Learning to Pray the New Testament Way

In his John 17 prayer, Jesus says something to his Father that has long puzzled me: “I pray for them [my disciples]. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours” (Jn. 17:9). What has baffled me? Those seven words in the middle: “I am not praying for the world.”

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Some insight into this statement—and how it relates to shared church—has come in the past few weeks. To prepare for an adult Sunday School class on prayer, I searched the New Testament for what we might call “asking” (often called “petitionary”) prayers and for instructions on what to ask in prayer.

Surprise! Out of some 70 references, 41 had to do with praying for Christians. I found only 2 examples of  prayers for non-Christians to come to faith in Christ. As I pondered this great difference, those prayer-words of Jesus came back to mind: “I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me.” The New Testament prayer-pattern seems to echo the prayer-priority seen in Jesus’s words to his Father.

How does “I am not praying for the world” fit with God’s will that everyone “be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4)? We’ll explore that question shortly. But first, have a look at the results of my research into New Testament praying:

For God’s Purposes

  • That his name be held holy. Mt. 6:9; Lk. 11:2
  • That his Kingdom come. Mt. 6:10; Lk. 11:2
  • That his will be done on earth. Mt. 6:10
  • That doors open for the proclamation of the gospel. Col. 4:3; II Thess. 3:1
  • That God send workers into his harvest. Mt. 9:38; Lk. 10:2

For Christ-Followers

  • That they would experience the grace, love, and fellowship of the Trinity. II Cor. 13:14
  • That they may come to complete unity. Jn. 17:20-23; Rom. 15:5-6
  • That God make increase their love for each other and everyone. I Thess. 3:12
  • That their love continue to grow in knowledge and deep insight. Phil. 19; Col. 1:9
  • That they may be full of joy and peace. Jn. 17:13; Rom. 15:13; II Thess. 3:16
  • That God protect them from the evil one. Jn. 17:15
  • That they may be sanctified. Jn. 17:17
  • That God sanctify them in body, soul, and spirit. I Thess. 5:23
  • That they will choose leaders wisely. Acts 1:24, 25
  • That they will favorably receive God’s messages and messengers. Rom. 15:31
  • That their hearts be enlightened to know all of Christ’s fullness: Eph. 1:18—19; 3:17-18
  • That they receive God’s Spirit of wisdom and revelation. Eph. 1:17
  • That they discern what is best. Phil. 1:10
  • That the Spirit will empower them from within. Eph. 3:16; Col. 1:11; I Thess. 3:13
  • That Christ may live in them through faith. Eph. 3:17
  • That their faith not fail. Lk. 22:32
  • That God fulfill their good purposes and actions produced by faith. II Thess. 1:11
  • That they stand firm in God’s will. Col. 4:12
  • That they reach full maturity. Col. 4:12
  • That they have full understanding. Philemon 6
  • That God heal their illnesses. Jas. 5:14
  • That tongues-speakers may interpret. I Cor. 14:13
  • That God grant them good health. III Jn. 2
  • That God grant life to Christians living in sin that does not lead to death. I Jn. 5:16
  • That they speak God’s word boldly. Acts 4:29
  • That God heal and perform signs and wonders. Acts 4:30
  • That God equip them to do his will and work in them what pleases him. Heb. 13:20-21
  • That God open a way for a visit to his people. Rom. 1:10
  • That God count them worthy of his calling. II Thess. 1:11
  • That God encourage and strengthen them in deed and word. II Thess. 2:17
  • That God show mercy to a believer and his family. II Tim. 1:16
  • That they remain pure, blameless, and fruitfully righteous until Christ returns. Phil. 1:10-11; Col. 1:10
  • That they endure to stand before Christ when he comes. Lk. 21:36

For Christian Leaders

  • That God protect them against the opposition of unbelievers. Rom. 15:31; II Thess. 3:2
  • That they receive God’s words and be fearless in speaking them. Eph. 6:19-20; Col. 4:3

For Non-Christians 

  • That unbelievers come to faith in Christ. Acts 26:29; Rom. 10:1

For Personal Needs

  • For receiving God’s Holy Spirit. Lk. 11:13
  • For daily provision of food. Mt. 6:11; Lk. 11:3
  • For forgiveness. Mt. 6:12; Lk. 11:4
  • For protection against falling into temptation. Mt. 6:13; 26:41; Lk. 11:4; Lk. 22:40, 46

For Those Who Mistreat Us

  • For enemies and persecutors. Mt. 5:44; Lk. 6:28; Lk. 23:34; Acts 7:60

For Earthly Authorities

  • That they rule in ways that bring peace. I Tim. 2:2

Of the prayer-references listed, just over 58 percent are for believers, while less than 3 percent are for unbelievers. Why? Does God not care about seeing unbelievers trust Jesus and so come into right relationship with him? Of course he does. God loves the world. He does not want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (II Pet. 3:9). So why did Jesus say he was "not praying for the world"?

In the same prayer, Jesus repeatedly asks that those first disciples and later Christ-followers be one, that they might be “brought to complete unity” (Jn. 17:11, 21-22). The demonstration of this unity, Jesus says, will enable the world to believe and to know the Father had sent him. So Jesus is concerned for the unbelieving world. But he knows that the eye-opener for a spiritually blind world is the display of heaven’s unity lived out by Christians on earth.

His prayer-priority, then, is for Christ-followers, for the community he launched and left here for the world to see. Read again all those prayers for Christians—prayers that God’s colony and colonists on earth will thrive spiritually so that the world may have access to samples of the coming Kingdom. Should we, then, pray that non-Christians trust Jesus. Yes—two of the prayers listed do so. But if we are to pray the New Testament way, it seems that most of our asking should be for fellow believers. Our loving one another, Jesus said, would provide the world with evidence that we are his disciples. And one-anothering prayer turns out to be a major part of loving each other.

That’s one more reason we need to learn how to practice New Testament praying in shared church.

Serving One Another in Shared Church

As you slip into the church meeting, you guess the gathering must number about 300. At their appointed times, seven take their places up front—the pastor and six on the music team. From your spot eleven rows back and in the center section, you scan the bulletin. The text for the morning comes from Galatians 5:13—“serve one another in love.”

For the next hour, the seven on the platform devote themselves to serving the church body, using the gifts God gave them (I Pet. 4:10). But as you watch and listen, it strikes you that these with the microphones are the only ones with the opportunity to act on what the text says. That means less than two percent of those present are able—in this meeting—to do so. In your small group of twelve, you do serve others. But that still leaves your gifts unavailable to 96 percent of the full congregation.

True, before this meeting began, a few handed out bulletins. At offering time, others will usher. But you doubt that these activities, while useful, achieve what New Testament writers meant by one-anothering. In all your years in church meetings, this pattern of miniscule participation has prevailed. So you assume that a group of this size must make it impossible for any but a tiny minority to serve each other with their gifts.

However, one-anothering can work not just in small groups but also in the larger gatherings. Recent posts in this blog series have provided evidence. To recap:


June 15: In Mill City Church, Minneapolis, MN, Sunday meetings begin with a “community time” that lasts from five to eight minutes. Two suggested questions help people to begin greeting each other. As Stephanie Williams, one of their pastors, says, “You can’t remember someone unless they share something with you.”


July 27: Another blog presented the FaithStory of Rachel Bichler, from Northwood—a church of about 500 in Maple Grove, MN. As she unfolded her experience to the congregation, Rachel openly shared how drifting from a godly upbringing had led her to brokenness and repentance. While staying well within tasteful boundaries, her comments let everyone know that she had strayed.


July 20: This posting included comments from three pastors. Although saying so in different words, all recognized the richness that comes when those in the congregation participate in the teaching:

Mark Brouwer, Jacob’s Well Church, Chicago, IL: “There is a lot of wisdom in this church—far more than just what I am able to bring.”

Bob Hyatt, The Evergreen Community, Portland, OR: “I came to realize that, although I am the recognized preacher, I might not have the most important thing to say on a given Sunday morning.”

Lowell Bakke, had served as pastor, Bethany Baptist Church, Puyallup, WA: “Even with the aid of the Holy Spirit, my mind as a pastor is so finite that I don’t understand many things about the Bible that the congregation was able to bring to the table each Sunday.”

Spurring On

July 12: In Westview Bible Church, Quebec, Canada, a man who suffers from chronic back pain told the congregation, “I have such a temptation to take that extra pill. I know I’ll get addicted. It is so easy for me to become an addict.” After he spoke, two people came up to him and said, “You know, I’m addicted to painkillers, and I’m in the process of weaning myself off.” Nita Kotiuga, a pastor in that church, said: “These were two people we would have never thought of in this regard. In church, you can feel like everyone else has their life together and I’m the only one who’s wrestling. This happened in the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. It was a beautiful, holy moment of God.”


July 1: Bob Maddox, pastor in Grace Community Church, Gresham, OR, explained why their church meetings include frequent one-anothering: “One of our pastors can get up and say, ‘We’re going to have Tom come up and illustrate this point.’ Suddenly, the mood in the entire auditorium changes. Everyone stops and leans forward, wanting to hear Tom’s story. We choose to have people from the body up front on a fairly regular basis, because they can say things we staff people cannot.”

Praying For

June 22: Ollie Malone recalled how, as a seminary student, he had attended The Church on the Way shortly after Jack Hayford had retired from his role as pastor:  

“I was surprised when Pastor Jack (who, although retired, was leading the service that morning, but not preaching) asked the congregation to form in groups of four or so members, introduce ourselves, and identify any specific prayer needs we might have. I ended up in a group with three other men who were alone at the time. Quickly we shared names and prayer needs, then took to the task of prayer. “I have often thought how simple the request was at The Church on the Way, yet how powerful and transformative it was in my life and, I suspect, in the lives of others who still believe in praying for one another, as the Scripture exhorts.”


Greeting. Confessing. Teaching. Spurring On. Encouraging. Praying For. Each of these six can be practiced by members of a church body in a congregational setting. Each offers a means of carrying out a seventh one-anothering action: serving one another. And each flows directly out of Jesus’s New Commandment, “love one another as I have loved you.” He loved us by laying down his life for us. “So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters” (I Jn. 3:16, NLT).

In various ways, each of the seven one-anothering actions described above involves laying down our lives for each other. How? By giving up time and self-interest. By moving out of our comfort zones. At times, by risking misunderstanding or even disapproval. But as we serve one another in these self-giving ways, the body of Christ “builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16).

Teaching One Another in Shared Church

Picture the people in your church. Now imagine Paul the apostle telling them they are “competent to instruct one another.” How would you respond to his evaluation? Perhaps you’d say, “Paul, look again! Teaching should come from our pastor, not from one another.”

Yet Paul actually did write those words to the church congregations in Rome: ““I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14). So far as we know, the church in Rome was launched not by apostles but by Jews who had become Christ-followers. Were the church-planters the Rome residents who made up part of the crowd at Pentecost (see Acts 2:10)?

When he wrote to the Christians in Rome, Paul had never visited that city. His letter to them did include powerful teaching. But apparently those regular church folks—even before receiving his letter—were already qualified to engage in teaching each other.

Panel of New Testament Authors

Who should do the teaching in churches? By means of paraphrase, let’s follow an imaginary panel discussion among several of those who wrote the New Testament:

  • James: Only a few should become teachers. (Jas. 3:1)
  • Paul: True, but elders should be able to teach. (I Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:9)
  • John: I agree. But the anointing of God’s Spirit equips all believers to receive teaching directly from him. Jesus himself said so. (Jn. 14:26; I Jn. 2:27).
  • Paul: Yet God has appointed gifted teachers in and for the church. (Rom. 12:7; I Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11)
  • Author of Hebrews: Think of it this way: infant-stage believers need someone to teach them, but maturity should bring an ability to teach. (Heb. 5;12)
  • Paul: Yes, the goal is that all believers should be able to teach and instruct each other. (Rom. 15:14; I Cor. 14:26; Col. 3:16).

Each panelist is voicing a piece of the truth. What should we conclude after listening to all four? Might we summarize by saying that some Christians have the gift of teaching, but all should be able to participate in the teaching—with the Holy Spirit playing the key role in both groups?

In a similar way, some of us have the gift of giving, but all of us are to give. Some have the gift of mercy, but God calls all of us to show mercy. Think of the havoc it would play if only those with the gift of giving were allowed to give. Or if none but those with the gift of mercy practiced compassion.

Is Participatory Teaching Still Possible?

Was the balance between teaching by those with the gift and teaching by others possible only in New Testament-era churches? Must teaching today be either/or? Experience in contemporary churches leaves no doubt it can be both/and. In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, my interviews with pastors and church leaders reveal how much the church can miss if “non-teachers” have no opportunity to teach. Four examples:

Mark Brouwer, Jacob’s Well Church, Chicago, IL: “All in all, participatory church meetings have made it clear that there is a lot of wisdom in this church—far more than just what I am able to bring.”

Bob Hyatt, The Evergreen Community, Portland, OR: “I came to realize that, although I am the recognized preacher, I might not have the most important thing to say on a given Sunday morning. I’ve noticed that when someone other than the preacher begins to speak in a congregational gathering, people sit up and lean forward.”

Lowell Bakke, had served as pastor, Bethany Baptist Church, Puyallup, WA: “I presented a short teaching commentary on the text then asked those present to interact. . . .Roving microphones made it possible for everyone to hear clearly. I was amazed at some of the insights. It made me realize that even with the aid of the Holy Spirit, my mind as a pastor is so finite that I don’t understand many things about the Bible that the congregation was able to bring to the table each Sunday.”

Dan White, Axiom Church, Syracuse, NY: White has developed and fine-tuned a method of teaching with dialogue. A woman in the congregation told him, “In my previous church experience, I never felt I could offer any insights to the family of God—I was just consuming. Now I’m able to contribute.”

Practical Suggestions

Few Christians—even those with long histories in churches—have experienced the one-anothering kind of teaching during a church gathering. Few pastors have had any training in how to format a church meeting to make such teaching possible. Participatory teaching can take place in any number of ways. In his article, “Interactive Preaching,” Stuart Murray Williams suggests several options:  

“[Interactive preaching] might mean drawing the congregation into sermons by asking questions, inviting responses, welcoming insights. It might mean discussion groups during or after sermons. It might mean changing the way the chairs are arranged to make dialogue and discussion possible. It might mean having two speakers debating an issue together, with congregational participation. It might mean asking several people to reflect on a passage for a week and then construct a sermon together. It might mean inviting a congregation to do some preparatory reading during the week so that they can contribute thoughtfully to a teaching period. It might mean developing a culture where people know they are free to interrupt and interject comments.”

Paul is clear that the body of Christ “grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). How much fullness would your church gain if all who have Spirit-given insights were given opportunity to do their work by sharing them?