Word study: What does it mean?
The early church devoted themselves to the prayers. Prayer is an English word translated from the New Testament Greek proseuché, the most commonly used Greek word for prayer. Proseuché comes from the Greek words pros and euche. Pros is a preposition that means "toward" or "immediately before," and can convey a sense of closeness, of bringing something immediately before God. Euche is a noun, originally something "spoken aloud" but later came to mean a "wish" or a "vow." In it's most basic sense, proseuché is "a wish or vow brought before God." The word is only used in reference to prayer to God, not to any other person or deity and in a variety of forms, it is actually used in reference to more than just a "wish" or a “vow.”
Prayer is shown in the New Testament to be God’s appointed way that we receive what he has for us (Matt 7:7-11, Luke 11:13). In his letters to distant churches, Paul commanded Christians to be devoted to the practice (Col 4:2) and pray constantly (1 Thes 5:17). According to the book of Acts, prayer is seen at the very first moments of the early church, being a major piece of their practice and decision making. Prayer was central, not peripheral, in the lives and ministry of the New Testament believers.
Biblical usage: What does the Bible say?
In the New Testament, the word prayer is used for various types of communication with God, some of the main ones being:
Prayer of Faith
"And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven" (James 5:16).
Prayer of Request (also know as petition or supplication)
"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let you requests be made known to God" (Phil 4:6).
Prayer of Thanksgiving
"We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you" (Col 1:3).
Prayer of Worship
"While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off" (Acts 13:2-3).
Prayer of Consecration (also known as dedication)
"And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, 'My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will'" Matt 26:39).
Prayer of Intercession
"First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people" (Tim 2:1).
Prayer of Imprecation
"But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed" (Gal 1:8-9).
"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to you Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matt 6:5-6).
Corporate prayer (with others)
“Pray then like this:
‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil’” (Matt 6:9-13).
In church history: How did it get to where it is today?
Reading the Bible front to back, you will see various changes in the practice of prayer. Ancient Israelite prayers toward the beginning of the Bible were informal and conversational, often spontaneous reactions to personal events or experiences. The introduction of the tabernacle and priesthood naturally invited formal public worship. With time, they instituted regular public readings of the Torah. The Jewish people prayed from the Torah (ex. Psalms, Shema) and formulated prayers (ex. Amidah) to be regularly recited by the people.
Early Church and Patristic Eras
While the Bible is full of example of prayer, it provides no direct instruction on how to pray until Jesus offers it in the New Testament. As the God-man, Jesus both teaches and exemplifies the ideals of Christian prayer in all its forms.
A major shift that happened in the early church was a move away from the recitation of long-winded Jewish prayers to a simpler, more heartfelt communication. Jesus taught that genuine prayer did not involve “babbling like the pagans” (Matt 6:7) to garner God’s attention, for God is eager to hear the prayers of His people and knows their needs before they ask for them (Matt 6:8). Although they kept the practice of planned, corporate prayers, their planned prayers were often shorter and to the point. Just like Jews recited the Shema at fixed times each day, early Christians prayed the Lords Prayer morning, mid-day, and evening.
While God was referred to as "father" several times in the Old Testament, he is never addressed as such. Jesus’ address of God as “Abba, Father,” communicates an intimacy with God that was absent from Jewish prayer of his day (Mark 14:36). Paul taught his readers that the use of “Abba, Father” in prayer signified their adoption as children of God (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6)
Divine assistance in prayer from the Holy Spirit is another distinctive characteristic of Christian prayer in the New Testament. Whereas the prophets, priests, and holy men of Jewish tradition served as intercessors between God and His people, so now the Holy Spirit serves as intercessor (Acts 2:38; Rom 8:15–17; Eph 2:18), filling us with biblical praise (Eph. 5:18–19), and helping us whenever we ask the Father (Luke 11:13). When we are too weak for words, the Spirit even groans for us (Rom 8:26).
A couple hundred years after Jesus, a man named Origen counseled that good prayer consisted of four components: ascriptions of glory to God through Christ, common thanksgivings, a recitation of personal sin, and then "the asking for the great and heavenly things, both personal and general." This teaching by Origen is where we get the "A.C.T.S Model" of prayer (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication) that is still practiced today.
Religious practice in medieval Europe (c. 476-1500 CE) was dominated and informed by the Catholic Church. Being a part of society in medieval England was in fact the same as being a part of the Church, and up until the Renaissance, the Catholic Church was the only officially accepted church in Western Europe. Everyone's lives seemed to revolve around the church and people, especially women, were known to attend church three to five times a day for prayer.
A distinctive characteristic of prayer in the Catholic church is that they didn't only pray to God. They prayed to virgin Mary and the saints. They didn't believe that those people could actually answer their prayers but they trusted them to intercede for them, to pray to God with and for them.
One way to create unity and to teach doctrine is to standardize prayers, formulating a collection of prayers for all Catholics to recite regularly. Just as kids now are expected to learn and know algebra, kids in the middle ages were expected to learn and know a whole curriculum of Catholic doctrine. Part of their education was having to recite the Lord's Prayer, Hail Mary, and The Apostle's Creed. While standardizing prayers and teaching doctrine are wonderfully helpful and good things, a common critique of medieval prayer practices is that many seemed to allow standardized prayer to overpower honest, personal prayer.
The Reformation and Modern Eras
The protestant reformation had a great impact on the practice of prayer because of a new emphasis on teaching people how to read the Bible, the basics of Christian theology, what to pray, and how to pray. Martin Luther wanted Christian theology to be taught in a way that all people, even the uneducated, could understand with informed prayer as it's end goal. He wanted the people to know who they were praying to and how to use the Bible to shape their prayers.
While Martin Luther warned against the repetitive recitation of memorized prayers, he also frequently taught Christians to use the Lord's prayer to prompt and guide their prayers. Luther's goal was for the Christian to experience a spontaneous and continuous prayer life, one that is shaped by meditation on the Lord's Prayer, the Psalms, and other Scriptures.
In recent decades, our culture has shifted from valuing discipline and obedience to valuing sincerity and authenticity. A lot of Christians don't dare pray a prayer they don't really feel in the moment. If they don't feel like praying, they won't. They can sometimes be afraid their prayers will be "rigid," "fake," or "unheartfelt," so they skip prayer, claiming they will get to it tomorrow.
There are of course people who are disciplined with their prayer. They pray both when they want to and when it feels like a chore. They build a habit of prayer, and with time truly enjoy their time speaking to God. A lot of people see those diligent in prayer and claim they are gifted, leaving it up to the "gifted" people to do the ministry of prayer in the church (praying for the church or attending prayer meetings).
A look at how prayer changed through time is very telling. We have a tendency to overcorrect. If our prayers are irregular and disorganized, we tend to want to standardize and make routines, reciting specific prayers to build a consistent practice. If our prayers become rigid chores, we tend to want to pray only the most heartfelt, spontaneous prayers. In current church culture, from church to church, you will see people on both edges of the spectrum. If we are going to be biblical, we should try to find balance.
In practice: How can we recover the biblical vision for this element?
Our vision for prayer in Life Groups is that every person would have a consistent and authentic practice of prayer. It's easy to use prayer only as a transition to wrap up a Bible study. You know the scenario: You are in a bible study. You just finished talking through the last discussion question, and the leader asks, “Does anybody have any prayer requests?” Someone is going on vacation and wants prayer for safe travels. Another tells the group she has been busy with school and is having a hard time prioritizing her Bible reading. Your group bows their heads in prayer and in 3 minutes, you’re done talking to God. From week to week, we repeat ourselves with the same shallow but real requests and we all know it doesn’t feel quite right. Is this how Jesus or the early church prayed? Is this the Biblical vision for prayer in community? Our hope is that our groups will go deeper—deeper with one another and deeper with God. Below are just a few basic principles to help your group pray:
Pray on your own
Often, the reason that corporate prayer seems to be shallow is because private prayer is infrequent. Prayer is a practice that takes time, discipline, and work. The more we pray, the more we will be comfortable praying with others. Ask individuals in your group if they are praying on their own and encourage them to to make a regular practice of personal prayer.
Praying together builds up everybody’s practice of prayer. Not only does everyone get to hear others peoples' prayers and agree with an “amen,” but when we hear what other people pray for and how they do it, we are learning how to pray!
Pray for each other
We are really bad at remembering prayer requests. For a lot of us, if someone asks us to pray for them, we say we will and then go about our day and forget to actually talk to God later on their behalf. Let's be a people who pray for each other with each other. When someone shares something with you or with the group, stop what you are doing and pray. There is nothing more worthy of your time than to talk to God in that moment. Everybody involved will be encouraged and God will be glorified.
Let Scripture guide your prayers
After finishing the week’s teaching/discussion time, keep your Bible’s open and use that week’s scripture passage to inform and guide your time in prayer. Pray for help obeying any commands, praise God for the truths revealed, thanking him for who he is and what he has done. If your group has discerned the “big idea” from the passage, pray for it to transform you and your group. The Bible doesn’t only shape our prayers—It contains a collection of prayers, 650 to be precise (yes, somebody counted) that we can read through and speak to God in prayer. Christians from every time period have crafted prayers and wrote them down to share with others (ex. Valley of Vision - a Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions). Praying pre-written prayers can be especially helpful when we don’t know what to pray for.
Resource by: Wyatt Brandt
1. Barry, John D. ed. Lexham Bible Dictionary. Lexham Press, 2016
2. Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. 1934, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1971.