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Leading Congregational Prayer

Chester Lanious

I recently had two very different experiences in worship involving congregational prayer. The first experience occurred while I was visiting with family and attended their church. The service flowed well from the opening music, obligatory praise team, announcements, and the pastoral prayer. The prayer was surprisingly short and well constructed. Intercession was made for a seriously ill member. Everyone's head rose from its bowed position, awake and alert when the "Amen" was pronounced. The second experience came while worshipping at a different church. The service was traditionally organized and flowed through the appointed order until the congregational prayer. After a long, Bible verse-quoting-ramble, with many filler phrases like, "Oh, God, we plead for your mercy," the prayer ended, and I watched folks coming-to, glancing to their right and left to see if anyone had noticed that they had fallen asleep.

The Westminster Confession of Faith Directory of Public Worship gives us an exhaustive list of appropriate prayers and topics for public prayer. It even suggests breaking up the prayer before the sermon and placing some parts at different places throughout the service. But the elements of confession of sin, the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in us, physical needs, praying for the leaders of nations, the church, missions, for the coming of the kingdom, etc. are very broad and expansive topics for the people of God. To systematically lead the congregation to the throne of grace addressing these issues is true worship. And, when care and consideration is given to preparation for congregational intercession, the prayers are not ponderous and phlegmatic.

There are marvelous examples of pastoral prayer given to us by Paul. In Colossians 1:9-14, Paul is pleading with God for profound growth and development in the Colossian church as a birthright of believers. Paul pleads that the church would know the will of God through gaining spiritual wisdom and understanding. He states that his earnest prayer for them is "to live worthy of the Lord and please him in every way." He prays for them to have great endurance, patience, and joyful thanksgiving to the Father. Taking the parts of this Pauline intercession and passionately asking God for these gifts and graces to fall on our congregation could transform most worship services and awaken the slumbering. Giving enough thought and preparation time to craft the congregational prayer, not as a sermon but an intercession, could change the worship experience for most congregants.

Also, take a look at Philippians 2:1-4, where Paul expresses his deepest desire for the believers in Philippi. He sets the stage by suggesting ways that they experience God as an encourager, a comforter, as a friend, and as a tender and sensitive companion. In his pastoral and intercessory role, Paul sets the spiritual goals for the church by pleading with and for them to be like-minded, having the same love, being of one spirit and purpose. How many congregations need to be brought before God, the Father, with these petitions on their behalf? Can a congregational prayer be suitably written around this theme? How powerful an example of prayer is this for us?

As a pastor and chaplain, I have been guilty of giving perfunctory prayers in worship that have no more thought than collecting a few requests for the sick and those in crisis prior to the opening phrase, "Almighty God." If prayer is not just filler in the service, and instead, true worship, how much time and effort should go into preparing for it? Should there be embarrassment over the unprepared ramblings evident in too many public prayers? Is there genuine surprise when someone actually does congregational/pastoral prayer?

Congregational prayer is not a hospital report, it is not a sermon, and it should not ramble. It should not be disjointed thoughts about or critiques of the latest social fetish. Instead, it is the pastor/worship leader presenting the Father's children to him for his blessing, kindness, encouragement, healing, and strengthening—without having the children fall asleep. I think of Joseph presenting his children, Ephraim and Manasseh, to Israel for blessing as the quintessential example of pastoral prayer—even with Joseph's concern that the right blessing will go to the right child (Gen. 48:1-22). It is a wonderful scene of familial tenderness and care as Joseph presents and pleads for his children. In congregational and pastoral prayer, pleading for the richness of God's inheritance to be showered on his people falls to the faithful pastor who leads worship.

We need to look at what congregational prayer is—and, is not. Prayers are offered regularly at the side of hospital beds, in small study or fellowship groups, before meals, following the news of a crisis, following the announcement of good news, in private devotions, during days of prayer, etc., and during collective worship. The significant difference is that in worship the pastor or worship leader brings the entire assembly before God to seek his blessing for their spiritual growth and well-being. There may also be prayers of confession, prayers for illumination, prayers of commitment, and prayers of thanksgiving that are used throughout the service. However, it is the distinctive character of congregational prayer or the pastoral prayer that brings the body of believers into God's presence to specifically address their strategic spiritual needs.

My experiences in the two worship services noted at the beginning of this article tapped into one of my personal burdens over the years: making congregational prayer both meaningful and appropriate. As a young pastor, I knew that congregational prayer should reflect my own prayer life. Or, at least that's what I gathered from all the pastoral advice and reading that I had done. When I entered the military, however, I felt the need to be much more precise in what I prayed and how I prayed in public. I wanted to be more in command of the words and craft them for both the effect on the hearer and spiritual power. I had observed that most extemporaneous prayer was merely a rehearsal of familiar phrases that seemed to be more meaningful for the worship leader than the congregation. The written format that most would reject for its lack of spontaneity has instead been replaced by an oral tradition of repetitive phrasing and fillers, i.e. "Father-God" and "we plead for your mercy."

I once read about a pastor who spent as much time on his manuscript for the congregational prayer as he did on the sermon manuscript. An intriguing idea! I know many preachers who couldn't get into the pulpit without a full sermon manuscript or at least extensive notes but they "free wheel" it on the congregational prayer. I have also heard many worship leaders whose eloquence is truly literary and lyrical, but they never fully engage the congregation by praying directly and specifically for them as God's witness in that peculiar time and place.

Most readers may be wondering what my point is. Should every congregational prayer be written? Are the only legitimate prayers written? What's wrong with quoting Scripture in prayer—after all the Psalms are songs and prayer for us to use? Some are thinking that it is not the eloquence of the worship leader but earnest, spirit-led intercession that makes congregational prayer.

The point of my reflection is that congregational prayer should not be as unplanned a part of the worship service as it generally is. I suggest that more diligence be given to the study and preparation of leading the people of God before the Father so that their own prayers will improve. I keep remembering the sense of refreshment from my first experience and exhaustion from the second. I think it is the same for most congregations.[1]

Endnote

[1] Editor's note: A helpful book from our own Presbyterian tradition is Samuel Miller's (after whom the chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary is named) Thoughts on Public Prayer. Originally published in 1849, it was republished by Sprinkle in 1985.

Chester Lanious, an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is command chaplain (US Army), Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. Ordained Servant, November 2007.

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