Praying Over the Music
A recent study of 3 million American drivers over 570 million trips found that the drivers used their cell phones during 88 out of 100 trips. Even in states where hand-held phone use by the driver is illegal, the study found that drivers still pulled out their phones regularly. On average, American drivers used their phones for 3.5 minutes of each hour—despite the sobering fact that just two seconds of distraction increases risk of collision by 20 times.
Much has been made of our modern state of perpetual distraction. The Atlantic declared that “Ignoring People for Phones Is the New Normal”, and CNN reported that the average American checks his phone 150 times every day. If you take a walk down any city sidewalk you will be surrounded by people who are texting, streaming music and video, navigating by GPS, and posting social media updates—all while commuting to work or school.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the church today accepts—and even intentionally engineers—distractions. If we always exercise with a playlist and await our restaurant meal with a video, we naturally expect sensory accompaniments to follow us to worship. And when it comes to the singular, quiet, unspectacular, and seemingly-sedentary activity of corporate prayer, we may reflexively seek something else to augment our experience.
I recently found myself at a gathering of fellow-Presbyterians where “Amazing Grace” played on repeat during the pastor’s public prayer. Every head was bowed and every eye closed, but my focus switched frenetically between the pastor’s words of supplication and John Newton’s familiar phrases. Diverted by the music, I failed to engage fully in the intercession, and, ultimately, I lost an opportunity to pray.
Just as distracted driving will pose imminent danger to our physical bodies, distracted prayer is a danger to our souls.
Supplementing corporate prayer with music reinforces untruths about the work of praying together. Like swiping our phones every six-and-a-half minutes because the tasks of the day don’t merit our full attention, familiar background tunes during congregational prayer declare that prayer is similarly unengaging: Prayer is mindless. Prayer is emotionless. Prayer is a spectator activity. Prayer is easy.
Except it isn’t.
The Apostle Paul presents a very different picture in his description of a prayer meeting attended by a saint named Epaphras. Paul writes, “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant in Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis” (Col. 4:12-13).
The public prayers of Epaphras were an act of love, a persistent struggle, and hard work. Likewise, the members of the early church “devoted themselves to. . .the prayers” (Acts 2:42, emphasis added). The writer to the Hebrews admonishes the church: “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them” (Heb. 13:3). And Paul instructs the Corinthians that they ought to add their deliberate “Amen” to the prayers in worship (1 Cor. 14:16-17). Corporate prayer requires our whole attention and engages our whole person.
The Puritans were fond of saying, “Pray until you pray,” by which they meant that prayer is not a perfunctory ritual to be crossed off the list as soon as its outward motions are accomplished. Instead, prayer is real communication with the Father. We approach the throne with the concentrated persistence of the widow before the judge (Luke 18:1-8) or the men lowering their crippled friend through the roof to Jesus (Mark 2:1-5).
And when every member of the congregation joins the prayers “with one accord” (Acts 1:14), the church becomes an advancing army in a spiritual war (Eph. 6:16-18), an emergency room for the sick and sin-snared (James 5:14-16), and a support team for gospel success throughout the world (2 Cor. 1:11).
We must not be distracted.
“You are where your attention is,” Andrew Sullivan wrote last year for New York magazine. “If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance.”
So, too, in corporate prayer, we are where our attention is. To approach the throne of God in the company of His people demands our whole focus. In the intentional quiet—led only by a single voice accompanied by the “Amens” of the people—we can truly weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice (Rom. 12:15), and together delight in the promised near presence of Christ (Matt. 18:19-20).
So, brothers and sisters, let's pray until we pray.
Megan Hill is the author of Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer in Our Homes, Communities, and Churches. She lives in Massachusetts and is a member of West Springfield Covenant Community Church (PCA) where her husband serves as pastor.