On Prayer

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

Several years ago I read Gathered to Pray, a book written by a scholar of Christian worship, Dr. Louis Weil. In his book, Dr. Weil points out that most Christians have forgotten the spiritual need for collective prayer and worship. His academic arguments got me to thinking, again, about the nature of prayer and about how we, as Methodist Christians, go about our praying.

It seems to me that, for many of us, prayer has become highly personal; indeed, not just personal, but privatistic. Prayer has been relegated to a private, secluded corner of our lives, a place where we go to hide and talk to God, rarely daring to venture out into the open with our prayers. Just look at us around our dinning tables if you want an example of what I mean: how many of us resist offering the blessing before a meal? Even the “pillars” of the Church hesitate if it means praying in public. As a result, we often hear “Let the preacher do it.”

Now, at first this personal attitude toward prayer may not sound like much of a problem: after all, aren't we supposed be engaged in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? Yes, certainly, but not to the exclusion of the Communion of the Saints.

Before your Protestant senses get all riled up, I ask you to remember that each and every Sunday we affirm from the Apostles’ Creed that we “believe in . . . the Communion of the Saints.” What do we mean when we say this? I will not even attempt to address that question here. Rather, the point I am trying to make is that prayer is never a private affair.

To put it simply, prayer, like the rest of the Christian walk, is personal but never private. Just as we all need the Church -- the community of our fellow believers -- to continue living a faithful Christian life, so also we all need the Church to live a faithful prayer life. In other words: We can never really pray alone. Even when we seem to be praying “alone” -- when we are in our prayer closets, praying “in secrete” -- we are, in reality, praying jointly with countless of thousands of other Christians throughout all of time and space. Prayer is, truly, a corporate affair.

Methodists, however, are among the world’s worst when it comes to maintaining and perpetuating traditions which, while good and meaningful in their day, have become a burden today. This is especially true when it comes to prayer, and especially the pastoral prayer. The purpose of the pastoral prayer is to provide a place in the worship service where the needs and concerns, joys and celebrations of the congregation can be lifted up to God through the Church’s representative: its pastor. There is nothing wrong with this; it is, indeed, a biblical form of prayer. But it is not the only form of corporate prayer that we have available to us in the Body of Christ. There are many other forms of prayer among the “Prayers of the People” that are meaningful for corporate worship, forms which are healthy and meaningful at various times in the life of the Church.

The opportunities for a faithful witness and prayerful life abound, if only we can see beyond what we are already doing to new ways of doing things. Traditions are good, but by adhering to them too religiously we often miss the many opportunities that God sends our way. Quite literally anything is possible, if only we will open ourselves to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Dr. Weil’s book reminded me of this and, while he said it in long-winded academic polysyllables, he was, nevertheless, correct.

Prayer is not just a private affair. It is personal and intimate, it is corporate and public, and it is the calling and work of all Christians. We have many opportunities before us to be faithful in our prayer life. Let’s take hold of them and offer our prayers to God.

© 1995 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.