“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
If we apply this principle to prayer, I would suggest that Mr. Holmes was right and wrong. There is value to simplicity, the fundamentals of prayer that we discover on this side of complexity, but the greater value, is on the other side. Not one without the other.
Since 1992, I have been involved in some aspect of the prayer movement. For the last twenty years, my role, more or less, has been to assist churches in expanding and deepening their prayer effort. That role has intensified in the last decade – and yet, at times, I feel that the church is still where it was 25 years ago. And that I have failed. We cannot seem to progress past a ‘pray-more attitude, louder and faster, with more scripture and in greater faith, out of holiness and in Jesus’s name’ – and more. All those things are right – but they are simplicity on this side of complexity. Since prayer is so simple, and should remain simple, childlike, we assume, in fact, we insist – “Let’s just pray.” We, the common folks in the church, do not consider a need to examine, study, or develop a theology of prayer. We scratch our heads at such an idea. The seminary professors do the same. A pastor can be trained in an undergraduate Bible College, a Seminary and then complete a doctorate, and never take a class on prayer – and in some cases, not have one in the curriculum available, even if he wanted to choose that course. There is no concentration in prayer. No preparation of the pastor as a man of prayer. Nor is there a training program for directors or pastors of prayer – none. It is ignored, assumed, “Who needs to study prayer – just do it!”
But there is much to study – the psalms offer us rich and unexplored theology in prayer as complaint, prayer as lament – protests against the world as it is, even against God for inaction, against sin and sinners – this needs study. The psalms are filled with worship and liturgical elements of prayer. It contains models of prayer – with five courtroom psalms, language for approaching God and petitioning heaven. It is rich with prose and prayer, with prayer songs and reflections. It offers psalms of order, disorder and new order, with clues for how we navigate life. They end in a kind of transcendent prayer.
Job is an exploration in suffering and the silence of God, and then the God-speak that concludes the book is quite shocking. Indeed, Habakkuk, in a similar fashion demands an answer from God about His use of Babylon, and when God answers the prophet’s summons, Habakkuk learns the meaning of true faith, and from that, Paul draws heavily in writing Romans. Isaiah too is rich with prayer language and images. And there is no basis for exploring a theology of prayer?
There is also a theology of prayer from the teachings of Jesus that rises out of Matthew 5-7, and they rest on the back of the three spiritual disciplines that Jesus puts forth in Matthew 6. Jesus often teaches on prayer. And of course, he gives us model for prayer – not a prayer to be repeated, as we do so often, nearly as much as a template for prayer. Paul offers us so many glimpses at prayer theology, and so many prayers in his epistles to the church. In Colossians, he gives us a model for evangelism. In Philippians, he gives us an extensive teaching on prayer requests – and how to manage them – but this advice is virtually ignored. In Timothy, he offers a concise prayer theology as he mentors the young leader in moving the church to embrace prayer evangelism. James addresses intrapersonal and interpersonal conflict against the backdrop of prayer. The writer of Hebrews explodes prayer theology with the disclosures of Jesus’ ministry in the tabernacle of heaven, and that idea is tied to the Old Testament’s premier model for prayer – the tabernacle of Moses. On and on we could go.
But we stuck – in prayer requests. And we have never even examined the Biblical mandate on such requests. We blindly attempt to recruit other people to do our praying for us. We refuse to wrestle with the deeper, Biblical meanings of prayer and thereby, experience God and His grace. We simply want a quick fix. Until we are willing to get on the other side of simplicity, we will continue to spin our wheels with churches that are dying. Our people will yawn and say, “O yes, prayer is so important …” – but they don’t prayer, nor do they respond to appeals to pray. They understand it on ‘this side’ of simplicity.
We must also grapple with the role of prayer in fulfilling the prophetic decree of Jesus, “My house shall be a house of prayer for the nations.” Our current models of praise and preaching do not come close to fulfilling this charge from Christ. If we are to take his command seriously, we must more deeply consider his meaning. He certainly did not mean to merely add prayer – but that seems to be what we are doing. Believe me, simply praying more will not satisfy this demand. I am convinced that Jesus is again clutching his whip, and, he may soon invade our foyers and overturn our coffee and donut tables and call for an end our entertaining worship and inspiring sermons along with our ministries that are far too self-serving. That possibility seems shocking to us – and, of course, it was a shock to Israel as well.
It is difficult for us to admit, that our churches are in some degree, lesser or greater, of apostasy. The differences between believers and the world are now marginal. Biblical illiteracy characterizes the church. A passion for evangelism is abysmal. Altars are barren. Divorce in some church populations are higher than the secular sector. Moral failures abound among spiritual leaders. Youth are checking out – the Millennials are now distant, not as much in their hunger for some faith, but from the church. Social respect for clergy and for Christianity may be at its lowest ebb in the history of the nation.
Such a church is no longer salt and light – and according to Jesus, such salt is worthless.
And yet, there is no repenting. No remorse. No conviction. No change. Our only hope is renewal that leads to revival and awakening – and such transformation of God’s people and His church is always rooted in prayer.
This article is an excerpt from a white paper, Critical Change Issues in Congregational Prayer Practices, written by P. Douglas Small. Check back next week for more excerpts from this article.