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Leadership 1994


Why People Don't Pray

My booth at Denny's was turning into a confession booth. Once a week I would meet over breakfast with David Wall, a psychologist friend, and more often than not, find myself confessing to yet another sparse week of personal prayer and Bible reading.

I felt like a phony. I preached, taught classes, and instructed new members on the necessity of a daily quiet time, yet my own spiritual life was impoverished. Why was I so consistently inconsistent in my personal devotions?


David suggested I examine why I was avoiding devotions. Social psychologists, he explained, say there are four major factors under girding any behavior. Consciously or subconsciously, people weigh these factors when embracing or resisting an activity. These four factors can be stated in question form.

Will it work for me?

For years Susan had kept her "daily appointment with God." Then her 10-year-old son was hit by a car. After hanging on for two weeks, he died. Susan now says, "What's the use of praying? I prayed harder in those two weeks than in my whole life, but Timmy still died!"

Susan no longer has confidence that prayer makes a difference. Her outcome expectations have been shaken. She knows how to pray but expects nothing to come from it.

How can Susan be helped? Since her prayer problems center on expectations, Susan needs guidance to see if what she expects prayer to accomplish is realistic and biblical. She might find, for example, that she has taken one aspect of prayer, petition, and isolated it from others, such as submission, intimacy, and comfort (as in Jesus' prayer in the Garden).

Can I do it?

Frank became a Christian as an adult. He was enthusiastic about his faith, but when his pastor urged him to read the Bible each day, he thought, I've never liked to read. I don't even read the paper. Repeated challenges only made him feel defeated.

Frank's struggle is with self-efficacy--having confidence that he could successfully accomplish a task. Like the smoker who knows stopping will improve his health (outcome expectation) but doesn't think he has the willpower to quit (self-efficacy), Frank believes reading the Bible would help him grow spiritually, but that his nonliterary mindset leaves him powerless to read it regularly.

Several approaches can be taken to help Frank and those like him to increase their confidence. One is to link them with people of similar abilities and backgrounds who are mastering the task. A second is to provide them with small experiences of success, to build their skills and morale. A third is verbal encouragement.

What's it worth to me?

Joanie wonders if spending time "getting to know God," as her youth leader puts it, is a valuable goal in its own right. After all, she thinks to herself, I've enjoyed my life so far. How could spending time every day praying and reading the Bible make my life better?

Joanie is questioning the outcome value of personal devotions. She may already expect that it will make her a better Christian, and she may feel confident she could do it if she wanted to. But, she asks, why become a better Christian?

This may be the sleeper factor plaguing the devotional life of many Christians. Of the four behavioral factors, it is the one most often overlooked. We assume that Christians would value the outcome of the spiritual disciplines, but outcomes are not valued unless they are defined, and that is not always easy to do. For example, what specific values are nurtured in the devotional life: A happier life? Closeness to God? Warm feelings? Insight into God's ways?

In Joanie's case, unless her youth pastor realizes that she does not see the value in personal devotions, the time spent encouraging devotional habits will be wasted. For someone to value spiritual disciplines may require nothing less than a call for spiritual renewal or conversion.

What will it cost me?

"What will I give up if I study this weekend?" asks Jeff. If it rains all weekend, the answer may be not much. But if it means missing a day at the beach with his girlfriend, the cost will be much higher.

Jeff knows he can study effectively (self-efficacy), believes studying will result in good grades (outcome expectation), and realizes that good grades are important to his future (outcome value)--but he'd still rather go to the beach.

For personal devotions, cost is often expressed as "I don't have enough time." Sleep, recreation, family, and work schedules all compete for the heart and the mind.

How do we help people "count the cost," as Jesus counseled? One way is to strengthen the first three factors (expectations, skills, and values). As people see the worth of prayer and Bible reading, they become more willing to pay a higher cost.

Another approach is to lower the cost. For example, the novice, rather than being urged to practice a "sweet hour of prayer" each day, might be encouraged to spend five minutes a day in prayer and Bible reading.

These four questions helped me pinpoint my own spiritual lethargy. I had confidence in being able to perform the disciplines, and I valued spirituality. But my outcome expectations were in the cellar! I had gone through several tough years, seeing little of what I was expecting from my devotional life. Like Susan who lost her son, I wondered, "Why keep trying when so little ever changes?"

When I diagnosed my problem, I took steps to change my expectations. I sought out a pastor I respected and poured out my frustration. Through weekly meetings, my expectations steadily shifted. Intimacy with God, not results, became my primary motive. Slowly my enthusiasm began to rise, and the cost in time and effort became less daunting.


Encouraged by my experience, I wondered if this framework could be used with our congregation. David and I created an anonymous, nineteen-question survey on prayer and inserted it in the Sunday bulletin. About 30 percent of our church family responded.

We found that our members value Christian spirituality and believe prayer is a way to achieve positive benefits. Yet they are not confident in their ability to pray.

Since confidence is built through small, achievable experiences, sermons on the value of prayer would be of little use in this situation. Even "how to" messages on prayer and Bible study would be of minimal value, since they give no opportunity for personal experience. Plus, they come from a perceived expert, not an "ordinary believer."

So we decided to enter a program that challenged us to look for "God sightings," signs of God's hand in our everyday lives. People talked about seeing God in new ways, and others shared answers to prayer. We also used our small groups as a place for people to achieve small-step experiences in prayer that helped boost confidence.

Then, we tested thirteen new members and found they had greater expectations for prayer than did the congregation as a whole. They also valued Christian spirituality more than the average member! However, the new members scored lower in personal confidence (self-efficacy) and saw a higher cost involved in praying.

Prodded by our survey, we refocused our six-week new member assimilation process. The class session that formerly addressed the value of spiritual growth now concentrates on building skills. We redoubled efforts to move new members into a small group so they would see prayer modeled in a safe environment.

We have found that this approach to prayer helps us to pinpoint problems and to accurately treat them. Physicians of the body learned long ago that successful treatments grew out of accurate diagnoses. Doctors of the soul can learn to do likewise. Richard P. Hansen is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Visalia, California. David Wall is a psychologist. Uncovering attitudes how to survey your members about spiritual disciplines.

Using a self-efficacy survey, you can discover why church members struggle to pray, read the Bible, or evangelize. Write short, assertively-worded statements for each construct listed below.

Here's an example:

Self-efficacy measures the confidence a person has that he or she could successfully engage in a specific task. To measure this in a survey about evangelism, you might include statements like these:

A. I am confident I could share my faith effectively with a non-Christian.

B. I am confident I could present the gospel orally to a non-Christian.

Outcome Expectation measures the confidence an individual has that if he or she successfully engages in the specific task, it will result in specific outcomes. Possible statements:

C. If I share my faith with non-Christians, some will accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

D. If I share my faith with non-Christians, I will grow spiritually.

Outcome Value is the value the person places on the task (e.g., evangelism) and/or the outcome (e.g., people accepting Jesus Christ as Savior). Possible statements:

E. I believe it is critically important for every Christian to share his or her faith.

F. I believe Jesus Christ is the only way to receive eternal life, so it is important for everyone to accept Jesus Christ.

Cost measures the influence of potential adverse consequences as a result of engaging in the task. Possible statements:

G. It would make me very nervous if I attempted to share my faith with a non-Christian.

H. I would not want to risk offending someone by talking with them about my beliefs about God.

For each statement, people should circle a number from 0 (not true at all) to 10 (completely true).

(Note: scores for "negatively worded" statements, such as G and H above, will need to be reversed. For example, if the person marked 3 on letter G, her score would be 7; if the person marked 8 on letter G, her score would be 2.)

To score, simply add the response for every question under a construct (say, outcome value); then divide by the number of those questions. Do this for each of the four constructs, and you'll see which one most hinders people.

Copyright 1994 Richard P. Hansen with David Wall

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