Prayer is one of the most foundational aspects of the Christian faith, but it’s also one of the least understood and practiced. Some of us are afraid of praying in front of others because we don’t know how to pray “the right way.” Some of us feel defeated before even trying because “pray without ceasing” just seems impossible. Some of us feel anger or disappointment at what seem like unanswered prayers.

When I was a sophomore in college, a friend invited me to gospel choir rehearsal. The choir members met for Bible study an hour before rehearsal, and at the end of that time, the leader asked me to say the closing prayer. I’m an introvert who hates being in the spotlight, so I was the proverbial deer in headlights! Praying aloud wasn’t something I felt confident doing at that time, but he wouldn’t let me wiggle out of the task. I’m so glad he didn’t! I realized that day that the only way to overcome my fear of praying aloud was to just do it. 

The Study of Prayer
Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about prayer from books, Sunday school classes, and sermons. And I’ve become that person who gently encourages others to overcome their fear of praying out loud. One of the most dynamic pray-ers I’ve ever met is Minister Valonda Smith, a Chicago native.

As a teen, Valonda accepted Christ and began her ministry journey. For more than 30 years, she has shared the good news of God’s story through creative arts such as music, spoken word, and preaching. As a bivocational minister, Valonda’s “day job” is as a senior director for a Christ-centered after-school program where she supports and creates opportunities for teens across Chicago to discover their next steps in life. She is also the founder and executive director of 7:14 Culture, a faith-based 501c3 nonprofit organization. Valonda is passionate about people embracing their unique identities and walking in purpose. When she’s not serving, she enjoys shopping, a good rom-com, and ice cream.

I’m honored to serve alongside Valonda in ministry, and I’m excited to share her wisdom with the world!

NN: Why is prayer important?
VS: Prayer is important because it is our connection to the Father. It is how we build relationship. Through prayer we get to know God’s voice, his heart, and his desires. It is also the place where we give ourselves to him, and in return, he tells us who we are to him. Prayer is where unconditional love is experienced, sins are forgiven, help is found, and purpose is revealed.

NN: What are some of the reasons that believers don’t pray?
VS: Not understanding the purpose of prayer in our lives will cause us to neglect it. Many believers say that it is hard to find the time to pray, but the truth is that we make time to do what is important to us. 

Shame about what we have done will cause us not to talk to God. This is one of the biggest tricks of the enemy. One of the main purposes of prayer is to confess our sins to a loving God who is able to forgive, heal, and deliver.

 Believers don’t pray because they don’t know how. We are led in the “sinners’ prayer,” then we are told to come to church, serve and don’t sin. We are not given the tools for how to study our Bibles or pray, and these are fundamentals for building relationship with God. So, we have believers who work but don’t have relationship.

NN: What are some myths or misconceptions about prayer?
VS: One of the biggest misconceptions about prayer is that we only pray when something bad happens. It is as if prayer is a response to life and not a way of life. Another myth is that people who use flowery, big words really know how to pray and that God hears them, but Matthew 6:7 tells us differently. 

NN: Tell us about 7:14 Culture. (What is it, how was it birthed, etc.)
VS: 7:14 Culture is a ministry whose mission is to create a culture of prayer and bridge the gap between church and community one conversation, one kind act, one community at a time. It all started in prayer when I was asking God what I could do to help with the violence in my city. I was led to 2 Chronicles 7:14. “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” I realized that the church had a role to play in the healing of our world. Because I am a part of the church, that meant I had a part to play. And it began with prayer.

I asked people I knew to take a minute to pray for their city twice a day, at 7:14 a.m. and 7:14 p.m. This started a bigger conversation about how so many people who had been in church for most of their lives were uncomfortable with prayer. Why? Because they didn’t know how to pray, and they weren’t sure that God heard them when they did pray. In 2018, with the help of my husband and a few friends, I launched monthly prayer workshops in community centers around my city. It was a safe space for those from different churches to gather and be equipped to pray. 

7:14 Culture not only taught people how to pray but also how to respond to prayer. We also began going into communities to pray and do acts of kindness like feeding the homeless and partnering with churches to teach about prayer and provide support for outreach activities. 

Once the COVID-19 pandemic started, we continued to create a culture of prayer through a weekly prayer call and occasional virtual workshops. We believe that a culture of prayer can change the world.

NN: Would you tell me about a time that God answered what seemed like an impossible prayer?
VS: In 2015, I was diagnosed with a lymphadenectomy. This was the second time the doctors discovered an abnormal lymph node underneath my jaw line that needed to be removed. They told me that this procedure would be like the last one: after a two-week recovery period, I could return to life as normal. But after my first week of recovery, I was unable to move my right arm. The doctor immediately referred me to physical therapy. For months and months, I received physical therapy and saw specialists, trying to understand why I could not raise my arm. They finally determined that I had a damaged nerve which had caused atrophy. The doctors hoped it would heal over time and with continued physical therapy, but it didn’t.

The doctors then told me that I’d need a second surgery. This surgery would involve removing a nerve from my leg to replace the damaged one in my arm. The only thing I could think about was not being able to use my arm and my leg. I was scared, but I made the appointment with the surgeon because I needed to use my right arm. During the time leading up to the appointment, I poured my heart out to God. I did not want surgery, but they said it was the only option left if I wanted a chance to use my arm again. 

On the day of the appointment with the surgeon, a medical student did the preliminary exam and said there had not been any change in my situation. After what seemed like forever, the surgeon arrived and did the exact same exam. But this time, something happened. The doctor touched the area I’d been unable to move for months and asked me to move my shoulder. He immediately yelled out, “Oh, baby!” and snatched his hand away quickly. He said, “That baby just fired up, do it again.” This was the first time in a long time I had experienced that kind of movement in my arm!

Everyone in the room looked on in amazement, including me, because we’d all lost hope that I’d ever move my arm again without surgery. But God did it!

NN: Would you tell me about a time you were surprised by an answer to a prayer?
VS: A few months after I’d been hired as the enrichment and activities manager for an after-school youth program, some of the youth shared with me that they wanted to put together a band. I was excited about their desire, but I was concerned about my budget because I knew I didn’t have the money to purchase instruments. 

Shortly after this, I was in a meeting with two coworkers. Right before the meeting ended, I discerned the prompting of God to tell them about my desire for instruments. For awhile, I wrestled with whether to do it. But right as we were saying goodbyes, I told them that I “wanted to just put it out there” that I wanted some instruments for the students to form a band. Less than 3 minutes later, I received a phone call from a coworker I had never met (we’ll call him Gerald). He told me that he had just spoken to the person I had just met with (we’ll call him Daniel) and that Daniel had almost fainted. Apparently, Gerald had just received a phone call from an organization that wanted to donate instruments, so he called Daniel to ask if there was a need for them. This happened right after my meeting with Daniel had ended. I now have pianos, guitars, bass guitars, amps, and drums. I was so surprised at how quickly God moved!

Prayer isn’t just making our request known to God, but it is also responding to God’s initiation of the conversation.

NN: How would you respond to the person who laments “unanswered” prayers?
VS: We have all been there when we were believing God for something, and it seemed as if that prayer was not answered. I remember when my dad was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He opted to have a risky surgery that many surgeons refused to do. My father made it through the procedure, and I was praying that he would make a full recovery. During this time, I would often receive several calls that he was not going to make it through the night; but he always made it through. I continued to pray and believe God for complete healing. Two years later, I received a phone call from the long-term care facility that my dad had passed away. I was devastated. I was really trusting and believing God to heal my dad completely. In moments like these, I have learned to talk to God even more—and use that time to share my sorrow. 1 Peter 5:6-8 tells us that we can cast our cares on him because he cares for us. When the foundation of our prayer life is relational and not simply transactional, our disappointments can be comforted with our trust in God, and by the love and care that we know God has for us.

NN: What are 3 things you recommend for someone who wants to improve their prayer life?

  1. Be Intentional: Schedule your prayer time. This should be a time when you not only talk to God, but you read God’s Word and allow time for God to talk back to you.
  2. Be Committed: Improving your prayer life is like building muscles. The more you use it, the stronger you get. It is in your faithfulness in prayer that your prayer life will be strengthened.
  3. Be Patient: A solid prayer life takes time to develop. The disciples walked with Jesus daily; yet, on many occasions, he spoke to them concerning prayer. Find Scriptures, resources, and sermons on prayer and study them. 

NN: You mentioned that people should find Scriptures, resources, and sermons about prayer and study them. What are some that you’d recommend?
VS: I would recommend that people study passages in the Bible where Jesus is having conversations with people. I look at these interactions as prayer because prayer is communicating with God. It will help you understand God’s character as well as better discern his voice, the different ways he responds, and what moves him to respond.

Some books and study guides on prayer that I’d recommend are:

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