Are Prayer List Prayers Biblical?


Our pastor uses a list on Sunday mornings to pray with. We must pray for 20 things in 2-3 minutes. Is this really prayer?


Thanks for your question. I refer to prayers you describe in your question as "subtitle prayers" because on paper "Prayer" is at the top and below are many issues to pray about. It is a list of needs and desires that are briefly named before the Lord in rapid succession. It’s more like several short memos to God. While God can and does answer such a prayer, I do see some inherent dangers with it.

Some individuals defend this method of prayer by using Matthew 6:7 which says, "And when you are praying, do not use thoughtless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words" (NASB). This then becomes the sum total of their prayer life. However, this isn’t what the Bible is actually teaching.

Matthew 6:7 is not to be understood as a condemnation against repetitive prayer because Jesus even repeated his own prayers. Look at Matthew 26:39 and 42 where Jesus prays the same prayer. Then in Matthew 26:44 it says, "So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again." The point Jesus is making in Matthew 6:7 isn't about repetition as such, rather about thoughtless repetition in prayer, keeping in mind that in Jesus’ day, some Gentiles participated in pagan idol worship which would include, among other things, repetitive chanting of words and phrases (cf. 1 Kings 18:25-29). The Living God isn’t like Baal who was mocked by Elijah: “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27 ESV).

God "gets it" the first time. He doesn’t need to hear phrases thoughtlessly or meaninglessly repeated numerous times. Just one verse after Matthew 6:7 Jesus says, "Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him." The reality is God already knows what we are going to pray before we even utter our first word. [1] What could repetition add? God is more concerned about quality in prayer than quantity. (Though we should pray much more than we already do.)

Brief prayers can be biblical (cf. Exod. 32:31-32; 1 Kings 3:6-9; 18:36-37; 2 Kings 19:14-19; 1 Chron. 4:10; Prov. 30:7-9; Luke 18:13; 23:42; Acts 7:60; Eph. 3:14-19). Nehemiah had many one-liners (Neh. 4:4, 5; 5:19; 6:9; 13:14, 29, 31). Yet, there is a danger if we neglect longer prayers which are also biblical (cf. 2 Chron. 6:14-42; Neh. 9:1-38; Dan. 9:4-27; John 17:1-26). In the pulpit, both should be used as this best expounds the whole counsel of God. Importantly, we should remember God answers persistent prayers (cf. Luke 11:5-10). Even Jesus prayed all through the night at times (Luke 6:12).

Another danger of "subtitle prayers" is the lack of our listening as rapid-fire requests are made. Many of us—including me—are goal-oriented; we must finish the list. True prayer, however, consists of listening, not just talking (cf. 1 Kings 19:9-13). Firing off so many prayers so rapidly we are often remiss to be still and listen to God’s answer(s). Sometimes we forget that prayer is two-way and that God desires to communicate with his people even more than we desire to talk with him. God listens and he answers our prayers—sometimes immediately! (cf. Matt. 14:30). In Psalm 62:1 David says, "For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation." Prayer should drive us even more to thirst, in faith, for the Lord’s answer (Psa. 42:2). We need to be disciplined in waiting attentively for whatever the Lord desires to say (Psa. 46:10). Lamentations 3:25-26 states, "The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord." As we are patient in prayer, we can even hear ourselves, i.e., too many or too few adjectives in our dialogue, or perhaps recognize a sinful tone or attitude.

Finally, whether it be a brief or long prayer, we all tend to babble meaningless words at times. In an effort to finish our own lists we feel compelled to rush through them. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? If we aren’t careful, prayer can become a routine mechanical, automated, heartless, bot-like process. There is no place in the church for dead formalism. Prayer shouldn’t be a ritual. It’s relational.


[1] We can’t surprise God. God knows everything. We call this omniscience. We can have faith that God hears and purposely listens to our prayers as he knows our frame (Psa. 103:14) and heart (Luke 16:15). He knows them that are his (2 Tim. 2:19; cf. Psa. 1:6) and who trust in him (Nah. 1:7). He knows how to deliver the godly (2 Pet. 2:9). He knows what we will pray (and not pray) before we even ask him. Thus, we should relax knowing that he already has it all in the palm of his hand. It's his to control. His answers aren’t always what we desire to hear, but they are always for our good (Rom. 8:28).

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).