Praying for the Nation

Our church is taking part in a “Pray31” time of concerted prayer for America during the 31 days of the month of October. October, obviously, begins today, and so they were handing out the programme’s official prayer guides in the service on Sunday.

Frankly, I’m a little disappointed in the guide, but maybe my expectations were unrealistically high.

Excluding the front and back covers, which are almost purely pictorial and add nothing, content-wise, to the publication, the Pray31 prayer guide is 28 pages long, with an introduction of 6 pages, a map in the middle and a 4-page “taking prayer further” guide to cultivating a lifestyle of prayer at the back. This leaves 18 pages in which to cover 31 days, during which time we must cover 50 states, 7 territories and the District of Columbia.

The guide achieves this by the expedient of covering 4 days of praying in a single double-page spread. Each day’s entry contains a title along the lines of “Day X: Pray for States X and Y”, along with little roundels depicting the flags of the states or territories of the day (as a personal side note, for a country that puts flags everywhere, you surely have a lot of ill-conceived, poorly-designed, ugly ones. Montana, Kansas, Nebraska and 2/3 of the rest, what were you thinking?), two suggested prayer points, one of which is almost always “pray for the leaders and churches of these two states or territories”, and a quotation from this or that Christian teacher or passage of Scripture about prayer.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased we’re praying for America. She needs our prayers as much as any other nation. But some aspects of this initiative are leaving me with raised eyebrows at the least.

On a positive note, they’ve done an excellent job of keeping the guide apolitical and interdenominational, and in a country which tends to politicise its religion and has as strong a sense of its various denominational identities as America does, that’s no small accomplishment. My hat’s off to the organisers in that regard.

It’s a glossy, good-looking guide with high production values, evidently produced with an eye to having a pleasing and professional final product. Again, considering some of the amateurish drivel served up by Christian media, this is an achievement of some value. Someone appears to recognise the power of a polished and professional appearance in terms of being taken seriously.

However, in terms of content I’m rather less impressed.

Probably the thing that most bothers me is the lack of real information to fuel informed and specific prayer. The writers of the prayer guide did not even see fit to include the names of the state governors and senators – 3 names from each state – so that we could pray for them by name. You don’t necessarily have to give details of their political affiliation, else I’m virtually certain that some sections of the American church would spend the whole 31 days praying for the electoral success of those of their own party and the overthrow of the others. But some minimal details, like their names, would be appropriate. It would also be appropriate to provide details such as if a particular state’s political leaders are due to retire or step down, if such is known, so that we can pray both for the outgoing incumbent and the process of electing a replacement.

There are no statistics on things like the percentages of people who call themselves Christians, other major religious communities in the state, average church attendance estimates and that sort of useful data. People collect this information, and if we know that a state has 97% of its population claiming the name of Christ but only 0.3% church attendance, it gives us a direction in which to focus our prayers that is different from the direction which would be indicated by a state with a 37% Christian population, 10.8% church attendance and multiple other religious communities.

Information fuels prayer. It’s not easy to pray in the dark, without anything to go by, but if you know that a particular state is a political swing state with a small Christian population that is actively engaged in the cause of Christ, facing opposition from secularists and other religions, it’s easier. You pray for the church’s witness to be effective, for boldness and gracious, winning words and lifestyles on the part of the believers. If you know that a particular state has massive numbers of people who claim to be Christians but who darken the doors of a church about once every 3 years, you pray for an awakening among those who claim to know Christ but who live as though they were atheists.

Sadly, you’ll hunt a long time in this guide if you’re seeking this sort of information. It just isn’t there, and I find that disappointing.

Of course, part of that is the expectation of the guide that participants will “make the effort” to spend 5 minutes in prayer for America.

Excuse me? When did we become such spiritual lightweights that a mere 5 minutes’ concerted prayer became “effort”? Some of the great reformers prayed fervently for hours on end; our Lord and Saviour prayed until He sweated blood. And we think 5 minutes is a stretch.

Worse, we think that a mere 5 minutes will completely turn the nation around and bring about a great spiritual awakening.

Now, I’m not dissing the effectiveness of prayer. If the rather disunited Church in the USA can come together in united prayer for even 5 minutes, there’s no telling what the Lord will do in gracious response. After all, the Will and initiative does rest with Him.

But to set the bar so low almost offends me. How did we let things get to such an ebb?

Is it the perennial modern problem of expecting instantaneous results? We all seem to bow at the altar of Mercury, god of speed, with our hectic lives and our bigger, faster data plans and our instant diet pills. For some, I suppose, if the guide were to ask for even 15 minutes, it would cause many to cast it aside as an impossible goal.

It seems a ridiculously low bar to set – the equivalent of an ankle-level trip hazard to a hurdler – but as a reading of the “Continuing the Journey of Prayer section in the back begins to make clear, this is evidently intended for those who are ingorant. The section’s seven occasions on which to pray includes much that ought to be blindingly obvious – pray when you are facing needs, pray when you have important decisions to make, pray when you face difficulty – and makes me truly shocked that it was thought needful to devote 4 of the book’s 28 pages to this entry-level material.

How did we get to the point where the Church have to be instructed on the basics of communicating with our Father?

But on the other hand, I suppose you have to start somewhere. At least people are going to be praying. And no-one says you have to pray only for 5 minutes. Even if they did, how would they check up?

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