There is a mystery to the way prayer works. Often the Biblical commands about prayer and the Biblical narratives about prayer seem to be at odds with one another. Prayer often feels like a two-sided coin.
This semester I would like to compare and contrast the different sides of the coin when it comes to the mystery of prayer. In so doing, I hope you can identify ways that you could grow in your own prayer life.
Those who emphasize personal prayer find support for their position in verses like this in Luke, where Jesus models personal prayer by continually slipping away to spend time with His Father. Clearly Jesus’s personal prayer life was very meaningful and important to him.
But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. Luke 5:16
Jesus not only modeled personal prayer, He also taught his disciples to spend time with God in private. In his most famous sermon, he told the disciples not to pray in public if it was done to be seen by others, but to develop their personal prayer life in the privacy of their own homes.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:5,6
Truth and Pitfalls in Personal Prayer
It’s hard to argue that personal prayer is not a vital part our relationship with God and our spiritual growth. Clearly God wants us to come to Him privately, like a son with a Father. Like any of our relationships, conversation is important. It is how we get to know one another. Those who value personal prayer are sure to see their relationship with God strengthened.
However, there is also a communal aspect of prayer. Just as we draw close to God in personal prayer, we can also grow close to others in corporate prayer. Those who never make time to pray with others miss out on one of the most important God-ordained ways God has given us to fellowship.
Corporate prayer is meant to be a way for us to share our burdens with one another and to minister with one another. In addition we also learn how to pray more by listen to and praying with others. When we pray with others who care about different things than we do and thus pray about them, we grow to share in their burdens and care about and pray about things we would normally not pray about in our personal prayer life.
Those who limit their prayers to personal prayer are also prone to privatize their faith. Sometimes they can adopt a “me and God” only attitude. They think they can have their own relationship with God apart from fellowship with others. Biblically, there is no room to live this way. We are never meant to pursue a relationship with God apart from the church.
Those who emphasize the importance of corporate prayer find their support in verses like these in Acts, where the church models corporate prayer. It was clearly the pattern of the early church to pray together corporately. Corporate prayer is how the church was birthed and how it continued to grow.
They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. Acts 1:14
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Acts 2:42
After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. Acts 4:31
Not only did the early church model corporate prayer, the apostles taught the churches to do the same. Paul taught Timothy, a young pastor, that he should get the church praying together. He urged them to gather everywhere, to gather together in united prayer.
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. I Timothy 2:1,2
Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. I Timothy 2:8
Truth and Pitfalls in Corporate Prayer
It hard to argue that corporate prayer is not a vital part of growing fellowship in the church. It, too, is an important part of our spiritual growth. Clearly God wants His people to come together in prayer, to minister to each other and to pray into the vision of the church. Those who value corporate prayer are sure to see their community grow in intimacy with one another.
However, there is also a personal aspect of prayer. Just as corporate prayer bring believers close to one another, personal prayer grows us close to God. Those who never make time for personal prayer miss out on the intimacy that comes from spending time with God alone.
Personal prayer is meant for us to develop our own unique relationship with God. God knows us as individuals and ministers to use personally in special ways when we make time to be with Him. When we pray personally, we learn to relate with God privately. Just as we need one-on-one time to grow more intimately with a friend or a spouse, we need the same time to get to know God more personally.
Those who limit their prayers to corporate prayers are prone to make prayer more of a religious duty. Sometimes, like Jesus said in the passage above, they can pray to simply be seen by others or to earn favor with God. Corporate prayer cannot be sustained by someone who is not spending time with God personally, nor should it.
Justin Christopher is the National Campus Director for Campus Renewal Ministries and the author of Campus Renewal: A Practical Plan for Uniting Campus Ministries in Prayer and Mission. He gives leadership to the Campus House of Prayer and the missional community movement at the University of Texas.