Ten Myths Pastors Believe About Prayer (Part 1)
In essence, myths are false beliefs. Myths range from a belief in the flatness of the earth to one’s insistence that he is a worthless human being. Over the centuries, various people have believed such lies, or myths, to their own embarrassment or even their own destruction.
The apostle Paul predicted that in the latter days people would turn aside from truth and believe in myths. This is why he urges in 2 Corinthians 10:5 that we bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.
All pastors need to make this the purpose of their minds, because they are not immune to myths, either. Unfortunately, in prayer ministry over the years I have found some false beliefs that exist among pastors about prayer and about prayer ministry. However, it is my hope that, in discussing these myths, we together can dispel some of them. If they can be dispelled, I believe significant progress can be made in the arena of prayer.
Myth #1: The people in my church know how to pray.
This is a particularly dangerous myth. This myth says that a pastor does not need to teach his people how to pray because the Holy Spirit does that. Some may even say prayer comes intuitively and does not really need to be learned or taught. The foundational thought is that a pastor’s time and resources would ultimately be better spent elsewhere, like in the teaching the Word.
But let us take this same line of thought with the ministry of the Word. A pastor can say that he does not need to teach his people the Word because the Holy Spirit teaches them. It is true that the Holy Spirit teaches the Word, but he uses the context of the church and pastoral leadership to do that. It is much the same with prayer. We learn to pray by praying with others together.
It is interesting to note that the only recorded instance in the Gospels of the disciples asking Jesus to teach them to do something was their request, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1, NKJV).
It is my opinion that most of the people in our churches really don’t know how to pray. They have not taken Jesus’ example seriously, and they have misinterpreted Scripture. Instead, many have turned prayer into an emotional vent, or a gossip session, or simply just telling God our laundry list of wants.
I also think that there are people sitting in our pews that are dying to know how to pray but with no one to show them how to pray by praying with them. I am fully convinced that the only way you learn to pray is by praying. The best way you learn to pray is by praying with others who have maybe prayed a little more than you have. Clearly there is a lot of learning that is to take place if effective prayer is to be the norm in our churches again. Fortunately, we can help each other in this goal because we’re always being mentored when we pray together.
Even if it were true that a pastor and his people already know how to pray, loads of statistics suggest that they simply don’t pray much at all. Research by Peter Wagner indicates that the average pastor in America spends less than thirty minutes a day in prayer. Other recent research from Denver Seminary professor Bruce Demarest puts this estimate at approximately seven minutes per day, with the average Christian spending five minutes per day in prayer. In addition, Jonathan Graff, editor of Pray Magazine, notes that, at best, five percent of churches have a significant mobilized prayer ministry. When was the last time you got together spontaneously with your Christian friends and just prayed?
Again, I think many pastors assume that their people already know how to pray and that teaching them to pray is superfluous. Prayer is just instinctive because everybody prays, they may say. Yes, everyone like a child to its parent knows how to cry out to God, but if you look at a biblical definition of what prayer is (fundamentally depending on God) and the way it ought to be impacting our lives, the fact of the matter is that the people of the church largely don’t know how to pray.
Paul himself said in Romans 8:26, “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” This doesn’t mean the believer passively lets the Holy Spirit do everything for him. He must learn to pray himself, and the way to do that is from other believers. Of course, this verse uses all plural pronouns, which means this concept was conveyed to the Roman church en masse. Clearly, Jesus and Paul refute the notion that Christians know how to pray on their own.
Here’s an instance of how true prayer can change a church and community.
Myth #2: We do not need (corporate) prayer to have an effective ministry.
A lot depends here on how we define effective ministry. If we define it in terms of bigger church buildings, more programs, or more congregants, we fall short of what effective ministry is supposed to look like in the church. What we really need when we talk about effective ministry is a vision for real revival and an astounding sense of the Spirit of God doing things that only he can do. There is a difference between sailboat ministry and powerboat ministry. Sailboat ministry brings glory to the power and mystery of the wind (the Spirit is called a mighty, rushing wind), while powerboat ministry brings glory to the engine that man has created.
There is a direct connection between extraordinary prayer and church health. Researcher George Barna demonstrates several points about this. First, North America is the only continent in the world in which the church is not growing. Second, there has been a consistent decline in church attendance in North America over the past decade. Finally, two-thirds of pastors strongly agreed that spiritual revival is the single most pressing issue facing the church in America today. As I have already mentioned, prayerless-ness in America is rampant. Therefore, it is no wonder church growth has grinded to a halt. We don’t pray much anymore, and we don’t think we need to do so to advance the Gospel.
According to Outreach Marketing, a Christian research and advertising firm, 500 billion dollars has been spent on ministry in the U.S. in the last 15 years with no appreciable growth in the impact of the church. Church attendance has actually decreased 9.5% in the last 10 years, while the overall U.S. population has increased 11.4%. In 2001, half of all churches in America did not add one new member through conversion growth. This stands in stark contrast to the daily adding and multiplying of the members of the church in the Book of Acts. 85% of American churches are declining or are at a plateau. Of the 15% that are growing, most are doing so at the expense of other churches. This means that much of the “growth” that is happening is when believers switch from one church to another church (like when a Christian family moves to a new area or switches denominations). Fresh converts to the faith in 21st Century America are few and far between.
In 2013, it is apparent that we have never had more money, technology, talent, formal training, leadership textbooks, or educational resources at any time in the history of the church than we do today. Yet our impact here in America continues to diminish. We pour extraordinary resources into programs and new methodologies, but we seem to fall further behind because of our neglect of prayer. We are trying so hard with so many of our resources and tools to impress this culture and impact them for the Lord, yet we are not making a difference.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not against using the tools. Tools like bigger auditoriums, technology, carpet on the floors, and even air conditioning are all good and well. But there’s a difference between using the tools and depending on the tools. When we depend on bigger buildings and better sound systems instead of on the living God, we lose our focus. There is a certain glitter and allure to technology that would seem to render its omission impossible. After all, who wants to go to a church that doesn’t have a big screen or air conditioning? But there again emerges the difference between use and dependence. Another way to understand this difference is in the contrast of the end and the means. When tools like technology are ends in themselves (or things to be sought because of their inherent value), there is a problem. But when tools are a means to some other end (i.e. the glory of God), tools become a great resource without being supremely sought.
If so much depends on God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, then we should be spending much more time in prayer than we are currently. Five minutes a day is not enough time for us to properly acknowledge the glory and majesty of God and beseech him for his power in our ministries. And we should be praying together, not just privately. God is our heavenly Father. Like an earthly father, we must talk to God in respect and submission to sustain the relationship we have with him.
For me, the myth that prayer is not necessary to perform effective ministry concerns the glory of God in the church, and specifically whether it is there or not. The church is a supernatural community. When the church is doing its job and unbelievers are coming in and seeing the church for who it really is, the unbelievers sense what God is doing there. They then fall on their face, and the secrets of their hearts are exposed. They say, “Truly God is among you.” I believe that ought to be the mark of effective ministry: the manifest presence of Christ in our midst.
As we look to the future of the church, we must incorporate prayer into our daily modus operandi, so to speak. We must pray that God will move among the new generations of young people, who are the leaders of future times. These new generations have an interest in the supernatural and a fascination with spirituality. Young people are looking for answers, and they are not finding them in the church. They are leaving the church in huge numbers, many of whom may never return, even if they have grown up attending church. Oftentimes we are trying to impress them with their own game, using technology and other modern tools, which they are clearly better at understanding than older generations are. Instead, we should be impacting them with our game, which is the manifest presence of the power of the living Christ in the church. Of course, this is always directly related to prayer. As tech-crazy as young people are these days, I doubt they would stop attending a church where Christ is truly doing amazing things just because the church’s technology is not up to par.
Myth #3: Private prayer is more important than corporate prayer.
People ask me all the time, “Which is more important: private prayer or corporate prayer?” My answer is yes, both are important. We need both legs to walk on. However, most people in our church are primarily hopping on only one leg, private prayer, and it’s pretty lame. Then we wonder why we’re not running the race. It’s because we haven’t learned the power of prayer in the corporate setting.
The Book of Acts is crucial in understanding how the church is supposed to operate. Acts 2:42 says, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” It is impossible to miss the prevalence of the community of believers in this verse, and in the entire book of Acts, for that matter. Everything mentioned above, including the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayers, was experienced in community. Believers could not download the apostles’ teaching to their iPods and listen to them anytime they wanted. If they missed Peter’s latest teaching, they missed it for good. In this context, prayer also had to be experienced in community. This does not mean prayer was never done privately; nevertheless, the early believers highly valued corporate prayer.
Acts 1:14 also mentions corporate prayer. “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.” In the early days after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, turning to fellow believers was important for everyone in the church. Most everything the twelve disciples had personally experienced with Jesus had been in a group setting. Since Christ was no longer with them in person, the early believers needed each other to press on in the faith. Without this strong community, Christianity would likely have died out because of lack of communication and fellowship.
Consider if each believer in Acts went his own way, trying to figure out Christianity by himself. As farfetched as this sounds, this scenario is not unlike what many American Christians experience today. Gene Getz, in his (year of book?) book Praying for One Another, makes some keen observations about how we have subjected the biblical teaching on prayer to our bias, rather than testing our assumptions by the original intent of the Scriptures. He writes,
It is understandable why so much has been written and presented on personal prayer. But why have we neglected the corporate emphasis on prayer found in the Book of Acts and the Epistles? Since this biblical content relates specifically to the life of the church, the body of Christ, it’s here we discover the most relevant biblical teaching on prayer for 20th century Christians.
Getz describes his take on why corporate prayer has been deemphasized. Western civilization, he says, is highly characterized by rugged individualism.
Because of our philosophy of life, we are used to the personal pronouns “I” and “my” and “me.” We have not been taught to think in terms of “we” and “our” and “us.” Consequently, we individualize many references to corporate experience in the New Testament, thus often emphasizing personal prayer…Don’t misunderstand. Both are intricately related. But the personal dimensions of Christianity are difficult to maintain and practice consistently unless they grow out of a proper corporate experience on a regular basis.
This rugged individualism affects everything we understand about spirituality. We even read the Bible through a lens of rugged individualism. Modern American culture advocates the freedom of the individual to do whatever he wants in life. The whole idea of the American Dream is to be unfettered in pursuing a successful career. But in the days of the early church, such individualism did not exist. According to Gett, there are more commands in the New Testament about praying together than there are about praying individually. It is clear, then, that an integral and powerful part of the Christian experience is corporate prayer.
Private prayer and corporate prayer are not polar opposites, as we sometimes believe. There is a private aspect of public praying: the motives of the heart. One must decide personally to pray in a group. Instead of an “either-or” dynamic, I would suggest a “both-and” dynamic. Praying corporately sets the private heart aflame with thought, musing, and reflection of the glory of God and the sinfulness of man. So there can be some very deep, intimate things going on inside that may not be verbalized, but are still very real. Unfortunately, sometimes the devil has us right where he wants us, struggling alone in our closets, not knowing how to pray. Pastors sometimes also tell their congregation they can figure praying out on their own, but we’re not learning how to do it. We’re missing the power of the “both-and” there. Again, we’re trying to run the race on only one leg, private prayer. In reality, corporate prayer is also very personal.
Part of the reason I think private prayer is more common than corporate prayer in America is that there is a discomfort in group praying that has not allowed us to experience intimacy because we have not done it enough. Some of the most intimate and deep things I’ve ever experienced in prayer have been in the context of a group (specifically, a gender-specific small-group time of people bearing their burdens). We in America suffer from Spiritual AIDS: acute intimacy deficit syndrome. The individualistic bent in modern life reduces intimacy between and among human beings, especially at the group level.
On the other hand, Korean culture emphasizes the group and collectivism. Korean believers in particular cannot understand why Americans pray by themselves. “Why don’t you always pray together?” they ask. To Koreans, praying together is a necessity.
In one of my other books, I take all the commands Paul gives about prayer, and I chart them into two options. First, I say how we would understand a verse through the lens of rugged individualism. Second, I say how I believe the early church understood the application of the same verse, which was originally dictated in a community context. Since we tend to apply everything individualistically, a fresh dive into the context of the verses is refreshing and enlightening.
Now I hope I have made clear that both private prayer and corporate prayer have their place. I am not saying never to pray alone. However, in this culture the pendulum has swung way over towards private prayer, and the result is an anemic, spiritually-deprived people that don’t know how to pray because they’ve never done it together effectively. Generally, corporate prayer broadens prayer experience, while private prayer deepens prayer experience. However, this is not necessarily a formula, because in praying with others my prayer life is deepened incredibly. The point is that both private and corporate prayer are necessary for all Christians.
Myth #4: The prayer ministry will grow without my leadership.
The idea of this myth is that the pastor does not need to participate in the process or progress of the prayer ministry of his church in order for it to grow. Inherent in this myth is a flawed idea of leadership. Remember the Acts 6:4 paradigm of leadership? The twelve apostles gave themselves regularly to prayer and the ministry of the Word. They demonstrated the power of praying leaders to catalyze the imagination and involvement of the people in seeking the face of God. The fact is, without a leader pushing a Christian, in many cases the Christian will fall flat in his growth or perhaps even step backward.
The prayer level of a church will never rise any higher than the personal example of the senior pastor. Why is this? The leader represents the best of the entire group. You can’t get better than the best, can you? The twelve apostles led the early church in prayer. This is not to say that Christians who are not leaders are not strong or capable of performing a good work in Christ’s name. However, the concept of leadership is everywhere in the Bible. In the Old Testament, Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, Joshua led them to conquer the Promised Land, and David led various men into battle. In the New Testament, Christ is the head of the church, man is the head of the family, and God is the head of everything. In the mentor-disciple relationship, the mentor is the leader of the disciple. Every leader sets the tone for his followers.
Some apt churchgoers may reply with a statement like this: “Yes, Daniel, but that’s why it’s all about delegation.” Delegation is an exercise of proper leadership. Moses delegated the judgment of lesser cases to save his time for more important matters. The U.S. Supreme Court delegates cases by state and county to the appropriate courts, but the body of nine Supreme Court justices in Washington, D.C. is still the head of America’s judicial system. The pastor is the overarching leader of his church, and as such, he must delegate only what is necessary. Not everything can be delegated. A pastor cannot delegate the leadership of the prayer ministry any more than he can delegate the leadership of the preaching ministry. The administration of the prayer ministry can be delegated, but the leadership is really in the pastor’s heart and hands.
Myth #5: I must be a prayer giant before I can lead my people.
As I mentioned before, pastors need not have spent years in the realm of prayer before they can lead their people there. Pygmies are welcome. Pastors must just start somewhere and be willing to go up from there. How do you become a prayer giant? You pray consistently and powerfully. Who has any idea where everyone in a pastor’s congregation is in this area? The joy of a praying church is that, together, everyone learns how to pray and teaches others to pray at the same time.
I learned a powerful truth once while praying with the staff at my ministry. There is a young lady who had come out of a Buddhist background to Christ just a few years ago. She grew up in a very difficult home in Japan, and she did not have a good relationship with her father. When this young lady prays, she says, “Father, thank you that you are the kind of father who always says to me, ‘Oh, I’m so glad you asked.’” We are always learning in prayer. It goes beyond merely learning what other people say. By praying with your closest Christian friends you can learn their take on the Christian life as well as a new angle into a common truth or concept.
©Daniel Henderson. All rights reserved.
As a senior pastor for over two decades, Daniel Henderson brought prayer-based revitalization to numerous churches. Now, as the President of Strategic Renewal, Daniel is dedicating his full-time efforts to help congregations across the country and world experience renewal. Daniel is sought after for his expertise in leading corporate prayer and has equipped hundreds of pastors through the Praying Leader Coaching Experience. Daniel has authored numerous books on biblical leadership and prayer including, Old Paths, New Power and Transforming Prayer: How Everything Changes When You Seek God’s Face.