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How to Pray for Your Congregation

To support your people in prayer, focus on who God is

When I helped my husband plant a church 30 years ago, I wanted to bathe the effort, and especially the people, in prayer. I felt that unless God was intimately involved in each person’s life, little we did would matter.

In the early days of our church, we were only about a dozen or so families, so it was fairly easy to pray specifically for each of them. I would often ask them about needs they had so I could pray for them.

However, when we began to number in the hundreds, I quickly became overwhelmed with needs. To help deal with that, I formed a prayer group and a prayer chain to cover those specific requests. These greatly helped me share the burden of those appeals, and I felt the weight lift from me personally.

This worked for years, but, eventually I became so weary with requests that even when I shared the burden with others, the prayer requests began to slowly rob me of my joy. I’m an empathetic person who is able to easily feel the suffering of others, so I’d see someone who had a heavy burden and I’d immediately feel the pain they were going through. As I took on more and more of other people’s problems, I began to become so involved in the details of their lives that it was as if I was going through their troubles with them. Yes, we are supposed to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (, ESV), but I felt I was doing a lot of the latter and not much of the former. And the bigger our church got, the worse I suffered over everyone’s deep burdens.

I also noticed something else about prayer requests. Rarely does anyone ask for prayer for the things I wanted to spend my time praying for. I would have gotten up and danced for joy if someone had asked for prayer because they wanted to share Christ with a friend or because they were starting a Bible study and wanted to see it flourish. Instead we were inundated with requests for ill people. For example, this last week people asked for prayer for a relative to overcome stomach pain from chemo, another relative who is learning to walk again after an accident, for someone’s dentures to be comfortable before they go on a trip, that a neurologist will be able to diagnose what is causing a strange neuropathy, and for a colleague whose son was struck and killed by a train.

I’m not minimizing those horrible things—they are deep needs the church needs to recognize and empathize with, but if that’s the only kind of requests a prayer team gets, they eventually become burdensome. So I was losing my joy in prayer and felt it had become a heavy load. And not only that, but I rarely saw answers to those prayer requests.

Finally, I began to search the Scriptures and noticed that the prayers recorded there were quite different from the prayer requests I was constantly aware of. In the Bible I found prayers of lament, repentance, power, victory, courage, and grace. However, most of all, I saw prayers rooted in a mighty God. The prayers in the Bible always land on how great God is. Every problem, every confession of sin, every fear is dealt with by acknowledging who God is and how he is the final victor.

That made me aware that I was not praying biblically. I was simply reiterating to God what he already knew. I explained needs that he was clearly aware of and begged him to take away something that he had allowed for some mysterious purpose I didn’t understand. I acted as if he was powerless against all the evil and heartache in the world and if he just understood the problem, he would take care of it. But clearly he needed me to explain to him what those problems were.

With this realization came a revolution in my prayer life. It’s a good thing to bring our needs to God and to pray specifically, but there is a much bigger need to be so aware of how great and powerful he is that we can trust him with the most awful things that happen to us. What that meant was that I needed to spend a lot more time dwelling on who he is and a lot less time explaining to him what he needed to do.

Let me give you an example of what that change in my prayer life looks like. Suppose Dana asks me to pray for her because she is ill and feeling desperate because of that. In former days, I would have prayed something like this: God, Dana is really sick. Would you please heal her? She is feeling despair and needs to be well so that she no longer feels so depressed. Please help her!

I would pray this every time I thought of Dana and pray it more passionately and desperately each time. The more I prayed, the more panicked I felt that it might not be answered. My anxiety would rise and I did nothing to encourage Dana.

Now when I hear such a prayer request, I pray something like this: God, I simply lay Dana at your feet. It’s nothing for you to heal her, and that’s what we want, but you know what you are trying to do in her life. I trust you in her and ask that she will trust you too.

And that’s all I pray. I simply trust God in his power and goodness to do what is best, no matter what I think that is. When Dana comes to mind after that, I simply lay her at Jesus’ feet again and rest in who God is. What that means for my spiritual life is that instead of feeling discouraged and overwhelmed, I feel confident and free. I am more rooted in God’s character than I am in the needs of people. This has been tremendously freeing and has made me love and trust God more in my own life. It has also brought me a tremendous sense of joy and peace. I enjoy God more and actually want to interact with others rather than avoid them because their needs are too big for me.

As church leaders, we can set an example that is contagious. When we are freed up to pray for others biblically, we help them do the same. Our contentment will be evident to all and we will be pointing to the One who is far greater than any problem we can face.

JoHannah Reardon still prays for people in her church but enjoys it a lot more. Find her family devotional and many novels at www.johannahreardon.com.

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