The Praying Elder and the Worship Service
The Public Prayer
Responsibility of the Elders
Are the elders responsible for prayer in the worship services? As a rule this prayer is pronounced by a minister. It belongs to the task of ministers of the Word to lead in prayer.
The minister conducts a worship service having been commissioned by the consistory. The handshake of the serving elder before and after the service shows that the consistory is responsible for all that is happening during the service. The minister does not go to the pulpit by his own authority. The administration of Word and sacraments, the leading in the service of prayer, the reading of the law and the confession, all of these are happening on behalf of the consistory and as such at the command of Christ who is Head of his church.
This also becomes clear when we put the Form for the ordination of ministers of the Word next to the Form for the ordination of elders and deacons.
In the Form for the ordination (or installation) of ministers their duties are mentioned. As a third task the Form mentions that they are called “as pastor and teacher of the congregation to call upon the Name of the Lord in public worship, with requests, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 2:1, 2).
According to the Form for the ordination of elders and deacons it belongs to the duties of elders that “They are also charged with the supervision over the doctrine and conduct of these fellow servants. They shall permit no strange teaching, so that in every respect the congregation is edified by the pure doctrine of the gospel.”
Because the congregation is edified through the prayer and because it is the task of the minister to lead in the service of prayer, the elder is also called to see to the content of prayer during the public worship service:
- is the congregation edified by it?
- is there no strange teaching in the prayer?
The latter can happen easily. For instance, it has happened that ministers in their prayer from the pulpit gave clear indication that members of the congregation who had passed away did not live consciously with God, but that they were waiting in the grave with body and soul for the day of Christ’s return. That is contrary to Lord’s Day 22 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
In the worship service the minister leads the congregation in the ministry of prayer, yet under authority of the elders. Therefore the elders are also responsible for this aspect of the liturgy.
The Content of the Public Prayer
When elders are responsible for the ministry of prayer they need to know what kind of content such a public prayer will need to include. Otherwise they will not be able to evaluate the prayer as pronounced by the minister. For this they have their reference in the passage in the Form for ordination, as we quoted above. But they will find a more detailed reference in the Form prayers that are included in the back of the Church psalter. These Form prayers are differentiated in prayers during a worship service where the liturgy of Middelburg (1933) is used, and prayers for a church service where the liturgy of Kampen (1975) have their place.
This distinction does not mean that content-wise the form prayers of either “Middelburg” or “Kampen” are different. On the contrary, content-wise there is no difference, yet the content matter has been arranged differently.
In the Middelburg liturgy the confession of guilt and the prayer for enlightenment with the Holy Spirit constitute one entire unit with the intercessions. This is because the so-called “lengthy prayer” is prayed before the sermon, such that in this prayer the confession of guilt and the prayer for the Holy Spirit could receive their place. In this liturgy thanksgiving is found in the prayer after the sermon.
In the Kampen liturgy the confession of guilt and the prayer for enlightenment with the Holy Spirit are a separate prayer, pronounced before the sermon. The thanksgiving and the various intercessions belong to the content of the “lengthy prayer” after the sermon.
It is of great importance that the elders know the structure of these prayers, in order to be better equipped to evaluate the public prayer. This does not mean that the elders must check off whether a minister will mention all the elements of these form prayers every Sunday, but they should be able to verify whether all elements have a regular place within the public prayer.
We will review in short the content of these Form prayers that can be used in a worship service where the liturgy of Kampen is being used.
Confession of guilt and prayer for enlightenment with the Holy Spirit — I
- Acknowledgment that through our sins we deserve eternal death.
- Confession that God forgives sins through Jesus Christ.
- Prayer for strength to fulfill God’s commandments.
- Blessing over the preaching with a view to living according to God’s will.
Confession of guilt and prayer for enlightenment with the Holy Spirit — II
- Acknowledgment that God is a righteous Judge.
- Confession of our guilt by which we incurred God’s wrath.
- Prayer for the work of the Holy Spirit by which we can be raised to a new life.
- Prayer for repentance of those who are erring.
In both of these prayers the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is at the centre: Forgive us our debts.
Thanksgiving and Intercession
- Thanks for salvation.
- Thanks for Christ’s suffering and death.
- Thanks for Christ’s intercession.
- Thanks for God’s love.
In these prayers the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer is at the centre: Hallowed be your Name.
- Prayer for the spread of the gospel.
- Blessing for worldwide preaching.
- Blessing for the preachers of the gospel.
- Destruction of Satan’s work, who has false shepherds in his service.
- Unity of faith.
- Destruction of Satan’s kingdom.
- Blessing for mission among Jews and Gentiles.
In this part of the prayer the second petition is in the centre: Your kingdom come.
Note: It is a good thing when there is focused prayer for mission-related things; in the sense that special attention is given to the work of mission that is supported by the local church.
- Prayer for the effects of the gospel.
- Blessing over official admonition to those who live in sin.
- Blessing for scriptural instruction.
- Blessing for the Theological University.
- Blessing for society work (study societies and other).
In this part of the prayer — after the first and the second petition — the third petition receives attention: Your will be done.
- Prayer for the authorities and the armed forces.
- Blessing for the government, through whom the church has freedom of religion.
- Prayer for the police and the military.
- Prayer for the persecuted church.
- Comfort for those who are persecuted on account of their faith
- Prayer for steadfastness for those who with their death have to witness to the truth.
- Prayer for those who experience hardships.
- Prayer for those who are tested by physical or spiritual difficulties.
- Prayer for the lonely, the aged, widows, widowers and orphans.
- Prayer for those who are ill for a long time.
- Prayer for those who are being cared for in institutions of mercy and for those who work there.
- Prayer for the sick and the grieving who are mentioned by name.
Note: with a view to the experience of the communion of saints it is important that there is prayer for sick people who are mentioned by name. In some churches this happens only when intercession has been requested for or by the sick person. In other congregations prayers are offered for all the sick who are admitted to a hospital or for the seriously ill at home.
Personally I prefer the latter. Therefore it is good that in the announcement to the congregation it is informed about all who are being cared for in a hospital. Prayer should not become a news bulletin.
When the consistory has a clear protocol in regard to praying for the sick, a minister knows where he is at. If such direction is lacking the consistory needs to discuss before the service which sick people will be mentioned by name. The consistory is also responsible for these intercessions.
- Prayer for labour and family life.
- Prayer for a blessing over labour and food.
- Prayer for strength and wisdom in the nurture of the children.
- Prayer for strength in temptations.
In this section of prayer we find an elaboration on the fourth and sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer: Give us this day our daily bread; and: Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
Note: In this section there can also be thanksgiving for joyful events in the lives of the members of the congregation such as the birth of a child, a wedding anniversary, etc.
The Form prayers comprise virtually all matters that should have a place in the public prayer in the worship service. Although no mention is made of special events in our own country or elsewhere in the world, the minister should also include this in his prayer.
In any case, the structure of the Form prayers does justice to what Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:1-2, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” The congregation prays for all people, and especially for those — speaking in human terms here — in whose hands lies the progress of history.
When the congregation prays like this on Sundays, it will lead a peaceful and quiet life in the midst of a world where there are shouts for justice, where fists are being waved. Paul says to Timothy: no clenched fists, but folded hands instead. That is true also for us.
Discussion of Prayer
When everything is working as it should the elders will conduct with a certain degree of regularity a discussion about the sermon. That is their duty. It is perhaps better not to speak of a sermon evaluation, but of the evaluation of the worship service. The entire service is under the authority of the consistory.
It is not the case that an elder is forced to wait with making some remarks about the worship service until the moment that this matter is raised at the consistory meeting. When a certain elder discovers that the minister has not been praying for a length of time for the military (for example), then he should point this out to the minister privately. When the minister ignores the remark of the elder it should be discussed in the consistory. The minister does not decide by himself whether or not he will pray for certain matters; that is up to the consistory.
When a consistory discovers that a minister consciously does not pray for certain matters the minister needs to be addressed about this, for the prayer in the worship service falls under the responsibility of the consistory.
The consistory will also speak with the minister about the preparation for the public prayer. Often the minister will write out a sermon, while a prayer is not on paper. It is also not absolutely necessary. However, the minister should prepare for prayer and it has to be apparent. When a minister regularly “forgets” certain sick people in the congregation, or when he bypasses significant events in the world, this often testifies of poor planning. A consistory must point its minister to the important place of prayer in the worship service. This important place must incite ministers or elders who read a sermon to reflect about the content of public prayer prior to the service.
The Prayer by the Consistory
Before the Worship Services
In some congregations it is customary that the consistory, through the mouth of the serving elder, prays for the service to be conducted on that Sunday. This does not happen in every congregation. It appears that there are differences of opinion about the need and the desirability of this consistorial prayer. Therefore practices differ. In all probability this is also caused by the uncertainty about the origin of this consistorial prayer.
The presumption is that the custom for the consistory to pray before and after the worship services originated in the 19th century. In the time of the Secession (1834 and subsequent years) it happened regularly that church services were disturbed by the arrival of the police. The police would check if more than twenty persons attended the service — the maximum number of people allowed. When there were more than the allowable numbers the members were chased out and an official report was filed. It is not improbable that in such situations the custom arose to pray before the service for an unhindered meeting, and afterwards to give thanks that the services could be held without any interruptions.
If this is correct and this is indeed the origin of the consistorial prayer, there would be no reason nowadays to give such prayer a place.
There is however no urgent reason to abolish this consistorial prayer, and neither to introduce it. It can be left peacefully to each local congregation.
If a consistorial prayer takes place in a congregation, the serving elder will offer a brief prayer. He will pray for undisturbed services and for strength to deliver and to listen to the sermon. Those are often the most important elements of the consistorial prayer before the service.
When there is something special taking place in the service, this can receive attention as well. We can think for instance of the administration of baptism, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or also that young people will profess their faith publicly.
It is important that the consistory, through the mouth of the serving elder, gives extra attention to things in the service that may make it difficult for the minister. I am thinking especially about announcements to the congregation in connection with cases of discipline. Such announcements have a radical impact. A minister does not make this announcement easily. We know from experience how it gives great strength when the serving elder prays to the Lord to strengthen the minister at that occasion.
Would it not be worth considering for consistories that do not have consistorial prayers — potentially per the request of the minister — in special circumstances to pray before the service for God’s blessing over the congregation and God’s strength for the minister?
After the Worship Services
The consistorial prayer after the worship services also needs to be brief. The Lord is given thanks for the uninterrupted service that was held. Thanks are expressed to God for the preaching and possibly for the administration of baptism or the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord is prayed to work effectively with the gospel in the lives of the members. God is asked to provide strength for the work of the office-bearers in the new week.
It is not right when after the service the elder prays for all the work in connection with the kingdom of God. However important mission and evangelism may be, these matters do not need to be prayed for in the consistorial prayer after the service. The prayer should be focused on the given situation, which is the worship services that could be held.