Carl McColman: What is the relationship between Christian prayer and meditation?


A reader named Bill wrote to me recently and asked this question:

How does a church pray as a group? Is there a place in the church for intercession and supplication?

Should a congregation pray as a group? There is very little interest in prayer or teaching on prayer in the church I attend, although great interest in meditation and contemplation. This appears to be a contradiction in terms but sadly it is not. I'm just confused. Should not the Church be a "house of prayer" (Matthew 21:13)? Should not the Church stand in the gap and intercede for the world?

I am an ordained and seminary trained Wesleyan pastor. I no longer pastor but I still pray. As I left our small prayer group tonight it saddened me to see the church who sees no need for prayer. But seems quite content in their "meditative illusions" ... How should the church pray?

Bill, I would also be sad if I encountered a group of Christians who had no interest in prayer. But I wonder if that's what's really going on here.

There are many different ways to pray. Some forms of prayer are specifically geared toward asking for God's blessings, either for one's self (supplication) or others (intercession). These kinds of prayer are traditionally considered "vocal" prayer since we pray using words. "Lord, bless Susan as she undergoes chemotherapy; please heal her and give her and her family strength during this difficult time."

Sometimes the best prayer is prayer without words...

Sometimes the best prayer is prayer without words...

But that's not the only way to pray. The Bible instructs us to "keep silent" before God (Habakuk 2:20) and to be still and know God (Psalm 46:10). Another verse, often mistranslated in English, even links silence with praise (Psalm 65:1, see this blog post on this verse).

So it sounds like your prayer group focuses on silent prayer, but isn't interested in vocal prayer. If your group only has a limited time to meet, or simply wants to keep the focus on silence, then I could see why the group leaders might want to limit your time together to silent prayer.

Now, I'm not sure what you mean by "meditative illusions." Do you think meditation is an illusion? If so, then why? Or maybe more to the point, do you think meditation is different from prayer? For many people, meditation represents the highest form of prayer. So I wonder if you have a clear understanding of your group's theology of prayer.

Of course, I'm not a member of your group, and I don't want to put words into their mouths. But let me share with you my thoughts on this topic, and perhaps it will shed some light.

As I said above, their are two broad categories of prayer: prayer that is based in words/thoughts, and prayer that is based in silence.

Most Christians are more familiar with word-based prayer. This is the prayer where we talk to God, either out loud (vocal prayer) or silently in our thoughts (mental prayer). Word-based prayer can include intercession and supplication like you mentioned, but also thanksgiving, adoration/praise, and confession.

Word-based prayer can be extemporaneous - we pray whatever words arise in our hearts, spontaneously - or scripted, where we pray the Psalms, other prayers in scripture (like the Lord's prayer), other scripture passages, or other prayers written by saints or theologians.

Some people resist the idea of "praying out of a book" but I think it's beautiful. When we pray words written by someone else, we are joining our voice to theirs, to create a chorus of praise, thanksgiving, or petition. Sometimes we have a hard time coming up with the right words, when a Psalm or canticle or some other prayer can help us along the way.

So word-based prayer, in my opinion, ought to be a part of every Christian's life. Having said that, I also know that some Christians struggle with the language of prayer - perhaps they are uncomfortable with traditional images of God (the Father, the Judge, the Almighty) and so they resist praying. That's a spiritual issue, but it does affect some people.

Now, what I want you to think about, Bill, is that you don't always need words to pray. Sometimes, the best prayer is the prayer with no words at all. This is the prayer of silence. It's traditionally called meditation or contemplation. It can have an emotional content - filled with love, or sorrow, or gratitude, all at a level deeper than words - or it can simply be peaceful, vast, open, and serene.

This is the prayer of simply being present with God.

I like to compare it to a happily married couple who have been together for years, and can spend their evenings together quietly; maybe one of them is knitting and the other is working on a puzzle, but they share their time, without needing to chat all the time. The silence is a gentle, friendly, loving silence.

As I mentioned above, there is solid scriptural mandates for praying in silence. "For God alone my soul waits in silence," proclaims the author of Psalm 62. He doesn't say his mind is filled with thoughts! He is simply silent, gently waiting on God. That is the heart of Christian meditation or contemplation.

This is NOT a "meditative illusion." It is a rich and deep way of praying, one that Christians have been doing for centuries (although for many centuries, this type of prayer was largely limited to monasteries and convents, which means a lot of "ordinary" Christians missed out on this beautiful way of praying: nobody ever taught them how to do it!).

I titled this post "What is the relationship between Christian prayer and silence?" It's the relationship between words and silence. As I said, I believe prayer and meditation need each other. We need silence in our lives - too much noise has proven health and psychological risks - and we need silence in our prayer too. We also need words, since it is by words that we share our ideas, feelings, and dreams with one another.

Christian spirituality is dedicated to growing in intimacy with God. Both the prayer of silence and praying with words is necessary for such intimacy to flourish.

Back to your situation, Bill. When you use a disparaging term like "meditative illusions" it sounds to me like you see silent prayer as less important than word-based prayer. I think that's a theological mistake. I hope you will be more open to silent prayer - to meditation - as a valid and important and nurturing way to grow closer to God.

Having said that, I also hope you will take time to speak with the leaders of your small prayer group, to clarify why they do not want to engage in intercession and supplication. Do they feel like there's not enough time for word-based prayer? Or perhaps there is another small group at your church that already has a ministry of vocal prayer, so this particular group focusses on meditation? I think you need some clarification from the group, that only the group can provide.

If they actually are resistant to vocal prayer, try to find out why. Maybe it has to do with the struggle over language, like I mentioned above. Or perhaps there is another reason. I think it's worth talking about. It could well be that this prayer group is not the best spiritual home for you. But before you jump to that conclusion, see if you can request even just five minutes at the beginning or the end of each meeting when the group can engage in prayers of petition and intercession. Maybe the group needs your leadership in this area.

I hope this is helpful. Thanks for reading my blog, and I wish you every joy as you continue your adventure in responding to God's love in your life.


From Carl's blog at