Part 2: Overcoming the Fear in Prayer
In our last post we wrote that Christians gathering for prayer has gone the way of the eight track and phone booth. Our goal here is not to criticize, but to explore possible cures for this malaise. We quoted a church leader who said “Christians are so afraid of prayer.” Why? One possible explanation is we are simply out of practice, since it’s the professionals who do much public praying for us. We also offered a cure–in short, church leaders return prayer to the people, by the people and for the people.
The Right to Privacy: But this doesn’t really get to the root of folks’ anxiety about prayer, does it? We believe an important cause for our fear of prayer is our growing appetite for privacy, which is now considred a right. Our need for privacy is rooted in this strong value we Americans place on individualism and independence.
Consider that many of us learned at an early age to “stand on your own two feet,” a sentiment echoed by the insistence of our two year old, “I’ll do it myself.” Rugged individualism defines our American spirit. At home we barely know our neighbors. In church we sit by strangers. On the road we drive cars with brand new passenger seats. At Starbucks we twitter to strangers, surrounded by folks we’ll never meet Kids play games by the hour alone while working parents are separated from co-workers by cubicles.
This kind of value on independence, leads to a near-obsession for privacy when it is fueled by electronic technology and its step children, identify theft and Big-Brother-vigilance. But what does all that have to do with prayer? Well, let’s see if the Bible has anything to say on the subject.
Prayer is Private and Corporate. We know Jesus prayed alone on hilltops, but he also prayed in fellowship with his friends. He spoke of the privacy of the prayer closet and gave a special blessing for believers who prayed together, promising his special presence and authority even if only two or three united in his name. (Matt 18: 13-20). We know how early Christians found guidance, comfort, unity and power to witness when they prayed together. They all met together and were constantly united in prayer (Acts 1:13) they were like family to each other, often breaking bread and praying together.(Acts 2:42) (See also 4:31; 6:4; 12:12).
But there are also frequent references to individual prayer. Peter went up on the roof of the house to pray (Acts 10;9) As they stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (7:59). There is strong evidence that private prayer and corporate prayer have a symbiotic relationship. They energize each other. Remove one and the other is greatly weakened.
“Prayer is an Intimate Thing” While agonizing in prayer, Jesus longed for his friends to share intimately in his grief. “Could you not watch with me for one hour?” (Mark 14:37 NLT). The fact that praying together builds intimacy was sharply brought home to me while training for Christian leadership at Cornell University. We were warned about praying alone with a member of the opposite sex. “Prayer is an intimate thing” we were told. “It can lead to other intimacies with serious consequences.” Later a close friend shared with me how praying alone with a boy in college led to her pregnancy.
Praying seriously with one another about important stuff builds and deepens relationships. It breaks down walls that separate us, builds accountability and opens the doors of harmful, hidden things. It is this kind of intimacy that makes praying together scary. For those with a special need for privacy, it’s downright frightening.
Yet we must find a way around it if the cfhurch is to recover it’s power. How can church leaders minister to those of us with a strong preference for privacy? How can they help build trust among members to assist them to overcome anxiety about sharing in prayer? At this point, I’m not sure what the answer is, but I am praying about it and consulting with church leaders about it. Hopefully we will have answers for a future post. Maybe you have some suggestions.