Why Many Evangelicals Struggle with Prayer (TLDR: We’re Winging It)

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We can learn a great deal about “spirituality” of American evangelical Christianity when we consider a 2006 Christianity Today  list of the most influential books over the past 50 years that shaped evangelicals.

For starters, most evangelicals are lucky if they know their movement’s historical background from the past 50 years. It’s safe to say that many evangelicals today have a very limited understanding of church history that has deprived us of the wisdom and practices developed over the centuries. Most telling about the limits of evangelical spirituality, the number one book on the Christianity Today list of influential books is Prayer: Conversing With God by Rosalind Rinker.

I don’t doubt that readers have benefitted from this book that was developed by a missionary who offers practical instructions in group prayer as well as some tips on personal prayer. Many small groups and Sunday schools have found much-needed direction from this book, and I can see the need for it in certain settings.

However, this book’s emphasis on spoken prayer and the overall disconnection from the prayer tradition of the church is quite typical of evangelicals. It’s not that Rinker is wrong or even misguided. The issue is that she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, which is pretty much the story of the evangelical movement since it began. We have forged ahead with our own advice, spiritual practices, Bible studies, sermons, churches, and ministries without a clear sense of where we’ve come from, what has come before us, and what we may gather from the devout Christians of the past.

The main word that jumps out at me in Rinker’s subtitle (and all of the book’s marketing copy) is “conversation.” For many evangelicals today, we have come to think of prayer as a conversation with the goal of speaking our minds to God, and if God directs us, then we’ll be able to say even more things. In fact, many evangelicals may fear that prayer isn’t working if they don’t receive specific direction or guidance from God.

The goal though is for a conversational prayer, especially for us to speak up in this conversation. There is very little emphasis on silence or to even make silence the point. I don’t get the sense that evangelicals reading Rinker’s book would consider that a completely silent time of prayer, where there is no discernible conversation between God and the person at prayer, brings about any benefit.

Silence isn’t really on the radar of this book, even if silence was a central part of Christian prayer for centuries. On the other hand, a conversation directs us toward a goal or outcome that is measurable and easily understood, such as sensing the Lord’s direction to say certain words in prayer. This is a good thing in and of itself, but when this is our foundational concept of prayer (perhaps ONLY concept of prayer), we run the risk of missing the deeper streams of silent prayer and contemplation that have run throughout the history of the church.

Interestingly, Rinker published her book in 1959, which makes her a contemporary of Thomas Merton who, along with Henrí Nouwen and Thomas Keating, helped Catholics delve deeper into the prayer traditions of the church. However, each of these writers pointed us back to the desert fathers and mothers, the mystics such as Thérèse of Liseux, and the Eastern Orthodox monastics. They drew deeply from these streams while offering their own ideas on prayer for the church and produced rather different works.

That isn’t to set them up in opposition to Rinker. I don’t doubt there are even places of overlap. However, it’s tragic to think that Rinker lacked the deep grounding of the church’s prayer tradition in her book. How much richer and beneficial would it have been?

The phrase that comes to mind for me about evangelical spirituality is: “Winging it.” Before I grounded myself in the writings of the desert fathers and mothers or the contemporary teachers of contemplative prayer, I have felt like I have been winging it with prayer. Every Christian joke about prayer eventually gets to the “Lord we just…” or “Father God, we just thank you…” way that evangelicals have learned to pray because it sounds respectful and officious.

Before we go too hard on evangelicals here, let’s keep in mind that the evangelical movement emerged as a reform. There were real issues that needed to be changed. It’s unhelpful to assert that evangelicals were completely off-base. Put into their shoes, we would have desired to make changes as well.

The central problem with evangelicals, as is illustrated with our “winging it” approach to spirituality, is that we are unaware of our roots (especially our most toxic and problematic roots). We don’t know much about what came before us. The many denominations and off-shoots of denominations in Protestant Christianity should give us pause.

In fact, as I read about the history of the evangelical movement, I was struck by how often groups split off from each other under the auspice of calling themselves “Christians.” They thought of themselves as somehow preserving a pure version of the faith and didn’t see how they had any kind of bias or distinctives that set themselves apart.

Of course, years later, these groups of “Christians” took on more set identities as Nazarenes or the Church of Christ, developing their own history and doctrinal distinctives, but at their formation, these denominations saw themselves as somehow able to transcend their roots in order to claim the label “Christians” for themselves.

This pattern has shown up over and over again among evangelicals seeking to correct mistakes or to separate themselves from evangelicals who are in error over a particular doctrine or practice. As evangelicals debate whether to keep the label itself, some have even suggested just calling themselves “Christians” again.

While I am more than sympathetic to the sentiment, I am concerned that we are once again repeating the mistakes of the past. We need to know our roots and to own them so that we can understand where we come from, what has impacted us, and what we perhaps don’t know.

Our ignorance of our history and of the traditions developed among other Christian around the world has become one of our greatest weaknesses. We have often adopted inadequate practices and institutions as a response to flawed practices and institutions—some certainly were more flawed than others. If evangelicals desire to move away from some of our most toxic elements in the future, we need to look back at our roots in order to see what is healthy, what needs to be removed, and where we can learn from Christians in other traditions.

This post was adapted from book three in the series
Evangelicals After the Shipwreck: Evangelicals Need Roots to Grow

Download it for $.99 on Amazon or Other eBook retailers

Evangelicals Lack the Language for Slow Transformation

Evangelicals know about discipleship, which is often synonymous with accountability and learning.

Evangelicals know about conversion and revival, going from blindness to sight.

Evangelicals don’t have language for slow, gradual transformation. It’s not surprising then that we generally lack the practices that can lead to slow transformation.

I love the charismatic gifts and teachings. I’ve had intense moments that were deeply transforming and meaningful.

I’ve also wondered, “Now what?” after the moment passes.

I’ve immersed myself in Bible study and had life-changing insights as the Spirit used the scriptures to reshape my thinking and choices. I’ve also hit the point where I’ve felt like I’m just cramming information into my brain and God appears distant, if not non-existent.

My own assessment of my place in the evangelical subculture is that I have lacked the language and guidance into the full spiritual tradition of the Christian faith. I have found renewed hope by taking part in the contemplative tradition.

Incorporating the contemplative tradition isn’t a contemporary trend of self-help spirituality or a complete replacement of Bible study, revival, or the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. By bringing contemplation into my daily spiritual practice, I’m putting something into place that should have never been lost in the first place.

While my evangelical tradition looks for revivals and enlightening moments, the contemplative tradition warns us against seeking frequent spiritual highs. These “highs” can become obstacles in the loving pursuit of God. Yes, intimate moments with God can happen, but God is present in both the silence of waiting and in the intense awareness of God’s love.

While my evangelical tradition tends to put pressure on us to seek God and to make spiritual epiphanies happen, the contemplative tradition teaches us to rest, to be still before the Lord, and to wait for his salvation.

While my charismatic background puts great emphasis on dramatic moments of deliverance and conversion, the contemplative tradition gives a space for the slow work of transformation as we place ourselves in the loving care of the Holy Spirit day-in, day-out.

Sitting in silence before God remains jarring to my evangelical sensibilities where so much emphasis was placed on study, praying with fervent sincerity, and working toward measurable results or spiritual emotions. The contemplative tradition gives me a basic spiritual practice of 20-30 minutes of silent prayer before God and few immediately measurable results—although the impact of this type of prayer is very apparent over the course of time.

This is the slow transformation that occurs through contemplative prayer. It isn’t the type of thing you can share during a testimony service on Sunday evening. It’s hard work, forcing us to face our darkness, our false selves, and our fears. The “results” take time to materialize, and even when they do, they often end up being things like, “I’m more compassionate toward others” or “I’m more aware of God’s love and presence daily.”

These are surely good things, but they’re not going to turn heads during testimony time. However, these are the practices that have carried me through the silence, the lows and highs, and the anxiety of life. They have grounded me and given me a place to rest in God when the revival folded and the emotions dried up.

God so loved the world…

Be still and know that he is Lord…

Wait on the Lord…

The Lord is gracious and compassionate…

These are the words we can turn to in silence each day in faith and hope.

Braveheart, Richard Rohr, and the Future of Evangelical Men

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No blue face paint required for Richard Rohr to draw a crowd.

If you pulled me aside during my college years and asked me how the followers of a crucified religious leader ended up idolizing a military leader in Medieval Scotland as the pinnacle of manhood, character, and leadership, I probably would have thought you were just trying to start a fight. William Wallace, the Scottish military leader depicted in the film had everything a guy could want: charisma, character, convictions, and courage, just to name a few of his qualities that made him a favorite in the 1990’s evangelical male subculture.

I wasn’t necessarily immersed in the teachings of books like Wild at Heart or the more aggressive pastors who relied on military metaphors for their messages, but I had certainly spent enough time in the evangelical subculture to get the message: real men are tough fighters who fight for things.

Men fight for their marriages.

Men fight for their children.

Men fight for their communities.

Men fight for their country when necessary.

The literature surrounding evangelical men relied heavily on military or sports metaphors in order to illustrate the struggles, battles, and competitions that men face every day. Lust was every man’s battle. The spiritually equipped wore the full armor of God (which was actually all defensive in nature, but still, it had the right ring of “battle).

While evangelical men were immersed in militaristic fighting metaphors that turned Braveheart into our narrative of choice, there’s been a notable shift among evangelical men today. In an interview on the Liturgist podcast, Richard Rohr shared that one of his largest segments of readers are these evangelical young men.

Richard Rohr is about as far away from William Wallace as you can get. This peaceful, cheerfully celibate Franciscan Friar speaks about holding tensions, finding a third way, and responding to even our worst enemies with compassion and prayer. Rohr challenges us to move beyond dualistic thinking that pits the world into black and white sides or categories. If you stick with his daily newsletter long enough, you’ll start to catch on to his contemplative, peacemaking vibe.

If you’ve read Rohr’s books such as Falling Upward and Immortal Diamond, you’ll know that he associates dualistic thinking with our younger years. Youth need to think this way as they sort the world into black and white, right and wrong. However, he also challenges us to move beyond that reductive mindset as we age so that we can see the world with greater compassion and unity in light of the love and mercy of God.

If Richard Rohr ever used a military metaphor, I can only presume it would illustrate how to be a bad soldier.

While I can’t draw a straight line between the popularity of Braveheart for evangelical young men in the 1990’s and Rohr’s popularity among the same cohort roughly 20 years later, I have a theory that Rohr appeals to many evangelical men who are weary of fighting, proving themselves, and splitting a gray world into black and white sides. While, I’ve always been more disposed toward peacemaking in the first place, I’ve noticed that the tough talk for evangelical men that I uneasily accepted in the 1990’s just doesn’t work for me or for many of the men I know. We know that loving God and loving one another doesn’t require learning to fight for things, and we can actually hold ourselves back by sorting life into sides we are for or against as we strive to prove ourselves worthy with flawless character.

Even among the men I know who hunt, lift weights, or dominate in sports, there’s a greater desire to find unity, health, and compassion in their Christian commitments. They’re interested in building rather than fighting. They want to know how Jesus can help them love others rather than preparing for the next battle against the latest enemy. The pursuit of contemplative prayer resonates with this group because this practice helps us discover that God has already accepted us and is already present. That is a far cry from proving ourselves as men, and it’s enough to make guys like me want to cry.

I recognize that these sketches aren’t true for every evangelical man I know who grew up in the 1990’s. However, I suspect there’s a sizeable number of evangelical men today who would much rather skip William Wallace hacking English soldiers to death.

It’s tempting to say that Rohr is the anti-Wallace, but then that would venture into the dualistic thinking he avoids. The truth is that deep down in our hearts, every man wants to belong and to be accepted. God’s love is more than able to meet that need. We’re all wired differently, so we may receive that message in different ways. If anything, Richard Rohr encourages us to wipe off the blue face paint, lay our weapons down, and dare to believe that God’s love is the freedom we don’t have to fight for.

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