A Praying Congregation: The Ministry of Prayer
A worship service where God and his people meet is unthinkable without the prayer of the congregation. For this reason the liturgy has given ample space for the prayers (see Outline 2).
Prayers can be found in all of the liturgical forms in the Book of Praise. As well, a separate section is devoted to form prayers. They are intended for use in:
- the worship service
- the ecclesiastical meetings
- visits with the sick and the spiritually distressed
- the domestic circle
Why have these prayers been included in the Book of Praise? Are the ministers expected to use them, or are they proposed as models only? Should a freely formulated prayer be preferred, because it is more of a ‘real’ prayer?
In this Outline, the ministry of prayer will be discussed with reference to the form prayers.
B. Prayer is necessary
Prayer is a wonderful gift of God. It is also a demand. We must pray. The Bible clearly teaches us this.
Matthew 7:7 Christ exhorts us to pray, to seek, and to knock.
Luke 18:1-8 The parable teaches us to pray without ceasing.
1 Thessalonians 5:17-18 God wants us to pray constantly and give thanks.
Philippians 4:6 Prayer and supplication are encompassed by thanksgiving.
Prayer is necessary because it is “the most important part of the thankfulness which God requires from us” (HC, Q&A 116). To have a trusting relationship with God means to live in the reality of the covenant. Prayer is the first priority in this relationship. It is also through prayer that we receive God’s gifts.
C. The congregation is a praying congregation
Not only personal prayer is required. We must also pray together with our families and as a church. The Bible describes the church as a praying church. She hears God speak to her through his Word, and answers him through songs, confession, and prayer.
1 Kings 8:33,35,44,48 Solomon expects the congregation to pray in specific situations.
Nehemiah 11:17 Mattaniah led the congregation in prayers of thanksgiving.
Isaiah 56:7 The Lord calls his temple a house of prayer.
Acts 2:42 The church perseveres in prayer.
Acts 4:24 The church lays her specific needs before the Lord.
1 Timothy 2:1-2 The church must pray for all people.
1 Corinthians 14:16 The church thanks God in the worship service.
Colossians 3:17 Thankfulness to God the Father is the setting for all the church’s actions.
Therefore, the church professes in the Heidelberg Catechism that she congregates on Sundays to call publicly on the name of the LORD (HC, Q&A 103).
D. The history of the form prayers
How did the form prayers for the worship service and the home get into our Book of Praise?
The Book of Hours existed already in the Middle Ages. It is a collection of officially adopted prayers that were part of a church book called the breviary (a book containing the daily public or canonical prayers). The priests were required to pray from it daily.
These prayers were classified according to the time of day. There were the matins (morning prayers), the sexts (prayers for the noon hour), the vespers (prayers for the beginning of the evening), and the nocturns (night prayers). The prayers were arranged according to the hours of the day (the third, sixth and ninth hours) and the three vigils during the night. The Roman Catholic Church still uses the traditional breviary prayers.
The Reformers of the 16th century were very critical of the compulsory prayers. They placed much more emphasis on the daily reading of the Bible and an explanation of the Bible in the sermon. Luther was willing to uphold the tradition of matins and vespers so long as they were preceded by Bible reading and a short explanation of the passage read, and followed by singing and prayers. The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands continued with the weekly vesper services for a considerable time after the 16th century.
The breviaries have disappeared in Reformed circles, but the significance of prayer in the church service and in the home was never underestimated. The Reformers have rightly restored preaching to its place of honour, while recognizing the importance of the congregation’s answer in prayer.
Calvin, Micron and Olevianus formulated prayers for the worship service and for daily life. Dathenus also included form prayers in his Psalter (1566), some of which he borrowed from other Reformers. The prayers in the current Book of Praise are closely related to those by Dathenus. They are shorter and more concise, and have been revised into contemporary language.
As compared to a “free” prayer, a form prayer is more explicit in stating that, in the worship service, the congregation is together and acts together in the presence of God. The congregation is able to join in the recited prayer word for word. A form prayer also strengthens the bond between the minister and the congregation.
E. The form prayers
We have already categorized the prayers into several groups. This will be expanded upon in the next section.
1. Prayers for the worship service
The orders of worship are taken into account (see Outline 2).
Prayers intended for order A:
- Prayer 1: long prayer before the sermon
- Prayer 4: prayer after the sermon
Prayers intended for order B:
- Prayer 3: a public confession of sins, prayer before the sermon
- Prayer 2: the long prayer after the sermon
In comparison, the prayers used in both orders A and B reveal similar contents.
Prayers to be used in both orders of worship:
- Prayer before the catechism sermon
- Prayer after the catechism sermon
In the prayers for the morning service (i.e. the first four prayers), three elements recur:
a. Confession of sins and supplication for forgiveness (see also Outline 2, section 3.b.)
This prayer should be read before the sermon. When we meet the Lord, it is fitting for the congregation to humble itself and appeal to God’s grace. The Bible gives us various examples of this.
Leviticus 9:7 Aaron’s first official deed is to make atonement for his and the people’s sins.
1 Kings 8:30ff. Solomon’s humble prayer at the festive dedication of the temple.
Psalms 19:13-15 The significantly humble attitude of the psalmist after praising the Lord and his law.
Psalms 120 - 134 The gathering congregation praises God, yet a tone of submissiveness is heard.
Romans 3:20 Reading of the law during the worship service leads to humbleness.
1 John 1:5-10 In the worship service the congregation is directly confronted with its sins.
b. A prayer for the illumination of the Holy Spirit
The minister’s proclamation of God’s Word must be clear and untainted. The congregation must be able to understand the preaching and retain the message. It is for this reason that the help and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit is invoked before the sermon.
c. Prayers for intercession
The prayers for intercession reflect the mandate of Paul in 1 Timothy 2: 1-2.
The different placement of the intercessory prayer (the long prayer) has already been dealt with in Outline 2, section B.2. In the 16th century this prayer was positioned between the sermon and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. In doing so, the Reformation restored a liturgical order used in the early church. This sequence was lost when the mass gained broader acceptance. In order B, the long prayer keeps its original position, a positive gain. When a minister prays a “free” prayer, it is his responsibility to make certain that the elements a, b, and c, as discussed above, are not excluded. In the Prayer before the Catechism Sermon, it is emphasized that, throughout the centuries, the church has learned to repeat in her confession what she has learned from God’s Word. The Scriptures are opened up for her in the catechism sermon. In the Prayer after the catechism sermon, the catechism instruction of the children of the congregation is remembered. This shows a close relationship between the assembly of the congregation and catechism instruction.
2. Prayers for the church assemblies
Three prayers are devoted to the church assemblies.
- Opening prayer for ecclesiastical assemblies
- Closing prayer for ecclesiastical assemblies
These prayers are in accordance with the terms of Article 34 of the Church Order, which specifies that the “proceedings of all assemblies shall begin and end with calling upon the Name of the Lord.”
- Opening prayer for the meetings of the deacons
A meeting of deacons is not an ecclesiastical meeting according to the definition of the Church Order (Art.29). Article 42 of the Church Order specifies that when the deacons meet separately “they shall do so with calling upon the Name of God.”
In reading these prayers, it is apparent that many ideas found in the form for the installation of office bearers recur in these prayers.
In accordance with Reformed principles, ecclesiastical assemblies are not boards of executives that may lord it over the churches. Rather, as representatives of the churches, they deal with the business of those churches and make decisions, on behalf of and commissioned by the churches (CO, Art. 32-37).
3. Prayers for the sick and the spiritually distressed
There are two prayers for the sick and the spiritually distressed. It is the task of the minister, as well as of the elders and other members of the congregation, to visit and comfort those who have difficulties and those who are sick or dying. In doing so, they should read from the Word of God, and pray with and for them.
The two prayers are guidelines for responsible prayer. Both prayers may be ended with the Lord's Prayer. In both prayers, the three cardinal elements of our Christian confession are represented: our sins and misery, deliverance, and thankfulness.
Still, the two prayers differ somewhat in their approach. The supplication to “give us patience and strength to bear it all according to Thy will” is more prominent in the second prayer.
4. Prayers for the domestic circle
Finally, we will discuss the four prayers for the worship at home (or devotions).
- Morning prayer
- Prayer before the meal
- Prayer after the meal
- Evening prayer
These four prayers show that the church of the Reformation did away with breviaries, but held onto the idea of praying at set times throughout the day. The morning and evening of each day, and the beginning and the end of each meal are suitable times for family prayer.
The prayers before and after the meals assume that the Bible has been read at the table. Home devotions play a significant role in our daily praise to God. The children learn that reading the Bible and praying several times each day is something we all need to do. Further, it teaches us how to pray. Singing together makes the home worship even more festive.
Parents may use these prayers as a guide in responsibly fulfilling the mandate of being priests in their homes.
The Synod of Groningen-South (1978) decided not to include specific children’s prayers in the church book, because it was not thought justifiable to use childhood as a basis for the formulation of prayers. In addition, the (inevitable) use of a more formal tone would significantly differ from the children’s own manner of speech.
F. Using the form prayers
From the 16th century onwards, the acts of various synods show that it has never been compulsory to use the form prayers. The churches of the Reformation did not want to return to the constraining liturgical format of the Roman Catholic Church.
It is with good reason that the form prayers can still be found in the Book of Praise. It was the objective of the Reformers to stimulate and guide the members of the congregation to relearn the art of praying, which they no longer were accustomed to doing.
This is still the purpose of the form prayers, for the ministers and all the congregation members. Praying is a holy art, which does not come naturally. Praying should be practised, which is how the form prayers can lend assistance.
Opposition to these prayers came from the camp of the Pietists. The members of this movement considered a “free” prayer as the only true prayer, coming forth from the heart and being spontaneously inspired by the Holy Spirit.
A minister or father who uses one of the form prayers does not demonstrate that his ability to pray is weak. His prayer is real and is not inferior to a “free” prayer. In fact, the form prayers often refer to certain issues that are easily overlooked in a “free” prayer.
On the other hand, limiting ourselves exclusively to the form prayers would not be beneficial since this may promote undesirable ritualism. The form prayers should be considered as examples or models of responsible prayer. Sometimes it is not as suitable to use them, because situations can exist in the worship service, the home, or in the presence of the sick, which are not specifically dealt with in the form prayers.
When they are used, we should beware of reading them thoughtlessly, without putting our hearts and minds into it.
The Lord's Prayer is not to be considered the equivalent of the form prayers. Christ used the Lord's Prayer to teach us what we must pray for (HC, Q&A 118-129).
Although the use of the form prayers is not mandatory, they have been carefully compiled and enrich the Book of Praise. They are to function as examples that stimulate the prayer life of the congregation as a whole in the worship service, and of all members in their personal lives.
H. Tips for the introduction
- Approach the subject by determining the significance and power of prayer. Relevant Bible texts can be found in the Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 116-118.
- Compare the form prayers for the church and the family with the “free” prayers from everyday life that you may be familiar with.
I. Discussion questions
- Why is prayer called the most important means to show our thankfulness (HC, Q&A 116)?
- How is it possible that God may “give in” to our supplication, while his will is definite? What does it mean that God repents (cf. 1 Samuel 15:29, 35; Amos 7:3, 6)?
- What is the relationship between the worship services of the congregation and the catechism of the children? (See the Prayer after the catechism sermon.)
- Is it proper that prayer precedes the Bible reading, e.g. at the opening of a meeting? Is it not better to first read from the Scriptures and then proceed with prayer?
- What are we to think of a prayer “roster”, and of the meeting of single people in so-called prayer groups?
- Does a sincere, upright prayer require that it should be neatly and beautifully formulated?
Are responsible and traditional children’s prayers to be recommended, or should children learn to pray a “free” prayer already at an early age?