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In my childhood home, a small plaque hung on the kitchen wall. It said, Prayer Changes Things. This little motto sparked my first theological musings on the nature of prayer … not too bad when you're only five or six years old.

Could this really be true? I often wondered, as I downed my Cheerios. Frankly, my personal experience did not support the credibility of that statement.

After all, prayer hadn't forestalled my punishment when my father discovered the living room lamp I'd broken. Prayer hadn't closed down school the day it snowed. Neither had it hastened the coming of Christmas, produced a new bike, or brought the pastor's long and deadly Sunday sermon to a merciful end.

So what things did prayer change? Perhaps the adults knew. I didn't.

A Vulnerable Mystery

Prayer has remained a nagging, wondrous mystery in my life ever since. Because I am committed to living biblically, I believe—really believe—in prayer, even if I am not exactly sure how it works. I don't have to know all the "theo-mechanics" of prayer; I just do it. And, most of the time, I'm glad I've prayed. I believe that plaque on our kitchen wall was essentially correct.

Prayers can be said by one person or uttered by many. Prayers can be sung, spoken, written, or groaned. Prayers can be liturgical (like a symphony: carefully composed and often repeated) or they can be spontaneous (like jazz: improvised and incapable of exact repetition). Short or long; asking or thanking; shouting or silent.

Prayer is also an exercise in personal and pastoral vulnerability. I have never been confident regarding the eloquence of my prayers. Once, in my college days, a girl in my campus group said to me: "You don't pray like other Christian guys in the group. You need to ask the Holy Spirit to help you pray with greater maturity." What I think she was saying was, "If you sounded more spiritual, then, maybe, you'd be the kind of guy I could go out with."

You must never tell anyone I confided this. But I have never quite escaped that girl's judgment on my praying. I remember neither her name nor her face, but her assessment of my praying style haunts me to this day. During the many years of my pastoral life, I often heard her words as I led our congregation in prayer: "You don't pray like the other guys …"

Given the vital and vulnerable nature of prayer, it seems strange when I look back on my days of theological training and realize that I never took a course on it. I mean, if prayer really changes things, you'd think learning how to pray would be a more important course then studying how to decode Leviticus.

In my first search committee interview, I was bombarded with questions about my doctrinal convictions, my preaching style, and my vision (surely, everyone has to have a vision). But no one ever asked about my practice of private or public prayer.

Why didn't someone ask, "Gordon, do you believe that prayer changes things?"

Prayer on Purpose

Soon I became a pastor, and on the first Sunday ...

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Gordon MacDonald is chancellor of Denver Seminary and editor-at-large for Leadership Journal. He is author of numerous books, including Going Deep: Becoming A Person of Influence.

Related Topics:AuthorityCommunicationConfessionHonestyPrayer
From Issue:Spiritual Warfare, Spring 2012 | Posted: June 18, 2012

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Displaying 1–5 of 12 comments

Eric Edwards

July 23, 2012  6:20am

Thank you! Your article was very insightful and helpful to me. One nugget that I walked away is how important preparation is in prayer. The article was very encouraging and I can't wait to share this with others! Thank you!

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Gary Schroeder

July 17, 2012  12:00pm

Dr McDonald has decisively put his finger on what is lacking in the weekly worship experience in a lot of churches I visit. Pastoral prayer has devolved to praying for the offering or Aunt Edna's bursitis or recapitulating the points of the sermon, one more time. I'm going to try to give this article wide distribution! Thank you, Gordon.

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Dr. James D. Schulze

July 05, 2012  12:30pm

great article. Stimulating, inspiring exhortation. Thank you!

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Dan Zerbe

July 04, 2012  7:43am

As an Elder responsible for the pastoral prayer every four weeks, this article is a moving call to me to get back to serious preparation. The whole church is praying with me, so it is not my prayer, but our prayer. They must have someone praying who is praying what they love to pray and what they need to pray.

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Doug Clark

July 01, 2012  12:39pm

I've read a ton of Gordon MacDonald stuff, but none any better than this. In the twilight of my ministry, I'm serving as associate pastor at Nations Church Istanbul — a congregation of Western ex-pats, Central Asians, African refugees, and local friends trying to figure out this following Jesus thing in a culture that despises them for leaving Islam to serve the man Jesus whom Christians have made into a God. I often offer the pastoral prayer during our worship, and I needed this! Thank you, sir.

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