Teach Your Congregation How to Develop a Daily Prayer Habit

I think pastors and small group leaders have tremendous opportunities to help their congregants develop a habit of daily prayer, even learning from recent discoveries in brain science and habit formation. Practically, I’ve found it helpful to work through the following steps: 

1. Start small: instead of hoping for a 30-minute daily prayer time, let’s encourage our people to start with writing a one-sentence prayer in a simple notebook each night before they go to bed, or to spend the first two minutes of their morning commute talking to God about what’s on their heart. Jesus tells us that being faithful in little things will lead us to be faithful in large ones too (Luke 16:10). And according to Stanford University professor BJ Fogg, tiny habits minimize our brain’s perceived resistance and make us more likely to stick with our new habit long-term.

2. Link prayer to an established habit: instead of a vague admonition to pray more, let’s encourage our congregations to talk to God while they’re doing other things. For example, while the coffee is brewing,  greet the Lord with a “Good morning!” and pray through a psalm. (That’s both small and linked up!) Or keep a list of prayer needs next to your mechanic bench or your kitchen cutting board. Linking new habits to established ones helps us remember to practice them, and it’s also biblical, as Moses described in Deuteronomy 6:4-9.

3. Make it enjoyable: this might sound frivolous at first, but conversation with the Creator of the Universe ought not to be a dour task. Instead, we can encourage our people to lean into their learning styles and personality types, even while praying. Some people will find more joy in praying while walking or running instead of kneeling or sitting in a chair. Others will enjoy writing out their prayers in a journal, while others find instrumental music helps focus their minds in prayer. We serve a creative God who welcomes us to come to Him in myriad creative ways (see Psalms 148-150), which also, incidentally, increases the production of dopamine in our brains, an essential component of creating new habits.

4. Celebrate growth: too often in churches, we use shame and guilt as leverage to get people to “do the right thing.” But what if we turned this around and focused instead on the small, incremental growth we’re seeing in these new prayer habits? Instead of bemoaning that we only prayed 4 days out of 7, can we celebrate that we went from 0 days to 4? That’s exponential growth! God is the One who grows His fruit in our lives, so any growth ought to cause our hearts to praise Him. Brain scientist Charles Duhigg attests that when we reward new habits (even just with a verbal exclamation), we are more likely to stick with those new habits, and continue growing them over time. Scripture also exhorts us to not despise small beginnings, because God Himself rejoices to see a new work starting (Zechariah 4:10). 

5. Build your habit: once these small habits are a regular part of our daily routine, we can grow them incrementally—either getting longer (from 2 minutes to 5 minutes, to 10 minutes, to 20+ minutes) or stacking habits throughout the day. Imagine what our churches and communities would look like if our days were filled with tiny habits of praying while brushing our teeth, making coffee, starting our morning commute, watching the news, and dozens of other touchpoints throughout the day? We would indeed “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17) because we would be walking in the Spirit, with a constant awareness of God’s presence. 

These creative tiny prayer habits may not seem like much at first, but compounded together, day after day, habit upon habit, person upon person, they can absolutely revitalize a congregation’s prayer life.