Nine Methods of Prayer
Most Christians are used to impromptu prayer, just saying whatever comes to mind. Some might even have a list of requests they pray through or use the ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication) structure they learned in church as a child. These are all good and useful, but they can lead us to get in ruts, always praying for the same things and lacking the breadth and purpose of prayer in Scripture.
If that is you, I thought I’d offer nine other ways to pray. These aren’t meant as replacements for spontaneous prayers, but they are wonderful supplements. I offer them as options to explore and see what works for you. I have used all of them at different points and still utilize many of them when seasons of life seem to call for it.
The Lord's Prayer
The oldest form of Christian prayer, Jesus Himself teaches us to pray this way in Matthew 6:9-13. While many Christians have memorized the Lord’s Prayer as a rote exercise, not all of them recognize that it can provide a pattern for our prayers as a whole. To pray the Lord’s Prayer, simply take each petition (it is usually divided into seven), pray it, and then offer specific prayers related to it. For reference, the petitions are:
- Hallowed be your name (may your name be holy): Pray recognizing God’s greatness and set-apartness. Praise His glory. Pray that people would come to recognize His greatness and come to know Him. Pray for those you know who don’t know Him.
- Your kingdom come: Pray for God’s justice, peace, and righteous rule to come to areas of brokenness in the world and in your life. Lift up those who are suffering, especially those suffering injustice or oppression. Pray for the poor, the persecuted, and others in need.
- Your will be done: Pray that God’s good purposes for humanity would be realized in our lives. Pray for repentance and obedience in your own heart, in those you love, and in the world.
- Give us today our daily bread: Pray for your personal, practical needs. Your job, your insecurities, and areas you need support. Also, lift up the practical needs of those close to you.
- Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors: Confess your sins and ask God’s forgiveness. Also pray for yourself that you would forgive and show love to others, including those who have sinned against you.
- Lead us not into temptation (or trials): Ask God to protect you and aid you in your struggle against sin. Pray for your safety and preservation in the face of attacks and obstacles in life.
- Deliver us from evil (or the evil one): Pray for God’s supernatural protection in the face of the spiritual battle that lies behind our lives. Claim His victory over evil and ask Him to help you rest in the finished work of Jesus.
If you take the time to sit in each petition, this method can form the backbone for hours of prayer. For a shorter version, I also use the broader structure of the prayer, turning it into three movements:
- Praying for God’s Mission (first three petitions)
- Praying for Personal Needs (fourth petition)
- Praying for My Place in God’s Mission (last three petitions)
One of the especially powerful things about the Lord’s Prayer is that it centers us on what God is doing before we think about ourselves. Such missional prayer shapes our hearts and has real power to transform the world.
Besides the Lord’s Prayer, it is also helpful to pray Scripture. This ensures what we ask aligns to what God says is good and true.
Praying Scripture can take a variety of forms. We might memorize certain passages and regularly use them to center elements of our prayer. For instance, I regularly use Psalm 19:14 as part of my prayer before I preach on Sundays. We might also meditate on a portion of Scripture in the morning and let our prayers arise from what it says.
Perhaps the most helpful way to pray Scripture is to use an extended chunk of the Bible as a form for our prayers. Maybe a Psalm or the introductory prayer in one of Paul’s letters. Read a verse or a part of a verse and then pause to pray that specific thing over your life or those who come to mind with needs. Then read the next part and do the same thing. If you want a place to start, try working through Colossians 1:3-14, praying each section over yourself and your church family.
Many modern Christians are suspicious of pre-written prayers, largely because they are seen as “inauthentic” since they don’t arise from our own hearts. This has always struck me as odd. Any time we pray with another believer, at least half of our prayers are being offered in someone else’s words. The history of pre-written prayers in the church is simply taking this to the next level, joining with saints through the ages.
When using a pre-written prayer, it is important to move slowly and engage with what is being said. It is helpful to pause occasionally and add your own praises or petitions. Perhaps most importantly, it is helpful to pay attention to how and what the person is praying and allow our own prayers to be grown by them. That way we can both pray along and also have our personal prayers deepened.
Here are a few prayer books I find useful in my devotional rhythms:
- The Book of Common Prayer
- The Valley of Vision
- Every Moment Holy
- A Diary of Private Prayer
- Piercing Heaven
While the daily examen is a technical form of prayer linked to St. Ignatius, I’ve found a general form of it to be helpful in my own life, especially in busy or stressful seasons. I usually do it before bed. It seeks to structure our prayers by what happened in the day.
Think back over your day. Start in the morning and mentally move through each significant event chronologically. At each point, ask whether there is something to rejoice in, something to repent of, or some request to offer to God coming out of it. This might mean praying for a person you met or an issue that arose. It might mean giving thanks for a beautiful meal or conversation. It will mean reflecting on times you sinned and confessing them.
While working through this process, it’s important not to stress about being exhaustive. You don’t have to pray through the whole day in 10-minute increments. The things that stand out to you are probably the things you need to pray for most, so let your attention focus there.
I usually end examining prayer with a minute or two of praise and prayer for the night and the day to come.
Another form of structuring prayer, circle prayer starts with yourself and works outward. So lift up the needs and joys you are feeling. Then pray for family, your spouse and kids. Next lift up extended family, friends, and neighbors. Keep working outward, praying for your church, your city, your nation, and the world. At each point, seek to offer some specific requests: not simply “God, be with Uncle Joe,” but specifically praying for needs he might have.
Again, the point of circle prayer is not to be exhaustive. Heaven help you if you try, as the biggest circles are enormous. When you pray for our country or the world, perhaps lift up a specific people group served by a missionary you support or a struggle you heard about in the news. (While it isn’t making the list, praying through the news is actually a useful habit for some as well, especially if you are prone to the anger and fearfulness it is designed to provoke.)
You can also pray in reverse, starting broad and becoming more focused over time. The goal is just to expand your horizons, lifting up people and places you would otherwise neglect.
An expanded version of the “prayer request” list, planned prayer is less a specific method and more a general approach to praying for certain things with intentionality and regularity. You might make a list of people you want to keep in prayer and divide them between the days of the week (I do something like this with the members of my church). Maybe you use a resource like Operation World to pray for a different nation every day.
One specific way to plan prayer is by recording specific requests, praying for them on certain days, and then following up and recording when and how God answers your prayers. It is easy to miss how often (and in what unexpected ways) God fulfills our requests unless we have a plan that lets us see it.
There is a bit of a debate in the world of biblical scholars about how we should think of the book of Psalms. Is it a prayer book, or a hymnal? Is it meant to give songs for Israel to sing or prayers for them to pray devotionally?
The answer, of course, is “yes.” It clearly functions as both. This should teach us something about our praying and our singing. When we join together in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, we are actually engaging in a variety of prayer. And when we pray, there can be great benefit in bringing music into our private devotional times.
This can involve singing prayerfully. Whether with music or acapella, we intentionally engage our hearts and minds so that we aren’t simply swept along by the music but engaged with it and offering it to God.
It can also involve praying specific portions of a hymn or song that express our heart. There are many times when such lyrics come to mind while I’m talking to God, and this can be a gift to help us find words for our deepest groanings.
Almost half of the Psalms are laments—bringing hard situations before God. For whatever reason, we aren’t great at lamenting in the modern church. To pray a lament in the biblical sense, there are usually three stages:
- Tell God how you are feeling. Honestly, with no guile or attempts to dress it up. The Psalmists question god, express anger and frustration and doubt, and use the strongest language to express their anxiety and grief. Be honest, in the presence of God, about how you are feeling.
- Speak truth to yourself. Most laments in Scripture have a “but this I call to mind” moment where the Psalmist, after having named their feelings, brings God’s truth to bear on the grief. Remember God’s love, His greatness, or His past faithfulness and speak it over your sadness.
- Pray for resolution. Inasmuch as your lament is a result of your circumstances, ask God to deliver you from them, trusting in His character as you have just named it.
Prayer is a conversation with God, and sometimes, the best way to do it is simply to listen. To sit in God’s presence, being mindful of His nearness and love. Prayer can be silent; indeed, some of my sweetest moments in prayer are just enjoying the closeness of God.
Two encouragements about contemplative prayer. The first is that, while it is meditative, it is also Godward-focused. You aren’t praying when you use a meditation app and listen to your breathing and your body; that is fine and even helpful, but contemplative prayer involves mindfulness of God’s truth and power.
And second, contemplative prayer is often most powerful when joined with other methods mentioned above. I often either start or end my times of morning prayer by just sitting for a moment in quiet contemplation, enjoying God’s nearness. This naturally flows into and out of my other rhythms of prayer.
Again, the goal in all of this is not to suggest you need to do all nine of these practices at once. Nor is it to say that each one will be equally useful to you. However, each can train and stretch us in important ways and usher us into areas of prayer we have neglected, or maybe never experienced at all.