Often I am asked, “Where should we start in bringing biblical counseling into our church?” I like to come at this question from an unusual angle—but one that builds directly on something that already happens in churches. I say, “Change the way you make prayer requests, and the way you pray for each other.” When prayer requests deal with matters of consequence, when we learn to pray for each other about the actual struggles of our souls, when prayer aligns with God’s deepest purposes, then we simultaneously are making a huge start at becoming alert, effective counselors. For example, the Bible’s prayers are rarely about health, travel mercies, finances, doing well on a test, finding a job, or the salvation of unsaved relatives. Of course, these are legitimate things to pray for, but they are a minor emphasis in Scripture. Even so, these topics typically dominate most church and small group prayer requests. They easily miss the real action of God’s dealings with his beloved people.

In contrast, the driving focus of biblical prayer asks God to show himself, asks that we will know him, asks that we will love others. It names our troubles. It names our troublesome reactions and temptations. It names our holy desires. It names our God, his promises, and his will. When someone asks you, “How may I pray for you?” imagine the impact of responding in a manner such as this: “I’ve had a lot on my mind lately, and I've been inattentive and irritable to those nearest and dearest to me. Please pray for me, that I will awaken and turn from my preoccupation with work pressures, recreations, health problems, or money. God promises to help me pay attention to him. Ask him to help me remember and focus. Ask him to help me to take my family and other people to heart. Pray that I will take refuge in him when the pressure is on. The Lord is my refuge, but I’ve been taking refuge in TV and food.” This kind of prayer gets things that matter on the table—things that matter both immediately and eternally. It so happens that these are the daily versions of the issues that serious counseling deals with.

When people start to identify where they really need God’s help, then they enter the world of both prayer and counseling. We step into reality. Most prayer requests ask for God to give external blessings. But biblical prayer, like counseling, deals with how God meets us, comforts us, changes us. Retooling our prayer requests is an accessible way for believers in a church to begin to teach each other to talk about the things that really matter, the things that are on God’s heart. If you are praying for matters of personal consequence, then you will have conversations of consequence.

How can you help people change the way they make prayer requests? First and foremost, model what it’s like to be in touch with where you really need God’s mercies, strength, and wisdom. Second, help God’s people to study what the Bible shows and tells about prayer. Learning to pray is not mainly about how often we pray, or the techniques and elements that go into prayer. It is about how to need the right things, and how to look in the right direction for what you need. What is the Lord’s Prayer asking for? What are the Psalms asking for? What about God comes into view in the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms? This is what we ought to be asking for from others, and how we ought to be praying for each other. The focus is on what people really need—not just the external blessings we crave. Real prayer engages the real person who stands before God needing much mercy, much guidance, much strength. As we do it, we start to become attuned to the dynamics of reality. As we are in touch with reality, then we are in touch with what really matters. We will then start to create conversations and accountability that is counseling-oriented.

Of course, there are many other “counseling-specific” things that can be taught, discussed, planned, and implemented. But prayer requests are a surprising door into the world of caring practically and pointedly for each other.

Thank you to Paul Tautges who interviewed me in December 2012. This blog represents a further development of the ideas we talked about.