I recently spoke at a Christian Growth Conference that had as its theme “Thirst for God.” Three to four hundred “thirsty” people showed up on a Saturday morning to learn how they could satisfy their thirst, and the numbers grew as the day progressed. Many Christians today, it seems, are thirsting for something more than they have found. Tired of learning about God, they want to experience God. And one of the ways they’re seeking to experience God is through prayer—all kinds of prayer:
- raise. Hundreds of prayer summits, held each year in cities across the United States, bring pastors together for four days of prayer. These summit meetings have no agenda and no speakers. Pastors come together to meet God and spend time with God. Most of the time is spent in worship—praising and thanking God.
- Repentance. Solemn assemblies being held all over the country for congregations, for groups of church leaders, and at denominational conferences are chiefly times of repentance for corporate sins. Promise Keepers’ recent “Stand in the Gap” assembly in Washington, D.C., was just such a time of repentance.
- Intercession. Unprecedented numbers worldwide—170 million Christians and 10 million prayer groups—are praying daily for spiritual awakening and world evangelization, according to statistician David Barrett. Leaders estimated that 30 million believers participated in last year’s Pray! USA campaign.
This new hunger for meaningful prayer has implications for public worship. But before we explore these implications, it may be helpful to take a look at some of the difficulties believers have entering meaningfully into corporate prayer during worship.
Why Prayer Is Difficult in Worship
The first difficulty is what I would call the professional captivity of prayer. I know of no biblical reason why the same ordained persons should do most of the praying in worship service after worship service. Prayer is very much a matter of the heart. Every person brings a different heart to prayer. When the same person does almost all of the praying, it’s like listening to one instrument of the orchestra while all the rest are silent. That’s okay for a while but not as a steady diet. No matter how good a pray-er the leader is, it gets a little monotonous—heart-wise—when you hear the same person week after week. After a while our hearts tend to disengage. We are tempted to just listen to the words and let them simply flow through our minds, which isn’t really prayer. It would be much richer to hear the prayer-music of many hearts and many voices in weekly worship services.
The second difficulty is the fear of praying aloud with others. Most worshipers today are unwilling or unable to participate verbally in worship prayer, even if it is with only one or two persons. Evelyn Christenson, a well-known prayer leader and teacher, discovered that about two-thirds of her audiences had seldom or never prayed aloud with another person. Most of them were afraid to. My experience suggests that this is the case in most Reformed churches today. The result is that the majority of worshipers feel uncomfortable if asked to verbalize prayers with others in a worship service. Because of this reluctance, the possibility of people praying together in small groups and really connecting in a heart-to-heart way is minimal. This is a great loss and, until corrected, it diminishes the possibility of reclaiming the full potential of prayer in worship.
A third difficulty is the inward focus of much worship prayer. Most church leaders agree that about 90 percent of the praying that goes on in our churches is inward-directed—that is, for the people of the church. What does this mean? It means that very little thought and very little prayer are directed toward the needs of the hurting, sin-sick world outside our walls. It means that prayer actually reinforces the “me-first” mentality of our culture. Such an inward focus diminishes the divinely ordained call of the church to “make requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving for everyone” which, according to 1 Timothy 2:3-4, leads to the transformation of society, salvation for the lost, and growth in the knowledge of those who have been found. The church loses the opportunity to engage in its priestly task of interceding for those who are confused and blinded by the evil one.
How Worship Leaders Can Involve the Congregation in Prayer
What can worship leaders do to help their congregations enter more deeply into prayer? Here are some suggestions.
- Arrange for a variety of congregational members to lead in prayer. Choose those who are growing spiritually and deepening their prayer lives. Choose men and women, young and old, well educated and less educated. Encourage members to pray about things familiar to them—public officials for government, teachers for educational concerns, mothers for children, farmers for agriculture, and students for schools. People with differing spiritual gifts will pray differently. Those with gifts of mercy will pray with great compassion. Those with gifts of evangelism will wrestle passionately for the lost. Those with gifts of faith will tend to quicken faith in others. Many of my richest experiences in worship prayer have occurred when prayer was led by non-professional congregational members. Their prayers weren’t always articulate, but they were usually authentic and moving.
- Give attention to preparation—preparation of the prayer and preparation of the pray-er. Prayers that are rooted in God’s Word and that come from the heart of one who has spent much time in the throne room will strike the deepest. Freshly worded prayers spawned in the heart of a prayer leader out of Scripture and by the Holy Spirit will strike a responsive chord in the hearts of fellow pray-ers. Fire in the heart of the prayer leader will ignite a flame in the hearts of worshipers. True spiritual fervor, esteem for God, conviction of sin, compassion for the hurting, and passion for lost persons will result in leader heartfelt prayers that will most surely engage the hearts of those who hear.
- Plan for shorter, more frequent prayers. Since the prayer attention span of most worshipers is very short—some say under two minutes—why not acknowledge this by planning for several short prayers rather than one long one? Consider, for example, brief prayers of adoration, thanksgiving, confession, intercession, and consecration sprinkled throughout the worship service at fitting times. Or segment concerns into specific topics to be prayed for one at a time, with interludes of Scripture, song, or comment.
- Teach and train church members in prayer. Knowledge and skills are fundamental in prayer development. Ignorance of what prayer is and why God gave us prayer can hinder a congregation’s growth in prayer. Put the teaching into several different formats such as preaching, small groups, weekend retreats, church school classes, and mid-week courses. Make sure participants have a chance to experience prayer and practice praying aloud with others. Provide baby steps like praying one-word prayers, one-phrase prayers, and one-sentence prayers to help people break through their fear of praying with others. Provide them with times, places, and ways to pray together. A well-taught congregation will be able to move into deeper levels of prayer in worship.
- Encourage members’ spontaneous participation in prayer. Spontaneous participation in twos, in small groups, or with an open microphone gives members a chance to pray about things that are important to them. It allows members to see and hear each other worshiping, praising, interceding, and submitting to God in prayer. Such praying will forge a bond that sustains a vital sense of community in your church. This kind of prayer is patterned after the worship style of the early church, to which Paul wrote, “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church” (1 Cor. 14:26).
- Keep an inward/outward balance in worship prayer. God did not give us intercessory prayer simply to maintain our churches and get help for our hurting members. Intercessory prayer is a God-given means to advance the kingdom and build the church. Much of the church’s intercessory prayer should be directed outward to the unsaved, who need to know the way of salvation. In Old Testament days the Lord reminded his people to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you. . . . Pray to the Lord for it” (Jer. 29:7). In 1 Timothy 2:1 the Spirit calls all of us to make “requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving for everyone.” The apostle Paul prayed for the salvation of Israelites with “heart’s desire” (Rom. 10:1). And Jesus prayed for “those who would believe in him” through the message of the disciples (John 17:20). Verses such as these are strong encouragement to direct many of our prayers outward.
- Encourage all believers to pray silently before and during worship. After taking a seat in the worship center, believers might pray for those who sit around them, visitors who will be attending, lukewarm members, unsaved attenders, those who are experiencing difficulties in life, and so on. I often review the order of worship, look up the hymns to be sung, read the Scripture on which the sermon will be based, and pray over these for myself, for the worship leaders, and for the other worshipers.
- During worship, ongoing prayers should focus on the worship leaders, on those who are hearing the Word preached, and especially on guests and the unsaved who are present. Such praying will keep the whole congregation open to the Spirit’s work through the Word and will keep members finely tuned to the spiritual realities of worship.
The Heart of Worship
Worship is at the heart of what the church is and does. It is the defining event that sets the tone for all of the church’s life. The success or failure of a congregation’s ministry will depend on its worship. And prayer is at the very heart of worship. It’s a two-way communication by which love flows between God and God’s people. Let’s make every effort to claim all that God intended for us in prayer—the chief means by which to maintain and grow our relationship with God and to partner with God in winning a lost world.
Someone has said that when we work, we work; but when we pray, God works. His supernatural strength is available to praying people who are convinced to the core of their beings that he can make a difference. Skeptics may argue that answered prayers are only coincidences, but as an English archbishop once observed, “It’s amazing how many coincidences occur when one begins to pray.”
— Bill Hybels, Too Busy Not to Pray: Slowing down to be with God (InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 13