Teach us to pray…

With the exception of Bible reading, few things seem to make Christians feel more guilty than prayer and evangelism. And so, you can imagine how I felt when asked to write an article about both! Yet the more I reflected the more I wanted to share. As we consider three big questions, my hope, to borrow from the disciples, is that God would teach us to pray as we try to say something about him to those we love.

  1. Who?

In any conversation, the most important thing we need to realise is who we’re talking to. If a policeman has just asked us to roll down our car window for “a little conversation”, we are going to be more nervous than if we’ve bumped into a friend. Who we find ourselves talking to impacts the words we say. The same is true with prayer and perhaps especially when we are praying for the lost. When we pray we need to remember that we are talking to our Father in heaven. And what do we know about him? We know that he is a God who seeks out prodigals. Not only that, he is strong enough to save them. After all, this is what he did with us. He is the primary evangelist. He is building his church. As one reluctant missionary eventually learned, “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). When we realise we are simply called to participate in what God is already doing, it changes our perspective.

As well as recognising who we’re praying to, it can be such a help to remember who we get to pray with. In western culture, self-expression and individualism are the air we breathe. You and I are constantly being told that what we think and what we want is ultimate. This can affect our view of discipleship. We may not say it aloud, but we can so easily start to think that the Christian life is simply a set of actions we perform on our own. But one of the great joys of being a believer in Christ is to know we belong to his body. And what concerns one part of the body should concern all of it. This has an important implication for our evangelism. If you have a friend who is not yet a Christian and you share their name and a bit of their background with your brothers and sisters, it not only takes some of the pressure off you, it is a privilege for them to pray for that individual. They may never meet them, but so many Christians came to faith as a result of such people and such prayers. When we think corporately it helps us remember that evangelism is not a competition.

  1. What?

As we pray for those who don’t yet know Jesus there are lots of things we can ask God to do. We can pray that he would speak to their consciences and reveal their need for forgiveness. Only the Holy Spirit can do that work. If they care deeply about injustice, as so many do today, we can ask God to help them see that a sense things should be fair, points to the fact we live in a moral universe. But I want to highlight two other things we can pray for our friends to feel: a sense of the goodness of God and the brevity of life.

We can ask God to give those we witness to a sense of his goodness. In his common grace God showers blessings on those inside and outside his family. The liberal, generous God we know, gives people who are not yet Christians homes, health, happy marriages and more. Yes, there is a crack in this world because of sin, there is darkness, and yet there is also so much that is wonderful. As she approached death, a character in a story C.S. Lewis wrote, said her great longing was “to find the place where all the beauty came from.” For Lewis this was autobiographical. The beauty he saw in creation became a signpost that led him from atheism to faith. We can pray for others to go on the same journey.

We can also pray for the brevity of life to hit home. A few years ago Neil Postman wrote an important book called Amusing Ourselves to Death. Today we could easily replace the first word in his title with another word—distracting[1] So much of modern life seems designed to prevent us thinking seriously about anything. But life is short and death is real and when we come to the end our iPhones will not be much comfort. If Covid-19 taught us anything it was that under our bravado we’re all afraid of death. But when the brute fact of mortality is faced, it can be the first step towards the risen Christ.

  1. How?

There are lots of ways we could put this into practice. In our church we recently started a prayer meeting before our evening service. It lasts half an hour and at the beginning we share the names of people we would love to see come to believe. They range from new colleagues to adult children who once professed faith. Their names are written on a white-board and at the end of the meeting we take a picture to prompt us to pray during the week. It’s not flashy, it feels simple, but there have been encouragements. Above all, it has reminded us of our need for God’s help, something so easy for us to forget.

[1] ‘I’m sure I once read an article online that proposed this change, but I can’t remember where, which kind of proves the point!’