People say the word "pray" so freely when they really mean something like "hope" or "want". Song lyrics do it quite often too. But prayer is something more than a vague desire for something to happen - it is communication with God.
Different religions have different approaches to prayer, the act of praying, but Christianity is the only religion which enables you to talk to God freely and informally at any time about absolutely anything. There is no correct way to pray, but common stereotypes suggest you should be kneeling with your eyes closed and your hands clasped together in front of you. Many people like to pray this way, especially in church, but God will hear your prayers no matter what you're doing, who you're with, or whether you say them in your head or out loud.
You can pray about absolutely anything. You may ask why we should bother to pray if God already knows what we're thinking, but it's a form of open communication. You may know something about someone else, and they may know that you know it, but you would feel better if you communicated openly about it between the two of you. This is what it is like when you talk to God. There are four topics commonly covered in prayer:
Or, as I like to call it, making a PACT. These four things are explained in detail below.
One of the things people do in prayer is praise God because there is just so much we can admire about Him. The fact that He loves us no matter what, will never leave us, provides all the things we need, and even that He gave us life in the first place. The book of Psalms in the Bible is full of praise for God too, and is often used as the basis of some prayers.
God is a Father, and just as we might ask our earthly fathers for things, God is no different. God will not impose Himself upon us so often He does not give us things until we ask Him for them. This can be done through prayer. Obviously God will not answer prayers which go against His will, so if you pray something which will bring another person down in some way, don't expect your prayer to be answered!
The problem some people have with prayer is that their prayers of requests seem to go unanswered, but we need to remember that God can see the whole picture whereas we only see things from our own perspectives, and cannot see the future in the same way God can. So if we ask for something which does not seem to go against God's will, but it still seems to be unanswered, it's not because God hasn't heard or God doesn't care - He just might answer it in a way we don't expect. Often the ways God answers prayers are far better than the way we expected Him to answer them!
Those who do not believe in God tend to only call upon Him in times of personal need and then they will only say prayers of asking. While God likes being asked for things, just like an earthly Father, He doesn't appreciate that being the only reason for you talking to Him. A word of thanks wouldn't go amiss afterwards...
It's true - we all make mistakes. God is perfect but none of us is. Since God is above us in that respect, we don't really deserve to have the relationship we can with Him, but God loves all the people He's made so much that He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die in our place and make us right with God. But this doesn't happen unless we accept it. God has given each and every one of us the chance to apologise for our mistakes so we can have them forever erased from our history, but first we have to accept that Jesus was able to take our sin from us. Once that has been accepted, you can ask God for forgiveness through prayer.
This is a common stumbling-block for many non-Christians as they don't see any reason why they should admit that they've been wrong to an entity they can't even be sure exists. If there's a chance that He doesn't exist though, why should it matter if you apologise to something that doesn't exist? At the most, you've wasted a couple of minutes of your time... However, if God does exist, then by admitting your mistakes to Him, which He knows you have anyway, He will always be more than willing to forgive you. There is nothing too big for God to forgive, not even crimes like murder.
As mentioned earlier, there is no correct way to pray, and God will hear it no matter what you say in it, even if you think it sounds lame or trivial. Prayer is like a free 24/7 hotline which has no waiting and needs no hold music! So if you awake in the middle of the night and want to talk to God, do so! If you want to talk to Him whilst going to work, getting dressed, eating dinner, etc. He will hear you and will be happy to listen to you.
Some churches like to have prayer books with prewritten prayers in it which can be said in a service. These are good because the congregation can follow along, but at the same time, they seem a bit wooden after a while. Prayer should be heartfelt, even if it's only a couple of words like "Help me!" However, some people struggle to pray, but Jesus provided an example of how to pray. It is called the Lord's Prayer. Here is it from the English Standard Version:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed* be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13)
*This means "kept holy" or "treated with reverence"
Added to the end of this sometimes is "For yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. Forever and ever. Amen."
The word "Amen" is usually said at the end of a prayer. Literally it means "So be it", and is, according to Nelson's Compact Bible Dictionary, "a solemn word by which a person confirms a statement, an oath or a covenant".
While we can all pray individually, God also likes it if we come together in prayer and pray about the same thing. Some churches and Christian groups encourage group prayer because it helps share thoughts and form stronger bonds between us.