A few years ago while attending seminary, I lamented during one of my classes about my congregation’s lack of spiritual vitality. I was critical of what I believed to be a fairly lackadaisical approach to, and a somewhat perfunctory practice of, prayer in the local church that happened to be calling me “pastor” at the time.
When the end of the class period necessitated the conclusion of my self-righteous rant, I was packing up my books and preparing my exit when one of my classmates, himself a pastor from another denomination, called my name and motioned for me to drop by his desk.
When I arrived, he asked me one simple question: “What’s your prayer life like?”
My response was silence, the kind of silence one utters when one has nothing to say, the silence of one who stands convicted. I had been so busy wringing my hands over the lack of a vital-prayer-life-like spec in my congregation’s eye, that I had failed to consider the fragmented-prayer-life-like sequoia in my own eye.
Sometimes the best sermons don’t come with clever quotes or engaging stories. And sometimes the best sermons don’t follow the pattern of a creative narrative or a compelling apologetic. Great sermons don’t have to take up 15 or 30 minutes, or even an hour or more to get the message across.
Sometimes a great sermon can come in the form of a simple question.
One way to critique the quality of a sermon is to consider its ability to continue to work on the hearer after preacher has shook the last hand at the door on Sunday morning. Does it continue to bounce around in the minds of those who heard it by supper time on Sunday afternoon? Does it continue to encourage, disturb, or haunt hearers throughout the week?
Using a sermon’s continuing life as one criteria, I believe the one-question sermon I received in the seminary class that day, may have been one of the best I’ve ever heard. Because, here it is, years later, and the question still haunts me to this day. “What’s your prayer life like?”
If you’re like me, and most Christian believers I know, your prayer life is probably not as strong as you would like it to be. A consistent and meaningful prayer life is a discipline, it requires work, and continual effort.
A strong prayer life requires attention and practice each and every day. I can’t live off of last week’s, or even yesterday’s faithful prayers. And I need a variety of prayers in my life. I need the prayers of the church. I need to pray in community. I need pray extemporaneously from the heart. I need to pray the liturgical prayers of the church. I need to pray the prayers of the early church fathers and mothers. I need to pray the Psalms.
I need to offer prayers of intercession on behalf of others. I need to pray when I’m alone. I need to speak my prayers out loud. I need to speak prayers quietly in my heart. I need to pray without words at all - I need simply to come before the Lord in silence. I need to practice listening to God’s still small voice in prayer.
I’ve learned over the years that I don’t need to look in the self-help section of the book store to help my prayer life. There are no secret strategies, no magic pill. I simply need to practice my prayer life every day. I will never perfect it. So I must continually practice praying!
I’ve also learned that I can never hope to encourage my church to be faithful in prayer, until I have faithfully responded to the one-question sermon that still haunts me today. Feel free to let it haunt you too…
“What’s your prayer life like?”