Bending God's Ear: Ways to transform the 'long' prayer into a rich and meaningful part of the liturgy
When I went to church with my parents in the late fifties, the sermon was about two peppermints long. I didn’t get peppermints during the prayer following the sermon. Hence the insufferable loooong prayer. My childhood is past; the long prayer is not. Just ask the children in church.
Most worshipers in the Reformed tradition probably know what I mean by the long prayer. It’s that prayer time variously designated in Reformed liturgies as “the prayers of the people,” “congregational prayers,” “pastoral prayers,” “intercessory prayers,” “common prayers,” and “public prayers.”
What should we call this prayer? In John 17 we note that Jesus prays for himself, for his disciples, and for future believers in the context of the world. Here the Lord Jesus exemplifies the church’s priestly role in prayer. So “intercessory prayers” is probably the best name for this part of the liturgy.
For the sake of spiritual depth, vibrancy, and variety, our priestly prayers should contain elements such as lament and adoration as well as confession and thanksgiving. But the main element is intercession, for that’s the liturgical function of these prayers. We petition God for both the church and the world.
Liturgically the most appropriate place for priestly prayers is after the sermon. In response to the hearing of God’s Word, we intercede for the work of the church worldwide, for the local congregation, for persecuted believers, for the world’s rulers and governments, and for the needs of people in general—especially those who suffer physically and spiritually. Rooted in the Word and responding to the Word, the church in the world offers her priestly prayers to God for herself and the world.
Taking the Length Out of Priestly Prayers: Some Suggestions
- Try to limit your priestly prayers to five minutes at the most. After more than five minutes of concentrated prayer, you will end up with wandering minds, tuned-out hearts, and turned-off kids. Increase your preparation for this liturgical segment, write out your prayers, and choose your words carefully.
- Map out your priestly prayers in weekly segments, and pray them in rotation. For example, draw two large circles overlapping each other so that you end up with three spheres. Mark the spheres as (1) The Church; (2) The Church in the World; and (3) The World. Then flesh out each sphere with areas of prayer concerns. Before each worship service, select specific areas of concern to offer up in your priestly prayers. Be realistic and accept the fact that you cannot pray for “all the world and all people” within a five-minute prayer segment.
- Engage the people by asking them to participate silently or verbally at one point or another in your prayer. Take the people out of a passive or neutral mode. Make use of silence and provide the people with opportunities to add their own prayers. Attend a Roman Catholic or Episcopalian church service and discover the ancient form of bidding prayers. Study available prayer books and adapt some of the prayers for your own congregation. The Presbyterian Book of Common Worship is a very helpful resource, offering eight different models for intercessory prayers (available from CRC Publications; call 1-800-333-8300).
- Engage the people with “aha” moments. For example, demonstrate in your prayers that you are familiar with the latest burning news. Pray the front page of your local newspaper. Or mention in your prayers (on a regular basis) some of the challenges, problems, temptations, but also deep rewards that your members experience on the job. So pray for the two truckers in your church (there may be ten other members who will readily identify with the things you bring up). Remember the three schoolteachers; intercede for the five home-schoolers in your church, and for the fifteen businessmen and women. The key to taking the length out of the priestly prayers is to engage the people. Of course this calls for careful planning and preparation.
Bringing Variety into Your Priestly Prayers: Some Ideas
- Ask various members of your church to lead the intercessory prayers. Our elders, for example, voluntarily take turns offering up these prayers. They grow spiritually through their preparation; the congregation benefits from their different styles, voices, insights, and participation. And the intercessory prayers are rich in variety and scope. (To help them prepare, give them a copy of the booklet So You’ve Been Asked to . . . Lead in Prayer [available from CRC Publications; call 1-800-8300]).
- On occasion have the congregation sing a short prayer refrain at the beginning and end, but also in between sections of the prayer (when moving, for instance, from thanksgiving to petition). See the box this page for suggested prayer refrains.
- Make use of Scriptures and especially the book of Psalms (the church’s prayer book par excellence). For example, begin with a responsive reading from one of the psalms, then lead the congregation in prayer, and conclude with a sung prayer from your Psalter or hymnbook.
- Help those who offer the intercessory prayers to sharpen their skills and to reflect carefully upon their role. Draw up some guidelines for them to consider in their preparations. Periodically discuss with them their experience, the blessings, but also the challenges they face in leading the congregation in prayer.
- Ask for prayer requests during the service. My experience is that the larger the size of the church, the harder it gets (logistically) to ask for and share prayer requests. But it’s true that the sharing of prayer requests heightens the dimensions of fellowship and care. It may also increase the people’s liturgical awareness that they are intercessors.
Give all the people who lead in prayer in your worship services a copy of this helpful pamphlet, one in a popular series of resources to help equip worship leaders. Only $.95 US/1.30 CDN; ten or more copies @ $.75 US/$1.00 CDN. To order, call 1-800-333-8300 and ask for product #2270-0020RW.
SUNG PRAYER REFRRAINS
One way to involve people more actively in intercessory prayers is to begin and end with a sung prayer refrain. The refrain can also help mark the different sections of the prayer. If you follow, for example, Jack Van Marion’s suggestion for three areas for intercessory prayers (the church, the church in the world, and the world), you would sing the refrain a total of four or possibly five times.
A refrain should be short and, if not familiar, very accessible. A line of a familiar hymn, or even an entire short stanza may provide excellent refrain material. Singing the entire hymn later, perhaps at the conclusion of the prayer, strengthens the unity of the service.
Here are a few examples of prayer refrains:
General Use/Ordinary Time
“Be Still and Know That I Am God” SFL 225, TWC 516
“Come Now, O Prince of Peace” (see p. 36)
“Lord, Be Glorified” SFL 71, TWC 537
“Let Us Pray to the Lord.”/“Lord, Hear Our Prayer” SFL 51 a classic short refrain, introduced each time by the prayer leader
“Lord, Let Your Lovingkindness” (Psalm 33; see p. 13)
“Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying” PsH 625, TWC 629
“My Shepherd Is the Lord” (Psalm 23) PH 173
“O Lord, Hear My Prayer” (see p.12)
“To You, O Lord, I Lift My Soul” (Psalm 25) SFL 50
“Come, Lord Jesus” SFL 138
“Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus”
stanza 1, or possibly all four stanzas with the prayer organized around the thought of the stanzas
“O Come, Let Us Adore Him” (simply the refrain of “O Come, All Ye Faithful)
“Wait for the Lord” Covenant Hymnal 143
“O Christ, the Lamb of God” PsH 257, SFL 170
“Worthy Is Christ” PsH 629
“Alleluia, Alleluia, Give Thanks to the Risen Lord” (refrain only)
“The Strife Is O’er” (“Alleluia” refrain only)
“Breathe on Me, Breath of God” stanza 1
“Spirit of the Living God” first line only; complete stanza at conclusion of prayer
“Send Us Your Spirit/Come, Lord Jesus” (Psalm 104) SFL 96