Book Review: A Praying Church, by Paul E. Miller
Paul E. Miller, A Praying Church: Becoming a People of Hope in a Discouraging World. Crossway, 2023. 304 pages.
As someone who has been significantly encouraged by A Praying Life and shares Paul Miller’s concern to see prayer (re)established at the heart of the life of the people of God, I was delighted to see the release of A Praying Church. Even the title is a cause for celebration! This is, however, an unusual book which, whilst well worth reading and carefully considering (especially by pastors), does have some idiosyncrasies that are helpful to be aware of up front.
At its best, this book offers a long and open conversation with a passionate and godly Christian leader who has spent much of his adult life thinking about, promoting, and modelling prayer. The book is littered with stories of experience: Paul’s father, Jack, and mother, Rose, loom large in the background as does Miller’s experience in various ministries and local churches. Many of these stories are moving, challenging, and readily applicable. Perhaps what I love most about the book (which is typical of all the author’s work) is the winsome, humble openness with which he shares his own struggles and triumphs. All this makes A Praying Church an engaging, delightful read and feeds into its greatest strength.
The book is divided into five sections: Why Pray Together?, What Is the Church?, How the Spirit Reshapes a Praying Community, The Art of Praying Together, and Specialized Praying in Community. To me, the book gets stronger as it goes on, and it is in the final section, which is the most practical, that Miller is at his most compelling.
When it comes to praying on Sundays, in prayer meetings, as couples, and in relationships, Miller provides a plethora of possibilities and suggestions, building on but not repeating the ideas in A Praying Life. The ideas and practical wisdom come thick and fast. No doubt, some will raise their eyebrow at some of his proposals, but this section of the book is invaluable. It gives every leader both the tools and the impetus to triage some of the key challenges we face if we are to be a praying church. By sheer weight of suggestion, Miller mounts a convincing case that we really should be praying more and differently and offers all kinds of pathways into change, which is a deeply valuable contribution. This is why pastors should read this book. However, they also need to understand its weaknesses.
The power of the stories in this book is essentially the driving force of its argument and support. Unfortunately, Miller tends to make bold assertions and then back them with an example, rather than any consideration of Scripture. For example, on page 151, he asserts that plans which start with planning rather than prayer will fail and backs it up with an anonymous example of a plan for a denomination to double its size, which “did not emerge out of prayer, but of self-confidence.” The verdict? “It failed.” In many cases, I found myself puzzling over whether the powerful and striking claims were warranted (e.g. on page 67, discussing Ephesians 1, “The apostle isn’t modelling prayer: his prayer is the Spirit’s conduit to bring the life of Jesus into the Ephesian Community”). The book is littered with intriguing and stimulating statements like this. Many of them are true, but the exegetical support for the conclusions is either thin or absent. This made reading the book a slightly frustrating experience.
This tendency is replicated in some of the most interesting parts of the book. In chapter 19, Restoring Prayer to Sunday Morning, a short section on the worship of the early church is peppered with statements like, “No one did Sunday morning prayer better than the post-New Testament early church. . . The early church believed that corporate prayer joined them to divine power.” Fascinating. But where is the evidence? Miller may well be right, but at points where this reader at least needed to be persuaded, he often found only assertions followed by contemporary examples to support the point.
This is an important, engaging, and timely book. I hope many pastors read it, and I hope they read it critically. Unfortunately, if you expect a clear and robust explanation of the nature of the church and why we must pray, then you may be disappointed. The lack of a clear ecclesiology is evident at several key points. In the same way, if you go looking for careful exegesis of key biblical passages, you will not find many. Often, biblical texts are alluded to, or appealed to for support; they are rarely explained or wrestled with.
However, if you understand that this is a chance to listen to Paul Miller talking frankly about the weaknesses of the prayers of the evangelical church today, calling us to repent and change, and making practical suggestions for ways in which to do this, then this is a valuable, helpful, and moving book. So read it, listen to a faithful brother, benefit from his wisdom, weigh what he says, and then throw yourself into the work of serving Christ by serving his church with a renewed commitment to crying out to our great God together in prayer.