrying the melody, everyone else is harmonizing.
That’s how conversational prayer works. When you speak, you are the melody and the rest of us are harmonizing, agreeing, symphonizing with you. Then it’s my turn to carry the melody and you symphonize.
But you never go to a symphony and just hear the first violins playing all by themselves while everyone else sits in silence all night. “The violins have a speech to give.” You’d want your money back!
Express your agreement—symphonize! In a good conversation, everyone is participating all the time: sometimes talking, sometimes listening, sometimes agreeing. Do the same when you pray together.
The problem is that we’re used to praying with our eyes closed, and making speeches. Let’s toss that out! Let’s have a conversation. When you speak, I’ll listen and harmonize. Just like in any conversation, if I agree with you, I’ll express it—with a nod, a smile, a “yes” or “amen.” This will be hard for some of you who have been taught that when someone else prays, you’re silent. Nope—we’re all part of the conversation all the time. You can agree out loud.
ILL: To help the students get over their fear of agreeing out loud in prayer, I had them do an exercise. We stood in a circle and held hands with our eyes open. Then I asked people to tell God in a sentence something they were thankful for. Then we’d all throw up our hands and shout, “Yes Lord, I agree with that!” It was crazy, but it worked. When we broke up in groups, the ice was broken. It was ok to agree out loud.
Let’s try it. Everyone stand and take hands. I’ll say a few one line prayers, and after each one, raise your hands and shout, “Yes Lord, I agree with that!”
- Thank you Lord for loving us!
- Thank you for all the food we’ll eat today!
- Please keep all the calories off my waist!
- Thank you for inviting us into a conversation!
- Thank you for teaching us to pray!
- Thank you for joy!
- Thank you for life to the full!
- Please help the Rams win today!
You don’t all agree with that! And that will happen sometimes when we pray—and that’s good. If I pray something and no one agrees with me, I’ll ask, “What’s up?” We’ll talk about it and come to something we can agree on—because if two people on earth agree about anything they ask for, our Father will do it! We’re having an honest conversation—and getting to agreement—to a symphony of prayer.
Here’s how we’ll finish. We’re going to give you 10 minutes to get in groups of 3 or 4 or 5—and let’s have a conversation together with each other and with God. You’ve got the four principles on your handout—you can refer to those to keep you on track. If you’re wondering what to pray about, here are a few ideas.
- Jesus is here. Welcome Lord!
- Thank you for…
- Help me…
- Help my brother/sister…
Let’s not make speeches. Let’s have a conversation! Have fun! And I’ll come back in 10 minutes and we’ll close with a song.