A Place to Pray
In past eras when crime inside churches was rare, the church sanctuaries were open most, and often all, of the time, ready for anyone with spiritual needs to come in and pray in peace. As with everything else nowadays, the fears, expense, staffing and effort to do that is too much for most congregations. But then, where can we pray? Anywhere, I suppose, but the rest of our lives and our world get in the way. There is still a need for a place to go, set aside for the purpose of praying, set up to help us in the act of praying. Often, this would be an outdoor area, such as at a riverside, or (as in Korea) on a hill on or near the site, or (as for the English) in a planted garden, or (especially in Africa) under large shady trees, for morning prayer and meditation. Jesus prayed in such an outdoor place in Gethsemane as he struggled with his coming execution. A few believer's groups have put praying spaces and prayer vigil sites in unexpected places, along the mean streets, in the shopping malls and outlet centers, and in the hubs of hedonism.
The important thing to God is not where you pray, but that you pray, and in what spirit you pray. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego prayed in a large furnace, which is a great thing to know should you ever get thrown into a furnace, but that doesn't mean we should build a furnace for people to pray in. The apostle Paul prayed in prison, but we don't want to jail people to get them to pray. We can, however, set aside more reasonable spaces for people to use for praying.
Prayer Rooms for Congregations
A growing proportion of churches are setting aside a special room solely for the purpose of prayer. There are several models for this, each reflecting a different approach to prayer. These are places to actually pray, rather than places to think about or learn about prayer.
In the prayer closet model, a small room is chosen. It is designed to be a private room for prayer, though it needs to be large enough for at least two so a comforting presence can be given to those who need it, or perhaps for confession. This style is best when it is in a stripped-down form: a padded kneeler, a basic altar-like area with a cross on or behind it, a pair of soft-seated folding chairs, a box of tissues. A more complex approach to a closet would add sound-deadening walls or sound-canceling headphones to provide maximum silence for the praying person. Some churches would find the prayer closet to be too individualistic, a me-and-God way of faith, but if it is part of a congregation's wider prayer practices, it does not have to be so. Most churches lack the space or money for much more than this sort of a room; it is sometimes quite literally a former utility closet.
In the larger prayer room model, the room is large enough to do some walking around in, maybe large enough for several different things to be happening at once. It always has an outside door (so it can be used when the rest of the building is locked), but might not have an inside door (for security reasons). The key to the larger prayer room is that there are many possible choices that can be used for making it a place amenable to prayer. Some ideas:
- It may have the walls set up in sections, each dedicated to some different aspect of prayer: prayer for missions and missionaries in one section, prayer for the church's staff in another, still another for posting prayer requests.
- One spot might have icons, headphone music and art for contemplative prayer.
- Another might have a place to post answered prayers and other thanksgivings.
- a section for prayer journaling with a table, pad, pencils and such.
- there may be written or (through headphones) audio guidance for those who are confused or inexperienced about prayer. (Any helps within the room should be geared toward leading the person into actual prayer, not for educating them for later prayer. The latter should be done elsewhere.)
- a part of the room may even be quickly adapted as an "E.R." or emergency-room section with assigned prayer ministers and an emergency phone for 'stat-calling' a prayer helper for immediate help if no one else is there.
- If the room is large enough, there may be a labyrinth that courses through a changing set of prayer challenges and hard questions about life, prayer, and God.
One advantage to the larger setup is that any one element in the room can be changed, removed, or modified while leaving the rest as-is. A room that changes is more likely to be a room that's used, over time.
No one that I know of has the whole idea in effect on a long-term basis, though many elements of this are now becoming more common among the larger non-denominational congregations and in several urban prayer ministries. Something like it can be adapted to places outside of the parish grounds, or be designed for use by those who are allergic to churchy formats, especially at events.
The oldest of the current models is that of the prayer chapel, most commonly found in parishes of the 'liturgical' churches. It is set up like a small sanctuary, with an altar that has the Bible and (actual or symbolic) Eucharist elements, sometimes a baptismal font, hymnals, and (unfortunately) several rows of pews. The walls would have stations of the cross, or icons or other contemplative faith-art, or congregationally-made paintings and banners. The chapel room can be used for small weddings and specialized worship services. (Some see that as an advantage, others as a problem.) While this model is good with liturgicals like me, for many others its churchy atmosphere will cause the wrong kind of discomfort.
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A "prayer station" is usually a place set aside for prayer in the back or sides of the worship hall / sanctuary. It can be set up with a combination of candles, crosses, icons, Scripture passages, devotional questions, a prayer notebook (for sharing thoughts and asking questions), a box for prayer requests, photos, art, video images, music (through headphones), and a soft place to kneel or sit. (You don't need to have all of these, just what is right for your church.) Have in it only what's directly for use in prayer and meditation; it is dedicated to and focused only on prayer. It can be as simple as a portable kneeler and/or basic altar. Many places that have prayer stations allow people to use the stations freely, even during worship services, sermons, classes, and meetings. There may even be a trained prayer helper "on duty" to pray with you. This not only shows prayer's high priority, but (more importantly) puts this space at the ready for the moments when the Spirit is touching us. There must be strict rules, though, against using it as an area to chat in. There are other places for that. If other people are led to pray there, they will see the chatterers and walk away.
One or more of these options may suit your parish especially well. A congregation with a place for prayer in its churchly life needs a place designated for prayer in its churchly facilities.
Prayer Information Centers
There's also a need for a place where anyone can find information about prayer and prayer ministries. The best place for this is somewhere near the place set aside for prayer, but not directly in it, in the form of a kiosk or table. Do you want to learn more about:
- the church's prayer opportunities and prayer leaders?
- prayer in the Bible?
- what prayer is and why Christians pray?
- how to start praying as a part of daily living?
- prayer disciplines?
- answers to prayer, as reported by church members?
- how to get in touch with a prayer chain or with intercessors?
- devotional materials?
- signup boards for a prayer vigil?
If your church is serious about prayer, it needs a place where people can do their own self-starting on the road to a prayerful life, a place that is ready when they need it. Prayer can be safe, easy, and natural for people to do. A wise congregation will give people every opportunity to do it, and take down any barriers that might stop them.
Prayer Walls and Boards
One of the tools that praying parishes have found most helpful is the prayer wall or bulletin board. It's space set aside for posting what's been happening on a specific prayer concern of the congregation, usually where the prayer information is. The news may be an update on the condition of a cancer patient. It may be word from former members who moved to Arizona, that they've settled in safely. It may be praising God for a new job, or for healing, or for a new baby. When they go to or leave worship services, people will see the board, and thus also see that the prayers are having an impact. It gives everyone something to praise about. A few pastors have tried to use it as a place to put thinly-disguised announcements or commentaries; when that's done, the wall becomes distrusted or ignored and won't have its intended effect.
Walls can be done within prayer rooms, too, but the purpose is different. It too can be used for prayer news and praises, but it must follow the rule for anything in the prayer room -- it is there to foster actual prayer that gets prayed when in the room. That means no theological lessons or speeches, just bare information, or perhaps, the story that goes with it. There are four walls in a prayer room, but some of those might have uses that might not make the wall adaptable for this use. In that case, you can use a partition that can be used easily for posting. One church I know of took an old office maildrop, split the sections smaller, and made it a 'wailing wall' of sorts, where people would stuff their requests on small slips of paper. Another church has a map of the world, with an information book on the nations of the world, so that people can pray for that nation's believers and for God to help the nation meet its needs and heal its wounds. The possibilities are limited only by our stiffened imaginations.
Prayer Centers for Events
Whenever there is an event where large numbers of people gather, there is an opportunity to develop a temporary place set aside for prayer. (This is also true for when people gather in a relatively small area, such as a downtown neighborhood with music, culture, and an active 'street life'). It can be geared toward the common needs and the culture of those who attend the gatherings. These types of cultural activities often have people who are asking themselves questions, or their lives are collapsing around them. They need a place to be honest with God, and with themselves before God. The temporary prayer place needs to set up so it doesn't feel like a churchy activity to the people at the gathering, even if it is the expression of a congregation. When setting up such a place, it must be somewhere that the people at the gathering can see and get to. It must be secure and safe, with a phone or other communications device for an emergency. It must not set up an atmosphere of pressured talk about God or Jesus, and must not create a disturbance for neighbors beyond what the gathering itself makes. What happens inside must not be seen from outside. The staffers are there not for sales, but to aid people with their questions, prayers, repentances, or such. Temporary sites need a place to sit for at least two, and a little room to walk around. It would be ideal to have enough room for groups of people, but sometimes that much space may not be available.
There are other uses for temporary prayer places, for a more specialized use of prayer. It can become the place for:
- a seasonal prayer vigil (like, say, during Lent);
- a crisis prayer vigil (for instance, on a large scale, Hurricane Katrina or 9/11, or on a smaller scale, the health of a parishioner or pastor);
- a 24/7 prayer event (where a congregation, or preferably many congregations acting together, has a rotating schedule of people praying for whatever purposes, including prayer just to settle out their own lives).
Each person involved in the praying may also fast during this period.
I found this over at CMS (a good site for those from within church organizations who are reaching out to people): it's about prayer stations in unexpected places. It's based on an LA Times article.
A Praying Place for Yourself
Private Prayer Places
A personal space for prayer can really be just about anywhere that you can stay (relatively) undisturbed. Perhaps there's a quiet place in a park or woods or field, or a garden (as Jesus did). Maybe there's a really good rock to sit on, overlooking the beach and the sea. Your place may be up on the roof of a flat-roof apartment building or dorm, or maybe on a balcony or even a fire escape. Indoors, maybe it's the bedroom your children grew up in and left, or a corner of the den. Or maybe all you can muster up is a closet. God doesn't care if there's still a mop in it, what matters to God is that you are in it. When you get down to it, it's only a prayer room when someone's praying in it. (You may be more likely to use the room if it's cleaned out and set aside just for prayer.)
There are some good things to have on hand in personal prayer places. A Bible, perhaps a notepad and pen forthoughts or a journal for journaling, perhaps headphones and some music or nature sounds. Indoors, a lamp is a good idea; outdoors, a flashlight would help.
The prayer space is not chosen so people can see you pray, nor is it a place to relax and fuzz out. It is a place to lose yourself in or to lose track of time, a place to wrestle with the Creator, "to feel one's body made a temple of the Holy Ghost", as Charles Spurgeon put it. What matters most is not the place itself; what matters is that the place helps you to be able to pay full attention to the most important of all relationships.
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Create Prayer Places!
The challenge, should you decide to accept it, is this: to actively create places to pray. Making your own prayer altar or room might be easy for your own life, since you have more control over that. That's a good start.
But let's be more daring, for a moment. Let's say, you're in a congregation that's located in a downtown where there's an active night life. Some people there are worried, troubled, alone, maybe even falling apart or addicted. And the churches are far away from being a part of their life, even if the church building is on the same street or around the corner from the scene. How about having a place to pray, right in the thick of it? You may be able to use a room in your own church, or you may have to make arrangements for a more central location, like in a town square or a shop. Get a local college fellowship or church youth group - or better, three or four such groups, working together - and have them staff (with two people, at best) a temporary prayer room or tent on successive Saturday nights. The prayer room isn't for conversions, just for prayer and a caring presence. (Be ready if someone wants to know more about Christ, but even then, stay with answering their questions instead of giving them a prepared rap.) If it works well, keep doing it.