I was recently away on mission to a place I generally return to every year. It means, as I’m out and about doing the gospel work we’re there to do, we often meet people we have engaged with on previous years. Some of them are locals while others are returning for holidays in a place they frequent. It is especially nice to see those who have been reached on previous years, who professed faith, going on with the Lord in a local church.
One guy, who belongs to a local church, saw us out one day. He came by and said hello and I stopped to shoot the breeze with him. He told me a little about what was going on with him before reeling round to a particular story with the inevitable follow up request, ‘will you keep me in your prayers?’
Now, let’s be honest, who wants to be the guy who says, ‘no. I won’t pray for you.’ It sounds harsh doesn’t it. But even if you say ‘yes’ and pray there and then, to ‘keep me in your prayers’ is a tall order isn’t it?
I am reminded of the numerous times, at our church prayer meetings, somebody insists we stop and pray for someone in particular. Sometimes, it is something to do with somebody within the fellowship that we didn’t know about. That’s all good and I am encouraged that somebody both knows about it and wants us all to pray about whatever it is. But often, it is a request to pray for John – a friend of my brother’s, in-law’s cousin – who happens to have cancer and I promised that the church would pray. We’re not only offering to pray for somebody none of us know at all there, but we’re also tying everybody else in the church to praying for them too! But which of us would want to say no to that? Surely we can spare a prayer for them, no? Let me introduce myself as the antitype of the man from Del Monte.
The same is true when I am frequently called by mission agencies and those who want our church to support their endeavours. Will you add us to your prayer meeting and, maybe, consider supporting us financially? It’s not that I don’t think their work is valuable (though, Christian Donkey Sanctuary Mission Fellowship – sharing the love of Jesus through the good work of caring for sick donkeys – might be stretching it). The issue is that we have a finite amount of resource, both funds and time, and for everyone we choose to give money and time to support we are slashing the money and time we can offer to anybody else we can support. My answer to these cold-calling agencies is always the same: we have mission partners that we support and we want to support them as well as we can in giving and praying. So, no, I will not add them to our prayer list nor send any money.
Only once has an cold calling agency or individual (and I receive such calls frequently), ever not seen the validity of that point. Most recognise that if we are going to support them well, it necessarily means supporting others less well (if at all). Given that we already support others, they can fully see why we can’t credibly support them.
But if we can see that point clearly enough when it comes to mission partners and agencies (and most people do), why do we struggle to see this point when it comes to random individuals we either don’t know at all, know tangentially through others or with whom we have only the vaguest connection? Because the point still holds.
Every individual who asks me to ‘keep them in my prayers’ is inevitably, albeit only slightly, taking me away from doing just that with those I am, and rightly should be, committed to praying for. And how many of those little requests does it take to entirely dominate your prayer life if you are faithful in doing as you say (and, you would do it if you said you would, wouldn’t you, because you’re not a liar and a flaky pray-er)? Given the sheer number of us who claim to struggle with our regular, entirely right and proper, prayer life, do we really have much hope of maintaining it – shoddy at it as we are – when we then decide to load it with requests from any randomer who stops us in the street and asks?
I am also conscious of the troubling tendency towards superstition over these things. It is not at all uncommon for people to come to me and ask specifically for my prayers as the pastor of the church. When I point out that I am a man like anyone else and you can ask any member to pray for and with you, it is equally common to get a disbelieving look as though I am saying I cannot be bothered to offer up my special prayers on my personal hotline to God. Of course, what I am trying to do in these cases is make the point that if even Elijah was a man just like us whose prayer was effective, then I am no more special a man and, thus, nor is any other member of the church (except the ladies of course, who are not men just like us, but have equally effective prayers through the one mediator we all use, who – for the avoidance of doubt – is not the pastor).
Now, of course, within our own church I still pray for our people despite such inferences. I still, nonetheless, want to push back against any superstitious views of the minister that might exist and often, for that specific request, direct them to another church member. But when those superstitious calls are coming from people outside the fellowship, there really seem to be few reasons to ever say yes. Doing so would affirm their faulty view of prayer, their faulty view of the pastorate and divert my attention away from praying for those we are specifically commanded to pray for.
Here is the bottom line. We are placed in local churches so that the members of the local church may care for each other. One of the ministries of the local church is that of prayer. The Lord has placed us in a church so that the local church may support and care for us. We are called to pray for our fellow members and they, in turn, are to pray for us. This is one of the priority groups for our prayers.
As an extension of that, there are also the mission partners of our church. There are people whom our church has seen fit to support in their missionary endeavours beyond our locality. We, rightly, ought to make a priority of those we have chosen as a church to support for whatever reason.
But beyond the local church, the Bible tells us to pray for our leaders (yes, even Boris Johnson, and Donald Trump or – just to cover a range of political figures you may hold in contempt – Justin Trudeau or Jacinda Ardern, no matter how much you do or don’t like them). We are, of course, also to pray for our families. We may also want to make some space to pray for our friends too.
These are the groups that form a high priority for our prayers. You may find, when somebody asks you for prayer, that you are able to pray once for them, there and then. But it is not unreasonable to say ‘no, I am not going to pray for you.’ God has given you a unique position, with unique responsibilities, to your own family, church, friends and neighbours. You are in a unique position to pray meaningfully for these people. You are called to pray for most of them. Given your finite amount of time and resource, is it not better to pray well for those you are uniquely placed to pray for?
Maybe sometimes the right answer is simply to say ‘no’. Maybe it is best to encourage people to seek prayer from their own church. Perhaps it is good, if we have a burden to pray for somebody to do it straightaway, without promising we’ll expect others to do it too. We may well choose to pray once for somebody, but if we are being asked to ‘keep them in our prayers’ we need to ask a few questions. We are called to make the best use of time and we know prayer changes things in the world. Given that, is this really the best way for me to pray? Does this best help this person? Is this somebody the Lord wants me to make a priority in my prayers?