A cursory survey of today’s evangelical worship would reveal a range of elements, most prominently preaching and singing. However, such a survey would expose a sad deficiency—prayer. In our worship, prayer tends to be a merely transitionary item. A worship leader will pray from one song to the next to give the musicians time to change keys, or a pastor will pray to allow the stage to be set for the next section of the service. When we do pray in worship, our prayers exists for functionality, to transition quickly from one part of the service to the next. Thus, our public prayers tend to be nothing more but quickly spoken platitudes that help us move to the “more engaging” practices of worship.
Such lack of prayer is symptomatic of the poverty of modern evangelical spirituality. An honest Christian would confess the shameful neglect of personal prayer, which cycles between starring at the wall and repeating tattered phrases. Earnest and rich prayer appears absent in the lives of many Christians. The lack of interest in corporate prayer indicates something has gone awry in personal prayer. God’s people have forgotten to pray. How can pastor’s help their congregations develop richer prayer lives? There are many possible answers, but I wish to propose only one: recover and prioritize the pastoral prayer in corporate worship.
The pastoral prayer was an unmistakable aspect of Protestant worship, where the pastor arose before the congregation to pray to the Lord on behalf of the people. The intercession was intentional and lengthy, typically taking up 10-15 minutes of worship. I believe a recovery of the long pastoral prayer (though not quite 15 minutes long!) would provide many benefits to the life of the congregation. Let me share with you a few benefits and some practical tips on recovering the practice of the pastoral prayer in your church.
Three Benefits to the Long Pastoral Prayer
Benefit 1: It’s a Means of Grace
We speak frequently of the way God uses preaching and congregational singing in the building up of his church, but rarely do we speak of how prayer is also a means of grace, to be used publicly for the good of the church. Of course we should pray privately, but God uniquely uses corporate prayers to edify the congregation. In the Scriptures, we are commanded to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). Paul tells us that he desires that “in every place men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (1 Tim 2:8). We see the early church “devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14). Then there is the model of Jesus’ life, a life filled with prayer.
With the shear amount of biblical imperatives to pray, why do we neglect prayer in our corporate worship? God has prescribed prayer for our own good, to form us and cultivate our faith. God uses corporate prayer to stimulate the congregation to worship and to prepare them to eagerly receive the good food of the Word. We should make prayer a noticeable facet of our worship, because God has given us prayer for the good of our souls.
Benefit 2: It’s Counter-Cultural
As many churches adapt their weekly worship to seekers, disorienting practices, like the long pastoral prayer, have been removed for sake of the non-believer. A long pastoral prayer not only sounds too “religious” and “threatening,” but also “boring.” With all the showmanship that surrounds contemporary evangelical worship, there is something utterly bizarre about halting for intentional prayer. However, there is also something incredibly winsome about prayer. Corporate prayer is piety on display. Public prayers showcase the richness of the Christian life, a life engulfed by union with Christ. Such prayers might be disorienting to the seeker, but they also provide a captivating glimpse into what the Gospel offers, a relationship with the living God.
Benefit 3: It Models Prayer for the Congregation
As a pastor, I’m continually concerned by the prayer life of my flock. The long prayer allows the pastor to instruct the congregation on prayer, by providing an example. The pastor is always teaching, not just in his sermons but in prayers. Over the years a church will begin to be shaped by the example of the pastor. They will handle the Scripture as the pastor handles the Scripture, and they will pray as the pastor prays. Few Christians have ever prayed privately for more than a few minutes. If we long to see their personal prayer life expand, we must teach them how to pray, not just by expositing the Lord’s prayer, but by actually praying. The long pastoral prayer gives a weekly opportunity to not only bring the congregation before the throne of God in worship, but to teach by example.