A Guide to Reformed Worship – Congregational Prayer
So far in this series, we’ve looked at the basic principles of Reformed worship, the introductory elements to the service, the confession of sin and assurance of pardon, and the preaching of the Word. Following the preaching of the Word (God’s speaking), what follows is usually some sort of response from the congregation in song and prayer. In this particular article, I want to briefly look at the element we often describe as the “congregational prayer.”
Even if the Scriptures did not command it, prayer is in a sense an inherently natural outcome of the covenantal structure of our worship – God speaks and man responds. We might assume that one of the ways man would respond would be with words in prayer. As it is, the Word does in fact command us to pray. We can think of passages such as 1 Timothy 2:8,
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarrelling...
All the evidence supports the view that the Christian church from the time of the apostles onwards has been a praying church, even if those prayers were done in Latin in the medieval church.
The Reformers, therefore, had no need to restore prayer as such to the church. It had always been there, but it had become meaningless. Moreover, only certain kinds of prayer remained in the pre-Reformation church, mostly centred on the mass. The prayer of intercession or “congregational prayer” was virtually non-existent. The Reformers, such as Calvin and Bucer, recovered this biblical element of public worship.
They did so not only on the basis of what they knew about the church fathers and the early church, but more importantly, on the basis of Scripture. They saw passages like 1 Timothy 2:1-8 which clearly mandate the church to be interceding for the needs of a variety of people. In Matthew 5:44, the Lord Jesus taught believers to pray for their enemies. With the words of Matthew 9:38, He taught us to pray for labourers to be sent into the vineyard. In Philippians 4:6, God teaches his people to pray for the needs of the church – and there are other such passages.
Timing and Content
There can be little question that God’s people are mandated to pray for the needs of others, both inside and outside of the church. But there is the question of timing – when is an appropriate time to do this in the worship service? On this question (a matter of circumstances – see the first article in this series), there is freedom. If there were some urgent matter on the minds of many in the congregation, it would be wise for the minister to bring this up in the first prayer already. But normally it seems that in most, if not all, of our congregations, the prayer of intercession is left to near the end of the service.
It is often combined with a response to the sermon. The minister will thank God for his Word and what was specifically proclaimed from the text. He will ask God for help in applying whatever the Word teaches God’s people in that particular passage. While there’s nothing unbiblical about “piggy-backing” the prayer of application on to the prayer of intercession, in some instances it may be better to have them separate. I think especially of churches like my own where we have some liturgical distance between the end of the sermon and the second prayer. After the minister says “Amen,” there is a song of response, followed by the offertory and then another song. By the time for the second prayer, ten or more minutes may have elapsed. In that instance, it makes sense to have a brief prayer of application immediately after the sermon along the same lines as was done in Reformation Geneva. However, there are other churches where only a song separates the second prayer from the sermon – in those instances, it would be best to combine the prayer of application with the prayer of intercession.
As for the content of the prayer of intercession, we have a typical pattern in many of our churches. It’s a good pattern and, while it’s not directly commanded in the Bible, it is a wise ordering of things. In the morning service, normally the minister brings the needs of the local congregation before the Lord. In the second prayer of the afternoon service, normally the minister will lead the congregation in prayer for a variety of needs outside of the local church. This is not set in stone and it is not a biblical requirement, but it does keep the prayers organized and prevents them from becoming unduly lengthy. Ministers usually have no difficulty keeping track of the needs of the local church, but they are wise to make a list of items outside the congregation that regularly need to be mentioned in the prayer of intercession and then to keep track to insure that these items are regularly remembered. As an aside, it would also be wise for the heads of our families to do the same for their regular daily family worship.
That brings me to a brief discussion of the mechanics of congregational prayer. I once asked my catechism students whether anybody had ever discussed the mechanics of prayer with them. By that I mean what we are doing in our hearts or minds when somebody else is leading in prayer. It was surprising to learn that they’d never heard anything about this. This is important because we still self-consciously cling to the practice of congregational prayer. The minister says, “Let us pray together.” When he prays, he uses the first person plural: “we,” “us,” and “our.” This is a notable difference from many non-Reformed churches around us where worship leaders will often use the first person singular: “I,” “me,” and “my.” We seem to be clear that when we pray in church we are praying as a congregation and not just listening to one man praying at the front by himself.
But how do we do that in practical terms? I have often wrestled with this question, never having been taught anything on this myself. At first I thought that perhaps I should listen to the words of the minister, wait for an appropriate pause and then rephrase the words and make them my own. There were two problems with that. First, the pauses don’t always come and by the time a pause does come, I may have forgotten what the minister said. Second, with this approach I was only praying as an individual in the middle of a group of people – this was not congregational prayer anymore. There had to be a better way.
The Bible does not appear to teach us anything concrete about the mechanics of congregational prayer. The only thing we know is that it is quite likely that prayers, like songs, were recited in unison. Taking our cue from that, when we pray as a congregation, the best thing to do is to immediately echo the words of the minister in your own heart, intentionally using the first person plural. We must be self-consciously aware that we do not pray as individuals at this moment, but as a congregation. The minister provides the leading voice and the congregation echoes that voice in their individual hearts, in almost the same way that they would echo the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed if they were being recited by the minister on behalf of the congregation. I know that this is not an easy thing to master and I am but a novice in it myself; nevertheless, we must discipline ourselves for the practice of congregational prayer and take it seriously.
Worship is Work
When we carefully consider our congregational prayers and the effort involved, it becomes clear that the congregation is not inactive in public worship. In fact, if we are taking what is happening seriously, there is a lot of work to do! Before arriving in Langley, I had a period of about six months where I spent more time sitting in the pew than behind the pulpit. It struck me then that being a participant from the other side of the pulpit is just as much work as being the minister leading the service.
Somebody once remarked that “worship” is a verb. This is perhaps most true when we consider the elements of prayer in the service. God’s people are busy with this, responding to their God, bringing their thankfulness to Him, and interceding for one another and for their neighbours. Let me encourage you to reflect carefully on this element of worship both before and during the worship service, not only this coming Sunday, but on every Sunday.