Our early experiences of prayer and subsequent teachings about prayer have created in us a set of beliefs. A praying congregation helps people examine their beliefs about prayer and encourages them to hold on to the ones that are true for them and to discard the ones that no longer fit. People in a praying congregation do not present their beliefs about prayer as absolute truths that all have to agree with; rather, they engage in dialogue, articulating their beliefs as best they can. As each person offers his or her personal understanding of prayer and others listen carefully, everyone has the opportunity to reflect on their own beliefs. They might ask themselves the following questions:
- Do I agree or disagree with that statement? Is that belief true for me?
- The idea feels true; how can I say it another way?
- What might happen to my prayer life if I integrated that understanding into my belief system?
- Is there another belief that I hold to be true that has not yet been articulated?
- Am I holding a belief that no longer fits? If so, am I willing to let it go?
Examining our beliefs about prayer is exciting and energizing because drawing on our own experiences, listening with our hearts as well as our heads, offers us opportunities to ponder the wonder of prayer. Instead of trying to do this work alone, however, we are wise to reach out to others in our congregation and beyond who are engaged in the search for their own truths. We need to listen to others, hear their wisdom, and allow their experiences to stimulate our minds and hearts. We also need to be in conversation with those who disagree with us as well as those with whom we agree. Different opinions expressed respectfully help us stretch beyond the familiar and into new territory. Such dialogue may be unsettling, for as we examine the way we have been thinking about prayer, we may have to let go of ideas we always believed to be true. When we engage in this stimulating work within our churches, however, we know we are becoming a praying congregation.
Let me share with you my beliefs about prayer to give you a starting place for asking your own reflective questions. Allow these statements to help you discover your own beliefs. Claim your freedom to explore fully what you believe. Agree with me, argue with me, or change my words to fit your experience. Open your heart and mind to the possibility that you do know or you can know what you believe about prayer.
Primacy of Prayer
I believe that prayer is a primary action. I mean this in two ways. The first way is that prayer needs to be first in our lives, so that prayer guides our actions. We tend to be a people who put prayer last. When everything else fails, we turn to prayer. Rather than prayer being primary, prayer often becomes a last resort. To put prayer first does not mean we necessarily offer verbal prayer before we do anything. Understanding prayer as primary action means that prayer and our grounding in God is the source from which we live. We acknowledge that source with gratitude and thanksgiving.
Relationship with God
I believe that prayer is all about our relationship with a God who loves us. Prayer is the way we connect and stay connected to God. We enter into this relationship at the urging of God. God wants an ongoing, vibrant, loving relationship with all of us. God desires us not because we are good or holy or set apart in any way; God calls all of us, just as we are, into relationship and offers us the possibility of intimacy. As in human relationships, intimacy grows over time. It does not usually happen immediately, and we progress in our relationship with God as we do with another person.
I believe that God wants us to bring all of who we are into this relationship. When we bring all of who we are into our relationship with God, we open ourselves to be loved unconditionally. If we hold back, hide, and pretend to be other than we are, we will never know that the love we feel is unconditional. We might believe that if God really knew who we were, God’s love would be withdrawn. This may have happened to us in a human relationship. The love we thought was unconditional was in fact dependent on how we looked, behaved, felt, or thought. If we have been wounded by such an experience, it may be hard to trust again. But I believe that God is not only able to love us as we are this moment, but wants to love us in our full humanness.
Everything a Prayer
I believe that anything we do that honors, strengthens, or deepens our relationship to God can become a form of prayer. Does this mean that anything we do can become a prayer? Yes, but everything is not automatically a prayer. To fashion our actions into prayers, we need to examine our intention for the activity and God’s intention for us. I believe that God intends for us to live according to God’s desire that everyone participate in bringing about the reign of God—a world where justice and peace prevail. With the intention to honor God, we can make everything we do a prayer if our actions contribute in some way to a just and peaceful world.
Prayer and Action
I believe that prayer is not an escape from the world, but rather calls us more fully into the world. The Christian tradition has often divided the things of the spirit from the things of the world, separating contemplation from action. I believe these are false divisions. My experience leads me to understand that prayer and action flow into one another, that they form a circle in which each completes the other. Prayer without action or action without prayer is only half of a faithful life.
A God Who Listens
I believe that God hears our prayers. Trusting that God hears prayers keeps me faithful in prayer. When I experience no answer, I can still keep praying, because I know that God is listening. How or when God answers prayers is unclear to me, and why God seems to answer some prayers and not others is just as puzzling. Someone once said that God answers all prayers with either yes, no, or later. In my experience, that statement is too simplistic, for it ignores the complexities I have witnessed of answered and unanswered prayers. But when I trust that God hears prayers, I am able to keep on praying. God’s hearing means God is with us, even if we do not receive the answer we would like.
The Mystery of Prayer
I believe that prayer is a mystery. Prayer often surprises us. Just as we think we have figured it out, something new and different emerges. In prayer we are in relationship with a mysterious God, because God can never be fully known. Made in the image of God, we too are mysterious and never completely known—by ourselves or our closest friends. Some people find the mystery of God and prayer to be disturbing. I find it exhilarating. As I write these words, I realize that it is the mystery that keeps me writing and speaking and teaching about prayer. There is always more to know and experience. I still haven’t figured it out. I guess if I had, I would have ended this ministry and moved on to other things.
Adapted from A Praying Congregation: The Art of Teaching Spiritual Practice, copyright © 2005 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go toour permissions form.
A Praying Congregation: The Art of Teaching Spiritual Practice by Jane E. Vennard
“I believe that God is calling all of us into deeper prayer and is longing for our congregations to become places of prayer,” writes Jane E. Vennard. Pastors and others who want to develop their skills as teachers of prayer and spiritual practices will find in this book not only wisdom for themselves but easily accessible lesson plans, so that they can share Vennard’s insights with others while infusing the activities with their own spirit and creative ideas.
Traveling Together: A Guide for Disciple-Forming Congregations by Jeffrey D. Jones
By becoming congregations of disciples, churches and their individual members will prepare themselves to do the hard work of seeking God’s will and discerning God’s call, finding new possibilities in old answers as well as radically new ways to be and to do church. Jones guides readers through what it means to be a disciple, from key experiences that contribute to the growth of disciples to the practices of disciple-forming congregations.