Pulpit Prayer: An Area of Concern
The presence of retired missionaries in any congregation is understandably a mixed blessing. Genial fellow-believers in that one to which I now belong have reminded me that they can either be a unique encouragement or a positive menace. Hopefully there is some reasonable ground between these two extremes on which to stand! Inevitably the retired missionary will tend to be a critic, kindly or otherwise, of what he sees as he begins to settle into church life at home.
I find I am no exception and one of the chief areas of my criticism is that of pulpit prayer. To express this criticism in a sentence, I might say that pulpit prayer in Canada is very thin. I speak out of some experience of listening both in the East and the West. By pulpit prayer I mean pastoral prayer, the public prayer in which the pastor leads his people. By 'thin' I mean to sum up all that it lacks. It is 'bright, brief and brotherly' in the lowest sense of all those words. 'Bright': by this term I mean that it lacks seriousness and depth; 'brief': as being over almost before it has begun, with hardly time to bow the head or close the eye; and 'brotherly': as being trite and not likely to cause anyone to be struck with a sense of awe in the presence of God. It may be accompanied by soft background music, like that provided for the patient in some dentists' chairs.
The average pulpit prayer lacks so much of what was characteristic of such prayer in the past and still is as far as some godly ministers are concerned in the present. There is a solemnity about it, an unhurried reverence. We sense the preacher has already removed his shoes from off his feet as he leads us into the felt presence of God. The opening sentences make us aware that we are treading on holy ground. The pattern is scriptural. It follows the Lord's prayer, even if it does not recite its phrases word for word, and in doing so is in accord with all the great prayers of the Bible. It begins with God and his glory and moves down, as it were, to man and his needs and the needs of his world. It worships and it confesses before it petitions and it gives thanks before it asks for more. As to time, it is not rushed. A touch of eternity is in evidence. It is not to be measured in minutes. We have lost our sense of time before it ends and when it ends we long for more. It is pastoral prayer, but not merely the pastor's prayer. His people forget him as he prays and his prayer becomes their own.
To be led in such prayer is a moving experience. It has always been so. Listen to Alexander Whyte speaking of Dr Candlish, a famous predecessor in his Edinburgh pulpit: 'Are you old enough to remember Dr Candlish's forenoon prayer? We used to say that his first prayer was enough for the whole of that day ... He would put all his passions into a great sermon to his incomparably privileged people: but I liked his passions best in his half-hour prayer on a Sabbath morning, he so prayed in that prayer'. But it is not only potential ministers of the Word who are thus impressed. 'Ah me! I cannot understand his sermons', said a poor old woman who sat under Dr R. W. Dale of Birmingham, 'but his prayers do me so much good that I always come'. This is not merely a phenomenon of past days. Many of us can witness to having had our hearts stirred to heaven as we followed Dr D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his fifteen or so minutes of pulpit prayer. Most preachers would feel like pygmies beside these giants, but it is the giants who point the true way.
Why then this lack? Is the failure to be found in the theological colleges where our pastors are trained? One senior pastor informed me that no word of instruction was given to him in connection with pulpit prayer. The subject was not raised. A quick way for pastors to rectify this defect would be for them to read C. H. Spurgeon's lecture to his students entitled, 'Our Public Prayer'. They will be impressed with such thoughts as these:
It is my solemn conviction that the prayer is one of the most weighty, useful and honourable parts of the service, and that it ought to be even more considered than the sermon ... if I may have my choice, I will sooner yield up the sermon than the prayer.
That, too, from the greatest preacher of them all!
Or is the lack due to a giving in to what is taken to be the public demand of the day? 'Our Canadian congregations cannot take it' is a plea I have heard. My mind goes back to a well-known remark of Dr Dale, whom I have already mentioned. When told the Carrs Lane congregation to which he had been called would not stand doctrinal preaching, he replied: 'They will have to stand it'. And they did. Congregations need to be taught and no area is more important than that of prayer. The pastoral prayer is not designed to be a lesson in prayer, but to the earnest disciple it often proves to be.
In the last analysis this weakness in prayer is almost certainly due to a lack in the pastor's own prayer life. His pulpit prayer inevitably reflects his private praying. He lacks depth there because his prayer is superficial in the study. His public prayer is a mirror of his private devotions and thus the image is so evanescent.
The converse may also be true. I know a man who was kept waiting for an interview with Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones and who on being admitted to the study felt there was a certain glory about the very atmosphere in the room. It was so impressive that he commented upon it to the secretary as he was leaving. 'I'm not surprised', was the reply, 'he was probably at prayer for some while before you came'. No wonder then that there was a glory about his pulpit prayers. In the light of this it is hardly surprising to know that a single petition of Dr Lloyd-Jones was sufficient to arrest and restore a backslider who was en route to commit suicide.
In our discussions these days about worship, is there not a danger of our concentrating on enthusiasm in the congregation to the neglect of the pulpit? The key to worship is to be found in the pulpit, where prayer and preaching are offered in the presence of God for the good of believers. Let us begin by giving attention to public prayer. It demands the place which the apostles gave to it:
We will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word.Acts 6:4