Look, maybe baby brain is a thing; maybe it’s not. My pregnancy did mark the beginning of an increase in readers notifying me of typos on GoThereFor—but maybe I’m just getting old. Or I miss the attention-sharpening pressure of working in immovable print. Or it’s really easy to tell editors when they’re wrong now that we’re on social media.
Problems with focus stem from a variety of sources: stress at work, lack of sleep, hunger. I’m sure you can think of at least five of your own. A lot of them we can’t do anything about; we just have to wait for them to pass and try the best we can in the meantime.
That’s why I decided that my mental wanderings during prayer times at church and Bible study were no longer to be excused or ignored. I can’t wait for the magical day where my toddler hasn’t exhausted me and I don’t have a headache and I’m not imagining lunch and you get the point.
I decided to try a few different ways to stay on task while listening and agreeing with the person praying aloud on my behalf. Here’s some I found helpful.
I discovered this while listening to the audio Bible on the bus; it’s easier to stay tuned in to what a speaker is saying if you mentally repeat what they just said as they pause between sentences. You may not be able to sneak the whole sentence into their pause, especially if they’re an unfortunately speedy speaker, but just getting in the last clause seems to make a big difference. I found this repetition also helped me actually connect with the prayer; it’s hard to stay indifferent about a plea to God when you’re echoing it in your mind.
It makes sense to teach children to close their eyes when praying; they are filled with curiosity and energy that they struggle to control. The average adult, however, has been longing for a quick nap for the last few hours, and shutting your eyes becomes a blessed relief and encourages your brain to snooze. Try looking down at the floor instead. Generally nothing is too stimulating or distracting there, but you’re still reminded to be awake. Don’t look around the room; if you accidentally make eye-contact with someone else it’s distracting for both of you, plus you may demoralize the person praying if they have their eyes open to read and they spot you gazing out the window.
When you listen to your friend in regular conversations, you make quiet encouraging sounds like ‘uh-huh’ and ‘mm’ to show that you are listening, agree, and want them to continue. You can do this quietly during group prayer too; joining in vocally may help keep you on task. You may find that you’re already doing so when praying aloud in twos or threes, so the only difference is that you probably need to keep it a bit quieter in order not to distract the person next to you. However, if you’re in the habit of switching off and mmm-ing your way through conversations with your spouse, maybe this isn’t the technique for you (also, cut that out).
You’re gathered together before the King of the Universe, praising and petitioning him. It’s an incredible honour. You wouldn’t tune out while standing before your country’s president or prime minister—and you might not even like them! Don’t let the ease of praying to God cause you to forget the wonder of it all. The God who controls your every breath is listening (1 John 5:14-15). The prayer that you are daydreaming through is his vehicle for change (Jas 5:16). It’s a precious activity of the body of Christ (Acts 1:14). Try reading Revelation if you’re feeling a bit blasé about God’s glory; chapter 8 is especially relevant for prayer.
Pray before you go to church or group, asking for God’s help. He wants you to pray together with his other children. Because this is a prayer that is in line with God’s will, it’s a request that he wants you to make. You may be surprised by what form his assistance takes, but you’d be a bit dense not to ask for it.
By the way, if you’ve barely thrown three words God’s way since last Tuesday, you’re unlikely to have the spiritual discipline to last out a five-minute conversation. Maybe your lack of focus during corporate prayer is a symptom of a wider problem that you need to deal with separately.
Eat beforehand. Use the toilet. Take a jacket if you know you’ll be cold. Put your phone on silent. Basically don’t give your body an excuse to call for attention. All these things will help you get the most out of any service or study meeting, and hopefully you’re already doing them, but don’t belittle outsmarting yourself.
Whoops, you caught yourself rehashing the grocery list in your mind instead of following the prayer. Now is not the time to berate yourself for two minutes about what a hopeless Christian you are. That is also off-task. Just pray “Sorry” and get right back to joining in with the group. Demonstrate repentance by getting right back to what you’re meant to be doing.
Do I stay focused during every single prayer time, now that I’m doing the above? Uh, no. But I’m doing better, and our forgiving God is more likely to be pleased with a rightful effort to give him the attention he deserves than to condemn us for not being perfect (spoiler alert: he already knows). Failing to avoid sin once is not an excuse to give up and sin constantly.
Today is the day that the Lord has given us to use by talking to him together. Let’s do all we can to stay tuned in and make the most of it.