The church is not Hogwarts, where we go to learn the right words to say when we want stuff or when we want something to happen.
And I don’t want anyone to get that impression.
When I pray in public, even (especially) in church, I may jot down a few notes, but when it comes time to pray it’s going to be me and the Holy Spirit – hopefully not in that order. Sometimes it’s going to be a bit (or a lot) rough, but hopefully I’m modelling for those I’m praying for/with that you don’t have to talk to God with perfect grammar, nor do you need to sound like a 17th century Englishman with all the thees and the thous and the verbs with “th” or “st” appended (maketh, givest, etc.)
In the book of Romans, we’re promised not just that the Holy Spirit will guide our prayers, not just that the Spirit will give us words when we pray, but that the Holy Spirit will actually pray for us with groans when what we need to pray about is beyond words. Now, I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point in church where I’m groaning the prayers (who knows though!), but I strive to rely more and more on the Holy Spirit, and less and less on myself, when I pray.
Christians don’t do a very good job of explaining all that to folks outside the church. So it’s no wonder prayer looks like superstition – like magical thinking – to them. One of the biggest problems, I think, is when we tell non-Christians, “I’ll pray for you.”
That’s said to be one of the two biggest lies in the world. First is “the check is in the mail.” Second is when a Christian says, “I’ll pray for you.”
Even if we do remember later to pray, when we make that promise then wait until our “prayer time” or worse, if we wait until we get to church, then an unchurched person has no concept of what we are really doing – talking to God out of our hearts, guided by the Holy Spirit, on their behalf.
One of the best pieces of advice about evangelism I got when I was a new Christian was from my wife. She suggested never to say, “I’ll pray for you.” Rather ask, “Can we pray together?”
That didn’t happen to me too much when I wasn’t a Christian.
So, hypothetical atheist/agnostic reader, the next time you’re going through a tough time and some well-meaning Christian says, “I’ll pray for you,” why don’t you freak them out by saying, “How about if you pray for me NOW!” I promise, it’ll be a growing experience for both of you.
What do you have to lose? If prayer is just superstitious magical thinking mumbo jumbo, then all you’ve lost is a couple of minutes. And you’ll have had the satisfaction of making that well-meaning Christian at least a little uncomfortable.
And, hypothetical Christian reader, how about taking a chance and trusting the Spirit the next time you’re led to pray for someone? Offer to pray with them.
What do you have to lose? Maybe a little pride if you don’t say everything the right way or if they reject your offer? Well, since pride is the root of all sin, that might not be such a bad thing. Right?