Much of Jesus’ teaching on prayer, whether by command or by example, seems to advocate a private, secret prayer life. He often withdraws to a desolate places to pray. He rebukes the boisterous Pharisee for his public prayer and commends the quiet tax collector for his secretive prayer. He commands His disciples to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6.6). Nowhere does Jesus seem to advocate prayer walking.
We must understand two things before venturing any further into a discussion of if we should engage in prayer walking and if we should, how we should participate.
First, we must define what we mean by prayer walking. For the sake of our purposes, we will define prayer walking as the act of praying while interacting in or with physical, public spaces—praying while walking around the park or while sitting on the top of a mountain (which is more prayer sitting, but you have to walk to get there, right?).
Second, we must understand if Jesus’ seemingly disapproval of public prayers prohibits or delimits our engaging in prayer walking. If Jesus outright rebukes and disallows any sort of praying in public, our discussion ought to go no further. However, rightly understood, Jesus’ example of withdrawing by himself to pray and his instruction issued to his disciples to pray in secret should not be understood as an absolute disavowal of praying in public. Instead, we learn from Jesus’ withdrawing by himself to pray that our public engagement of the people and places around us in prayer must be fueled and sustained by hours of prayer in the closet. And we should see in Jesus’ rebuke of pharisaical public prayer that the prayers that honor God are uttered by those well acquainted with their absolute dependence upon God for the very breath to voice a word to Him. Therefore, Jesus’ example of and teaching on prayer does not prohibit prayer walking but it does delimit it. In other words, He places guardrails up to keep us from participating in prayer walking as a self-righteous exercise and to keep us from neglecting the call to the privacy of the prayer closet.
With these guardrails in place, we must now ask the question—how should we participate in prayer walking? For whom or what should we pray? I think there are a few biblical truths and precedents that we would do well to allow to shape our prayer walking.
- Our prayer walking should be fueled by an expectant longing for the kingdom of God to come. In an almost unbelievable statement, Jesus says in Matthew 7.7-8, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” We are so hesitant and timid to believe this! We have reduced prayer to a mechanical ritual in which we engage nearly automatically before meals and bedtime. Certainly God’s graciousness to “give good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7.11) is not license to demand that God meet our demands. God alone, being good, defines the nature of the “good things” He distributes to those who ask. God desires to answer prayers that accord with His purposes in the world—chiefly the establishment of His kingdom. “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son,” Jesus declares in John 14.13. God has designed the prayers of His people to be the wings upon which the Spirit flies to act in the world to establish His kingdom. Therefore, we ought to be persistent in our lifting prayers for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. Prayer walking is an invitation to eagerly expect the kingdom of God to come in our community.
- Prayer walking should be a community project. In Luke 10.1, Jesus sends out seventy-two of His appointed disciples two by two. Likewise, our prayer walking ought to be communal. In other words, we should participate in prayer walking with one another. It should be engaged as a community. The gospel has redeemed us from our sin and joined us by faith with Christ. Therefore, as we belong to Christ, we have also been knit together with and belong to one another. We, as those who have been united with Christ andwith one another are called to participate together, in the power of the Spirit, in His mission. Communal prayer walking is an opportunity to experience that our solidarity is not a theoretical ideal but a spiritual reality. We belong to one another.
- Our prayers should be cosmic in scope. The New Testament is rich with declaration that the mission of God is to accomplish the restoration and renewal of all things (see Colossians 1.20 for one example). Therefore, our prayers should be for the redemption of all things—people and places, cultures and institutions. While man’s sinful rebellion in the beginning fractured and disoriented the whole of the human existence and the whole of the created order, Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s making all thingsnew—in the whole of the human existence and the whole of the created order. Our prayers should express a desire to see God’s blessing of redemption flow “far as the curse is found” as the old hymn declares. As we walk (or sit or stand), we should open our eyes to the people and the places, the cultures and the institutions that make up our community—all of which cry out for the redemption found only in Jesus.
- We must not pray to the neglect of caring. James poses a pointed questions in James 2.15-16: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” As we walk around our community, we will undoubtedly encounter people in need. The aim of prayer walking will be short-circuited if we do not meet the physical needs of the people we encounter with a gospel-fueled generosity. What good is it to ignore the starving man on the curb in the name of prayer walking? This is nothing less than the hypocrisy of the Jewish priest and Levite that Jesus condemns in Luke 10.30-37. Prayer walking will create opportunities for a genuine love of God to overflow into a genuine love for neighbor that will manifest itself in kingdom-picturing deeds. Yet meeting physical needs only would also be incomplete. Kingdom-picturing deeds must be accompanied by kingdom-proclaiming words. Praying for God’s kingdom to come in our community will demand we care for our community as manifestations of the kingdom of God.
When rightly engaged, prayer walking confronts us with the reality of the mission to which God has called us here and now, in this place and time. It moves us from praying for nameless, faceless people to praying for and interacting with real people—people who have faces and names and stories and who, above all, need Jesus. Prayer walking moves us from an ambiguous, removed concern for place into real places—parks and schools and restaurants and neighborhoods that long to be reclaimed by King Jesus. In this way, prayer walking becomes not only vital but necessary to our kingdom mission. May we, as kingdom people, be faithful to engage in prayer walking as mission.