What is the most important component of worship? Music? Preaching? Hospitality? What about prayer? Many pastors take prayer for granted. Of course, we’re going to pray in worship! But we don’t often think through the purpose, structure, and placement of our prayers. In my journeys through the district, I’ve experienced passionate and thoughtful prayer as well as shallow and scattered prayer. I’ve also observed missed prayer opportunities. Lord, teach us to pray – especially in worship!
I like this simple definition of prayer: Prayer is connecting with God. Prayer is communicating with God as “you.” Furthermore, in public prayer, we align our particular community of faith with the worldwide body of Christ and the communion of saints. We are also drawn into a holiness and transformative power that is far beyond our human comprehension. How do we as leaders help our congregation connect with God during worship? My primary observation has been that most worship services lack variety in prayer. The result is that we don’t take advantage of the many ways in which people can connect with God.
When people enter the doors of your church, they need to transition from the outside world into God’s presence and let go of whatever distractions prevent them from drawing close to God. An instrumental or vocal prelude is often used to provide that transition. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that in most churches, people use the time before worship to connect with friends rather than prayerfully quiet themselves and enter into the holy ground of God’s presence. Knowing how important fellowship is, why not let them chat until the beginning of worship, then offer a verbal call to worship, after which the congregation uses the time of the prelude for silent meditation and prayer?
There are numerous places in worship for other types of prayers. Opening prayers might include a collect or prayer of confession, which is especially important on communion Sundays. A prayer for illumination before the scripture helps us to focus on God’s Word. Offertory prayers, including the “doxology,” remind us that we give as a free response to God’s grace in our lives. Sung prayers before or as a response to the sermon are participatory and can reinforce the theme of the day. We can pray the scripture through lectio divina. Communion prayers rehearse the grand history of God’s saving acts in Jesus Christ and invite us to “taste and see” the goodness of the Lord.
The most common form of prayer I hear has traditionally been called the pastoral prayer. In many of our churches, pastoral prayers are primarily intercessory prayers. Prayer slips are often available to parishioners, who hand them to ushers and are then prayed over by the worship leaders. While it is wonderful to offer this opportunity, the pastoral prayer is often limited to mentioning the needs of specific people.
What I miss is prayers that express the full range of the human condition. I miss the broad scope of prayers that include praise, adoration, gratitude, confession, intercession and petition. I miss prayers that move me outside of myself to an awareness of the needs of people in other parts of the world. I miss prayers that express the longing for justice and transformation in structures as well as in individual lives. There are times when I leave church wondering if anyone in worship has a clue what is currently happening around the world because it is never expressed. I’m also surprised by how many churches don’t include the Lord’s Prayer regularly in worship. I always notice when it’s not there.
Should prayers be written or spontaneous? Both are effective. Some people think that extemporaneous prayer is praying “from the heart.” However, some of the most heartfelt prayers I hear are carefully and thoughtfully crafted to express the deepest longings of our hearts. I am also touched by hearing prayers that have been written by saints throughout the ages. I highly recommend making use of the beautiful prayers in our Book of Worship or other denominational resources.
A few other general comments.
- Prayer is listening to God as much as it is talking to God. Most worship services would benefit from more periods of silent prayer.
- Prayers that relate to the sermon topic are especially meaningful and reinforce the theme of the day.
- Prayers that end with “so that we might…” challenge and remind us that we are called to be God’s agents of transformation in the building of the kingdom.
- Praying with all of our senses enriches worship.
How about having the congregation hold hands for prayer?
How about having people pray in different languages?
Have you ever danced a prayer?
Does your choir ever sing a call to prayer or a prayer response?
Have you prayed using motions or signing?
Have you used a work of art as a visual focus for prayer?
Do you ever ask the congregation to pray with their eyes open?
Do children, youth and other lay people lead prayer?
Have you used bidding prayers, with a litany repeated by the congregation after every petition?
Do you ever provide an opportunity for the individuals in the congregation to speak sentence prayers in worship?
It is prayer more than anything else which prevents worship from being mere entertainment. We desperately need prayer in our churches that is grounded in grace, forgiveness, reconciliation and hope. Prayer opens our heart to the divine and nourishes our spirit for another week. Prayer draws us away from ourselves to encounter a living God who calls us to act redemptively in our world.
Most of all, prayer transforms us. C.S. Lewis was once asked if he prayed for God to change things, and Lewis answered, “No, I never do. I simply pray, and God changes me.”
Yesterday I worshipped at Ferry UMC, a small rural church in Oceana County pastored by Dianne and Dick Morrison. The service, which was intentionally shaped by prayer, was deeply moving and transformative. How could prayer transform your worship?