Would you pay someone to pray for you?

Beginning in 2011, the Christian Prayer Center charged people between $9 and $35 to submit a prayer request, promising (fraudulently) that Prayer Center staff would intercede for their need before God. In the center’s four years of operation, 125,000 people sent requests.

When I first read this story, I found myself incredulous. Who would pay strangers for prayers?

But when I look at common posts like this one on Facebook or Twitter, I see a similar phenomenon without the payment plan. People toss their earnest prayer requests onto the Internet, hoping that someone somewhere will bring their concern to God.

Please pray for my sick daughter. Please pray for my job interview. Please pray for my dying grandmother. Please pray for my struggling friend. Please pray our house would sell. Please pray our dog would heal. Would you pray for me today at 2 p.m.? Please?

These websites and posts demonstrate a common—and good—desire: we want people to pray for us. In his letters, the Apostle Paul repeatedly asked first-century churches to pray for him and his fellow gospel workers (2 Cor. 1:11, Col. 4:3, 1 Thess. 5:25, 2 Thess. 3:1). We should ask people to pray for us, but also be willing to take up the important practice of praying with others. Praying together—face-to-face and shoulder-to-shoulder—is one of our most precious privileges.

Paul and his companions knew this. They prayed together when they ate (Acts 27:35-38), when they arrived (Acts 28:15), and when they departed (Acts 15:14). They prayed with prisoners and with prison guards (Acts 16:25-34), they prayed with women and with children (Acts 16:13; 21:5-6). They prayed together constantly, thoroughly, and joyfully (1 Thess. 1:2).They prayed together "night and day” (1 Thess. 3:10).

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “It is in fact the most normal thing in the common Christian life to pray together.”

In college, I attended a weekly prayer meeting at a rural church 20 minutes from campus. That first Wednesday night, I descended the stairs to the church basement and sat alone, waiting for the meeting to begin. At a long table, two farmers and their wives debated superior tomato varieties. Next to them, an elderly couple in matching square-dance outfits smiled cheerfully. A man walked in by himself, explaining that his wife’s mental illness was preventing her from coming that night. Last, a pair of frazzled moms—all car keys and diaper bags—rushed to take a seat.

We read a few verses of Scripture. We exchanged requests. And we took turns praying aloud while everyone else added their “Amen.”

I almost didn’t go back.

Surrounded by near-strangers with whom I seemed to have little in common, the whole thing felt awkward. But, despite my initial misgivings, I continued to show up in that church basement with those praying people.

Wednesday after Wednesday as we lifted one another up to God, the once-unfamiliar people became my friends and, eventually, my family. Like the early church, whose members “devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42), praying together became a central practice of our shared life.

I didn’t have to go. I could have passed along my prayer requests—emailed them to the pastor or called up one of the members. I could have asked them to pray for me without praying with them. And they would have, gladly. But I would have missed out.

Unlike emailing a request or posting one on social media, having to show up at a specific time at a certain place with particular people meant I had to surrender my own priorities for the good of others. Committing to pray for all the requests—not simply ensuring that other people prayed for me—was a valuable act of self-denial. Each of us in that meeting prayed together at cost to ourselves, and in our shared sacrifice we found blessing.

At those weekly prayer meetings we rejoiced with those who rejoiced, wept with those who wept, and took in our own arms the burdens of others (Rom. 12:15, Gal. 6:2). When one suffered all suffered with her, and when one was honored—often in answer to our past prayers—we all shared in the joy (1 Cor. 12:26). As equally needy people, we helped one another to cast our cares on the Lord (1 Pet. 5:7). We experienced mutual love as members of the Body of Christ.

When I prayed by myself, I often found myself questioning whether my prayers rose any higher than the ceiling. But hearing my brothers and sisters bring my needs confidently before the Lord bolstered my own faith. Together in prayer we were a cloud of witnesses directing one another to the listening Father who tenderly welcomes the cries of all his children.

Praying together happens all around us, in church basement prayer meetings and in living room family gatherings. It can be as intimate as two friends praying once a month or as expansive as a community-wide prayer vigil. It can take place on lunch breaks, in carpools, and around kitchen tables.

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And it starts the moment we say not just “Would you pray for me?” but “Would you pray with me?” and not just “I’ll pray about that” but “Let’s pray about that together.”

The Christian Prayer Center has closed, but its website still directs visitors to post their requests at one of 14 other (unrelated) prayer request sites. I’m sure many people will. I think they’ll be missing out.

Let us pray. Together.

Megan Hill’s new book Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer in Our Homes, Communities, and Churches(Crossway, 2016) releases this week.