Bathed in Prayer: the Only Way to Prepare and Praise

Pastor," said a young man, barely out of his teens, "don't take this personally, but the most boring thing that we do in our worship services is pray. I really have trouble staying awake—especially during the 'long prayer.'"

This young man's statement bothered me a great deal. He found prayer monotonous. He hinted that he didn't think praying was important. And I knew how damaging his attitude could be.

As a pastor, I believed in prayer. I knew the importance of prayer. I knew that meaningful prayer is a necessity if people are to have a real relationship with God; that prayer releases the Spirit of God in our lives. I knew that prayer helps us fix our minds on the Lord, open our ears to the Word, and prepare the way for God to fill our hearts with love. I knew that a truly praying church would be a loving church, and I knew that we could not be a growing church without first being loving.

But here was this honest and forthright young man, a committed Christian, intimating that prayer was not important, that it was boring (and to be boring in our worship services has to be one of the worst sins, doesn't it?).

Since that conversation I and other members of First Christian Reformed Church in Calgary, Alberta, have learned some things about prayer and worship—and we know we have much more to learn.

For one thing, we're convinced that prayer and worship go together, that they are inseparable, like identical twins. Prayer is praise. Certainly there is a place for petition in prayer, but the main focus of our prayer is praise.

Jewish synagogue worship consisted primarily of hearing readings from Scripture, listening to some comments on them, and then responding in prayers of praise. Early Christians followed the same basic format, coming together to praise and to worship the living Lord—often through sung prayers:

Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!
—Revelation 5:12

And again,

To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, forever and ever!
—Revelation 5:13

At First Church we wanted to recover that sense of excitement and vitality in our praying. It is impossible to be bored when we exuberantly acknowledge and praise God. And so our question became "How can prayer become part of the excitement and exuberance of our worship?"

It seemed apparent that a change in perspective was needed. The historic church has to a large extent developed a "receiving" mentality. That is, "God exists to meet our needs, to give us blessings, to fill us up." When we come to church, it is with our hands cupped open, so that they can be filled again. We have become like beggars in the house of God. How do we turn that around so that we see ourselves as "offerers" instead of mere "receivers"?

Meaningful prayer begins with a proper understanding of worship. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish theologian, expressed the view that in worship, God is the audience; the congregation is the performer; and the pastor, worship leader, musicians, and so on are the prompters. From that perspective, all those involved in leading the congregation in worship should strive to enable the congregation to "perform' in such a way that our great and awesome God actually receives the honor and praise.

How do we do that? Through prayer.

Before Worship

If worship leaders fail to bathe themselves and their planning in prayer, genuine worship of God will probably not occur. We place much emphasis on the importance of prayer in planning.

Pastors
At least two weeks in advance, the pastors are asked to prepare the message and make suggestions for musical and fine-arts participation. We do so in an atmosphere of prayer. It's amazing what creative things come to mind when we, as pastors, pray over a message and a service.

When our plans are complete, our suggestions in place, we pass the material on to the worship leaders.

Worship Leaders
Gifted and trained people, male and female alike, serve as worship leaders at First Church in Calgary. After receiving material from the pastor, they are asked first of all to pray for guidance. It is usually quite obvious when this prayer occurs and when it doesn't. Then, prayerfully, the worship leader in charge puts the worship service together.

Congregation
Each month we hold an all-church prayer and praise meeting (usually on a Saturday night), during which we praise the Lord and pray for God's presence at our public worship services.

Musicians and Worship Team
The musicians and the worship team (a group of people who lead the congregation in singing) are given the order of worship as early in the week as possible by the worship leader. They are asked to pray for the service, to pray that the Lord will help the congregation see them not as performers but as prompters.

Elders and Deacons
The church council always prays for the worship services. In addition, a group of council members gathers during the lunch hour once a month to pray for the needs of the congregation and to ask specifically for a heart for worship.

Pre-Service Prayers
On Sundays, immediately before the service, the pastor enters his study early to go over the message, to prepare for the service, and to pray. I personally sing my prayer, often using my all-time favorite:

Hover o'er me Holy Spirit,
Bathe my trembling heart and brow;
Pill me with thy hallowed presence,
Come, O come and fill me now.
I am weakness, full of weakness,
At thy sacred feet I bow;
Blest divine, eternal Spirit,
Fill with power, and fill me now.

Immediately prior to the worship service itself, the pastor joins with the worship leader, the musicians, the sound technician, and anyone else who has special responsibilities for the service. At that time they all pray together, surrendering themselves to the Lord, and asking God to use them to help the congregation enter into praise and worship. The elders and deacons also gather for prayer before the service. Then, armed with prayer, they enter together into worship.

During Worship

As we begin the service, we consciously remind ourselves that praise is prayer. Therefore we enter into God's courts with a prayer of praise— usually in the form of a song. Often we repeat the song one or more times, so that the congregation remembers that we are in fact praying.

In spoken prayers, we vary the format to get away from predictability and boredom. Sometimes the pastor will pray, but most often the worship leader prays. Upon occasion, another member of the congregation will lead in prayer. Sometimes the pastor will go through the congregation with his wireless microphone, take requests and expressions of praise, and present them to the Lord. At other times we will follow a "concert of prayer" approach, breaking off into small groups of two, four, or eight people. Sometimes when there is a commissioning (e.g., elders, deacons, missionaries) or a special need for healing, we have a laying oh of hands and invite the congregation to raise their hands in blessing. In special children's services, little children are free to pray their petitions or praises directly into the microphone.

All of this prayer and praise helps develop intimacy with the Lord and with one another in the body. We together acknowledge the Lord and thank God for blessing us and dwelling among us.

After Worship

We also offer prayer in response to the message, recommitting our lives to Christ or inviting the Spirit into our hearts. Sometimes people raise their hands to indicate their response; at other times people come forward (though in our tradition this is still a difficult thing to do). Often we will invite people with specific concerns to come forward for prayer after the service (either to the front of the sanc-tuary or to one of the nearby rooms). Elders and other gifted individuals are asked to make themselves available for this time of prayer.

Intimate Praise

In all that we do, prior to, during, and after the service, we strive to develop a sense of intimacy with the Lord. Usually in our prayers we will address our heavenly Father in the name of Jesus. Sometimes we simply praise Jesus or pray to the Holy Spirit. Songs of praise can be and often are addressed to each of the members of the holy Trinity.

We consciously shy away from giving people a "worship experience," as if having a good experience is an end in itself. Worship is first of all not for the people, but for the Lord. Worship is not a noun, a state of being, or an experience that is induced by the pastor, musicians, or worship leader. Biblically, worship is a verb, something that the congregation does for the Lord.

Recently, after an evening service in which we as a congregation were able to experience a wonderful touch of the Lord's presence in response to praise, an older saint came up to me with tears in his eyes. "Pastor," he said, "I felt that the whole service tonight was a time of prayer, of communing with and praising my Lord."

That's what happens when we truly pray our praise to God! How can we possibly be bored when we are caught up into the very presence of God?

Michael Reitsma is a retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church.