Helping Your People Discover the Praying Life

Desiring God 2011 Conference for Pastors

The Powerful Life of the Praying Pastor: In His Room, With His Family, Among the People of God

Notes taken during the session.

Looking at the Heart of Prayerless People

Twenty years ago, I took my kids camping in Pennsylvania. It was not long until I returned to our car to my teenage daughter who had dropped her contact lens. I said, “Ashley, freeze. Let’s pray.” And she bust into tears and said, “Why! What good does it do?! He doesn’t answer my prayers for Kim!” Kim is another daughter of mine who has several disabilities. Ashley’s response articulates the feeling many Christians have in regards to prayer—what good does it do?

Here are some questions and issues we regularly come across in the prayer ministry I work with.

1. How do you concentrate?
2. What does good praying look like?
3. How do you interface with God?
4. How do you de-program from our American culture?
5. What about my negative feelings?
6. What good does it do?

Our studies have shown that 90% of people in your churches do not have a praying life. Most people feel guilt, confusion and frustration. We ask these same people to articulate a doctrine of atonement and they provide a beautiful description of this doctrine. So on the outside things are working correctly. But internally, there is no functional, ongoing relationship with their Father. This kind of Christianity cannot withstand the onslaught of a postmodern world. It is a tinderbox for cynicism.

Back to Ashley, we did pray and bent down to look for the lens. We looked and there it was, resting on a leaf. The rest of the camping trip was just as challenging. The kids were fighting and complaining and the whole thing was a hassle. I was getting so frustrated. Then it started raining and the tent was leaking tremendously. It was terrible. In the morning we went on a car ride to another park just to do something else.

As the kids slept in the car, I just thought how sweet they looked. I began to get scared because of how the pressure of the trip had brought out the meanness in them and in me. There was no sweetness of Christ in me. And I could easily look into the future to see the road my kids and family could head down. We needed Jesus. And God began working on me first.

I burned out at work a few months later. God used that burnout to humble me profoundly and draw me into the life and death of his son. I’m telling you this story to encourage you to teach your congregation to pray. But they will only learn to pray if you first develop a life of prayer.

Learning a Praying Life: Be a Child

How do you begin to develop a life of prayer? The feeling of helplessness is necessary. Feeling that you are completely unable to do life on your own, to do life without Jesus. God needs to be active in all of the details of your life. I think that is a big reason why Jesus tells us to be like little children. Here are some passage regarding this call: Mark 10:13-16, Mark 9:33-37, Matthew 7:7-11, Luke 10:21, Matthew 21:14-17, John 5:19, Matthew 6:9-13, and Mark 14:36.

The gift of the Spirit is to bring the “Abba, Father” cry into our hearts. Jesus is the most helpless human in history; he was completely unable to do anything on his own. He was profoundly enmeshed with the Father and dependent upon him like a child. To enter into a praying life is to enter into this heart of Jesus.

What does it mean to come like a child in your prayer time? You get out of bed and start praying. It is not long until your mind begins to wander to the problems that you have. You think there is something wrong with you, and there is! You need Jesus. Being a child in prayer means to just come. Children are not tied up in all the details when they come to their parents. They just come.

Jesus says those are weary and heavy laden are to come to him. He doesn’t call the organized and fixed up but the broken. Why do we forget that when it comes to prayer? The dirty, muddy you is the real you. Don’t try to put on the spiritual façade in prayer. You can talk to God about whatever is on your heart, so just come as you are. Be weak and open in prayer before God. It is the same as the gospel. I’m just applying the gospel to your prayer life. We need to learn helplessness. That is what a child reflects.

Now, asking like a child. Think of what a child asks for. They ask all the time; they ask for the silliest things; they ask all the time. In asking God for things in prayer, there are two dangers: asking selfishly and not asking. The first is functional paganism and the other is functional deism. It is easy to fall into not asking because we don’t want to be helpless. Those who do not ask need to ask boldly. Those who ask selfishly need to ask ______.

Praying With a Child

Back to my daughter, Kim. She often would wake early and pace and make noise. This resulted in my wife and I yelling at her to get back to bed. I eventually decided to wake up early with her to go and pray with Kim. When I prayed with her, I knew I had underestimated her own ability to control her behavior and to look to God. I then began to do devotions with Kim and listened to her prayers through the speech computer she has to use. I was struck by how her prayers were marked by thanksgiving.

Later, I had to take Kim to the ER because she hurt her elbow at camp. She began to have a meltdown at the hospital and was signing, “Jesus, help me.” We got back into the doctor’s office and she calmed down. Later we talked about it and she said God spoke to her. And she quoted Scripture.

Story. That is how prayer works. God is active in my life. I’m not in control of these stories. God is discovered in the story of your life. You begin to discover God and yourself.


Repentance. To pray is to repent. That is the story of my life. Things regularly come to mind about things I need to pray about.
Prayer. It is a different way of doing things. It is not a mystical black box out there to be unlocked.

God is alive. The activity of praying ignites this story that unveils God.

Answer. Kim stopped pacing.

It gets bigger. In Lewis’ The Last Battle, when they get into Heaven, the further in they go, the bigger everything gets. Everything is like that with God.

A real relationship.


God’s presence. God is in the shadows and is discovered in our obedience.

Hope. You can start dreaming again. At the hardest moment of Jesus’ life in Gethsemane, he has hope.

I have a devotional time tomorrow morning where I’ll touch on the rest of my points. We’ll also talk about how I use prayer cards to help in my praying.