Churches pray. I know they do. But sometimes I feel like they pray as a congregation the way some families pray at mealtime. They’ve got the perfunctory prayers down. They pray when they’re expected to, so that prayer is one of many activities the church does. But, it’s not a way of life. They’re not known for prayer like they’re known for their singing or for their youth programs.
I have no doubt, however, that Luke sees prayer as the church’s way of life, not just one among a number of activities. In Acts, the church does what Jesus does in the gospel of Luke. When Jesus is baptized, only Luke tells us that Jesus is praying when the Spirit descends on him. Only Luke tells us that Jesus is praying when he chooses the twelve. Only Luke tells us that Jesus is praying when he is transfigured. These examples could be multiplied. Clearly, Luke wants us to associate prayer with Jesus. It’s not something he does. It’s his way of life.
In Acts, the church is gathered for prayer when the Spirit descends with tongues of fire at Pentecost. The summary of life post-Pentecost at the end of Acts 2 emphasizes the church’s devotion to the prayers, and in Acts 3 we find Peter and John going up to the temple “at the hour of prayer” (3:1). When people are appointed to a task, there is prayer. When people escape prison, there is prayer. The early believers are a community of prayer.
This one is hard for me, personally. I’m not a great pray-er. Part of it relates to my conflicted views about God’s agency in the world, principally prayer designed to get things or have life break my way, though I believe God invites the concerns of our hearts. I think, however, that prayer is less a way of tracking outcomes and more a way of being mindful of God in any and all circumstances. A prayerful person is a less anxious person. A prayerful person is more apt to be patient, less likely to take matters into their own hands.
So, I am convinced that prayerfulness is necessary for a life attentive to God. And I am convinced that prayer as a way of being still before God and listening is more important than prayer that simply piles up requests. The great prayer-ers I know are good at this. And I am convinced that a congregation should be characterized by more than just its public, perfunctory prayers. Prayer should be its way of life.
I guess I would say that a congregation that has prayer as a way of life does more than pray together as occasion arises (illness, big decisions, crisis or opportunity), but prays as a way of being attentive to the leading of God.