Today is "Day of Prayer" at The Master's College. There were four hour-long sessions of corporate prayer, a worship night at 9:00pm, and wings of students signed up to pray in hour blocks around the clock. Apart from this there will also be unknown private prayers being offered and unprogrammed groups getting together to pray.
About an hour ago I returned from the "Church and Missions" prayer-session. We prayed together in small groups for local church leaders, local church members, and Christian missionaries around the world. I was praying with Jeremy Edwards, Nate Boone, Tommy Myrick, and Siona Savini.
Corporate prayer is a unique thing. This afternoon was a blessed time. Such is not always the case, though. Sometimes corporate prayer is stimulating, refreshing, like-minded, challenging, effective, focused, heartfelt, and God-centered. Other times it is dry, dispassionate, theatrical, competitive, boring, dull, forgettable, and man-centered (usually when this is the case, it is because of my heart, not someone else's). Either way, it is always revealing, always has potential, and always demands a battle.
For awhile now I've wanted to put down some thoughts about corporate prayer in order to exhort myself and others to engage in the battle, enjoy the blessing, and honor the Lord in public, corporate, together-prayer. Here they are, in no particular order.
1. Listen to other people's prayers. It's easy to shut your brain off when someone else is praying. Fight not to. (And it will be a fight.) Ask yourself if you see marked improvement in your concentration level when other people are praying. If not, begin to take strides in that direction. Mental discipline (in the little things) is multi-faceted, very difficult, and often ignored. It seems like it's invisible. But it's not. Mental discipline shows up everywhere in life. It's just not always obvious that mental discipline (or the lack thereof) has a lot to do with external sins and failures. But it does. One way that a lack of mental discipline shows up is in corporate prayer. And one place to learn it is in that same arena.
2. Learn from other people's prayers. People are at different stages of maturity, and we can learn from each other in prayer. Leslie Davis teaches me to pray with intimacy and passion. Judy Severance teaches me how to pray with precision. Siona Savini's offerings compel me to pray with tears. Travis Dalton is teaching me to pray with simplicity. Andrea Kolstad reminded me to pray biblically. Learn from other people's prayers.
3. Echo other people's prayers. One way to focus during corporate prayer is to echo the prayers of others around you. Listen, but don't just listen. Take the prayers of others, and as they pray, cut and paste them into your own mind and soul. Offer them to the Lord yourself. This will breed likemindedness (and it should be fueled by likemindedness) as you realize that you share the same heart with those around you.
4. Beware of preaching in your prayers. This may be more of an encouragement to the more fiery brothers and sisters. Although well-intentioned, it can be easy for people to begin to scold "the church" and bemoan everyone else's weaknesses and preach to their prayer partners. Now, I think that the church in America deserves a good scolding from the Lord and His prophets, that the church in America is quite bemoanable, and that it's good for all of us to be exhorted by each others' prayers. But as I understand it, the purpose of prayer is to praise God and confess sin and make supplication and give thanks, not to hop on our soapboxes and intentionally preach to one another. I hope that my prayers today were an exhortation and an encouragement to the guys around me. I hope they learned something from my prayers. I certainly did from theirs. But I don't think it would have been right for me to use my prayers as a platform for preaching.
5. Count the cost of prayer. It is never not an intense struggle to be alert and watchful in prayer. It's just plain hard to focus. I think that's why we can identify so easily with the disciples who fell asleep more than once on the Lord Jesus Himself. But that doesn't make it ok. An important element of corporate prayer for me recently has been to simply acknowledge before I begin to pray that it's going to be an all-out dogfight. Do you think my flesh wants to pray? Do you think Satan wants me to pray? Do you think my anxious, hyperactive mind wants to be narrowed and herded in one direction for an extended period of time? Do you think my To-Do list wants to lie dormant on my desk? No way. Which means it's going to be a toe-to-toe, no-holds-barred battle. Sometimes prayer flows. But usually, at some point or another (if not at every point along the way), it takes lots of grace and grit and determination. Knowing this beforehand and bracing yourself for the spiritual sacrifice is vital if you want to face the onslaught of temptations victoriously.
6. Don't be monotone. For whatever reason (I think there are many), we conservative Christians often seem deathly afraid of doing anything with much expression (especially anything we deem spiritual). It couldn't be spiritual to clap your hands or pour out your heart or bow down low or shout in exultation, could it? Especially not in public! No, I don't advocate sensationalism and externalism and any type of "you're-more-spiritual-if-you-raise-your-hands-and-close-your-eyes-when-you-sing" mentality. But it wouldn't kill me to be more expressive and outwardly passionate, if it's really flowing from my heart. And it wouldn't hurt me to see it in others, either (again, as long as it's genuine before God). How this relates to corporate prayer is that the result of this emotionless mentality can be dull, monotone, monochromatic prayers that bore everyone who's listening. I don't think we need to be giving speeches in our prayers (see #3), but I don't think they should be monotone. I don't think Ezra's prayer of confession and repentance sounded dead and lifeless (Ezra 9). I would stand firmly on the assumption that Christ's prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane didn't flat-line when he offered it up (somehow "sweating drops of blood" doesn't evoke images of Christ praying a tranquil, serene, mellow prayer). And I don't think that Paul's prayers sound dispassionate. Pray with passion. Yes, people's voices and personalities are different, and we can't judge each other's hearts on this issue. But never be monotone because your heart's monotone. I speak this to myself and to my shame.
7. Initiate unscheduled, unsolicited, unprogrammed corporate prayer. You don't have to wait until your church's prayer-time to pray with fellow believers. Get into the habit of praying on the spot with people or forming your own group that prays regularly in your apartment or dorm room. Pray spontaneously with others. What does it say about me if I only pray with other believers when such praying is planned for me?
8. Watch out for bitterness in your heart when praying corporately. If you find yourself judging and critiquing the prayers of others as they pray, take heed to your soul. I have realized that I really need to monitor my heart when praying with others. If I have something against someone, my pride will rear its ugly head when I'm listening to them pray. I'll criticize and pick their prayer apart because it's an easy, invisible way to tear them down and exalt myself. This is a good way for me to recognize that bitterness is present in my heart toward that person. Two people could pray the exact same prayer (and the prayer could be biblical and God-honoring) and I could respond completely differently to them. Why? Because I like the one and am standing in judgment of the other. Monitor your heart when praying with others. And be ready to repent.
9. Beware of competitiveness in corporate prayer. Corporate prayer is not a competition to see whose prayer is more smooth or verse-saturated or insightful. It's not a competition over anything. It's a partnership and a fellowship. The only people you're competing with are Satan and your own sinful flesh. And by competing with fellow believers in prayer, you're giving in to both of them! Watch the inclinations of your heart when you're praying corporately, and guard yourself against slipping into competitiveness. If you're more gifted in speaking, don't think too highly of yourself and don't devalue those who pray in more simple language. If you tend to pray longer than others, don't think that that's necessarily a sign of spirituality. And if you feel intimidated by the prayers of others around you, recognize where you need to grow (and work on those areas), but don't try to match them and in doing so not be yourself. Sincerity and fervency and accuracy are more important than lingo and length.
10. Remind yourself constantly that those who pray to impress others will have no reward in heaven (Matthew 6). I know that a massive issue in corporate prayer is that of mentally formulating your own prayers while other people are praying theirs. I think it's natural to think about what you're going to pray about before you actually pray. And a lot of depends on your own aibilities — some people should form their prayers before they pray them publically because they won't be very coherent or clear otherwise. That's fine, and it honors the Lord if done from a pure and sincere heart. But if you're like me, the issue is usually one of wanting to sound good as you pray. So remember as you begin to create sentences and manufacture phrases and hope for "mmm's" from the other people around you as they hear your prayer, you will impress them ("you have your reward in full"). But you won't please God.
This is a lot longer than I was planning on it being. If you have any thoughts specifically about corporate prayer, please share them in the comments.