Why Americans Are Terrible At Prayer
Where would you like to grow as a Christian? I’ll answer it for you. Prayer. How did I know? I’m an American Christian writing to other American Christians.
I have a theory. The American Church, in particular, is terrible at prayer. Have you ever visited churches in other cultures? I bet you were amazed by the way they pray. Do you have people from other cultures in your church? I bet they are known in your congregation for their prayer life.
I rarely meet an American Christian who isn’t frustrated with prayer. And I’m one of them. Every summer I build in a few days of complete solitude—no technology, no community, just alone with the Lord. You would expect these days to be renewing, and in many ways they are, but they are also disturbing. Every time I try to retreat and pray, I am confronted by my inability to retreat and pray.
What’s wrong with us? I truly believe it’s a cultural issue. Culture is not to blame, but culture is certainly formative. And the philosophies, values, and habits of American culture are completely antithetical to the practice of prayer. I’ll name a few.
AMERICA IS INDEPENDENT.
At its core, prayer is an act of dependence. It assumes inability and looks to another for help. Is there anything less American than that? We are a nation built upon the spirit of rugged individualism. Forge your own path; choose your own destiny; with a strong work ethic and determined spirit you can do and become anything. Prayer says the opposite. Prayer says you are at all times a dependent creature, and all that you have, including your very breath, is given and sustained by your Creator. America is independent; prayer is dependent.
AMERICA IS LOUD.
Prayer is deeply contemplative, silent, and still. It requires quiet spaces and quiet hearts—basically the opposite environment of America. The rhythms of our culture have always been fast and noisy, but there used to be an ability to escape from it all. Now technology has brought the noise into our silent hours and sacred spaces. Addicted to the stimulation of iPhones, social media, and Netflix, we find even a few minutes of complete disconnected silence incredibly disturbing. How then can we ever be still and commune with God in prayer? Sadly, the answer is: we can’t. And we don’t. America is loud; prayer is contemplative.
AMERICA IS IMPATIENT.
To pray is to submit to the ways and timing of God’s good providence, which necessarily requires patience. In fact, Scripture gives us a picture of a God who intentionally forces His people to wait upon Him. This is wholly incompatible with America’s thirst for instant gratification. But God’s ways are not our ways. His providence will not fit into our highly organized and structured society with its systems and technologies designed to maximize efficiency. He doesn’t answer prayer like Siri, which is why we get frustrated with prayer, which is why we quit praying. America is impatient; prayer is patient.
AMERICA IS SECULAR.
Prayer is the language of unseen transcendence. It is a bold declaration that there is more to existence than what is discernable to the five senses. America (and this is a recent development) sees that as wishful thinking at best and delusional at worst. Along with the rest of the modern world, our society is now a secular society. It’s not only acceptable to believe and live as though there is no God, it’s the reigning assumption. Prayer may be good as a meditative exercise, but it’s nothing more than that. We would obviously disagree, but we cannot escape the influence of our irreligious world. At times we wonder, “Am I crazy? Is God really there? Was that really God answering prayer or just a coincidence of nature?” We are besieged by the cynicism of our secular age, and it shakes our confidence in prayer. The next step is to abandon prayer altogether, which is where many find themselves. America is secular; prayer is spiritual.
Do you see the dilemma? Prayer runs counter to life as we know it, so we shouldn’t be surprised that prayer is such a struggle for us. So what should we do? We should pray. I truly believe, and have discovered in my own life, that practicing prayer is the best way to fall in love with prayer. It’s won’t be easy. It will require hard work and discipline (which are American virtues, so at least we’ve got that going for us). But eventually a new world will open up to you that is so much better than the independent, loud, inpatient, and secular world you inhabit. And you will find yourself longing more and more for this new world that only prayer in the presence of God can offer.
Here are some tips that might be helpful…
- Create sacred time. You need untouchable time where you force yourself to give prayer a try. That may be one large block of time, or it may be 10 minutes in the morning, midday, and evening. Whatever works for you, put it on your calendar and fiercely guard it.
- Create sacred space. It could be a closet, a sanctuary, or under a tree; just find a space you enjoy and make it your spot. Also, part of making a space sacred it to set it apart from outside distractions. Turn off your cell phone, iPad, etc.
- Don’t get frustrated. Your thoughts are going to wander and at times you won’t even know what to say. It’s okay. In fact, not being in control and even knowing what to do is good for you. Also, don’t expect a mountain top experience. Learn to be content in the ordinary and mundane rhythms of a prayer life.
- Use the prayers of others. Don’t feel pressure to come up with profound and novel extemporaneous prayers; God is certainly not expecting that from you. It’s okay to use the language and prayers of the Body of Christ. Of course the best place to turn to are the Psalms, but there are many great prayer books and prayer guides out there. I’ve enjoyed The Valley of Vision, The Divine Hours, and Face to Face,
- Pray in community. The best way to learn to pray in private is to pray in community. First and foremost this means corporate worship, but also you could form a prayer group. I truly believe that we need less Bible Studies and more prayer gatherings. Instead of getting together with your friends to discuss a study, get together and do nothing but pray for an hour wherever God leads you. Our pastoral team does this weekly, and it has been invaluable in my life.
Every Christian struggles to pray, but for American Christians the struggle is compounded. This only means we must strive all the more to become women and men of prayer. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. As you pray, pray for your pastor. I would love to practice what I preach.