Together We Decided to Pray: How one inner-city congregation found a unity they never expected
We were a hodgepodge group of volunteers who found ourselves serving on a committee dealing with a huge and complex issue for our church. We varied widely in gifts and temperament. After our leader unexpectedly quit, it was unclear what would happen. Whose vision would prevail?
Together we decided to pray. At the beginning of each meeting, we would bring our tired minds and bodies and dedicate them to God’s work. We would confess attitudes that might get in the way of our work. We also confessed our ignorance and pleaded for wisdom. We spent time simply remembering who God is, reading Scripture to each other, recalling promises. We prayed for each other. We stopped discussions to pray our way through a conflict we could not resolve. At the end, we would thank God for sitting with us and being part of the decisions. Often we spent an hour of our meeting time in prayer.
Chiefly as a result of the extended prayer times, our group found a unity we never expected. We discovered that we wanted God’s plan above our own preferences. We forged a plan of which we could all say in confidence, “God has led us here.” We felt we were truly part of God’s blessing for our church.
And our church has been in need of blessing. Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church is a diverse, inner-city congregation of about four hundred members that is evolving from a traditional ethnic enclave into a neighborhood church. Through—and because of—our struggles, prayer is beginning to form the foundation of all we do.
For example, there is extended prayer time before each council meeting, congregational meeting, and worship service. Teams pray during our midweek church activities, during the church school hour, and during worship. Individuals come to the prayer room to find a quiet place to pray. Early Risers intercessors, our pastor’s prayer support group, crisis prayer teams, prayer partners—all are ministries that have met faithfully over the past six to eight years.
All of this is to say that we are beginning to get an inkling of the power that lies in prayer. It has taken us some time to learn that prayer is not one activity among many in which we are to engage. Rather, it is the central action through which all other ministries—worship included—receive power and direction. Once we moved prayer from the periphery of our lives as individuals and our life together as a congregation and began to make it central, we also began to experience its power.
Worship Is a Reflection
What does this have to do with worship? Worship reflects the life of a congregation as well as forming it. If a church doesn’t pray much together outside of worship, that will probably be reflected in its worship services.
Because of our growth in prayer outside the sanctuary, we have learned also to pray together with increasing frequency and growing participation in our worship. We are getting used to praying out loud and with each other in smaller groups. Prayer has become a much more natural part of our being together. This spills over into our congregational worship as well.
Prayer is woven into the fabric of our Sunday and midweek worship. This extends even to the physical space we worship in. We have anointed doorways with oil, asked God’s blessing and protection on each room and entryway, and prayed for the filling of the Spirit throughout the building as we worship God and minister in Jesus’ name.
We have formed worship prayer teams (five or six teams of two—a man and woman) to support the worship each Sunday. Teams are scheduled to come forty-five minutes early to pray with the pastor and others who wish to join them. Together we ask God’s blessing on all aspects of the worship service: the musicians, the worship leaders, the preaching, the sound system (which often needs prayer), visitors, greeters in the narthex, those who come seeking God, the sick and elderly who are unable to join us, and all the church school activities that will follow the service. Then we go out into the sanctuary to pray with the musicians and worship leaders.
During the service these teams pray silently in the pews for the worship that is going on around them, for visitors, for members who are sitting nearby, and for the Spirit’s working through the Word and music. They also come to the front of the sanctuary after worship to pray with those who come forward with special needs or requests. Sometimes no one comes up to pray. Sometimes there is a line of people waiting for prayer.
Team members ask if they can write down the prayer requests and put these in a basket in our prayer room so that others can pray too. They promise to pray for that specific request for a week and ask the person to call them with any answers that God may have provided in response.
During the service itself, prayer is an essential element. However, because ours is a more informal worship service, our prayer is also more informal. Churches with more structure to their worship will want to make any changes in prayer gradually, adapting these to the pace at which their congregation is able to welcome change.
The worship leaders generally incorporate prayers of praise, confession, and adoration into the songs at the beginning of worship. These are often tied to Scripture readings that draw on the central message of the sermon that day. These prayers are woven into the opening worship time so they become a continuum with the songs we are singing—which are often a form of prayer in themselves.
Our congregational prayer usually comes toward the end of the time of praise. Sometimes the pastor leads the prayer himself, often using the words of the song just sung to open the prayer.
At other times he invites the congregation to lead in prayer. First he mentions special needs in the congregation or community and asks if anyone would like to add a request for prayer. Then he brings the mike to anyone who wishes to offer a short prayer. Usually at least five to ten people volunteer to pray, offering praise as well as petition, sometimes reading from the psalms or leading the congregation in a familiar hymn or chorus.
At times, especially for a baptism or profession of faith, the pastor invites friends and relatives to stand at the front of the sanctuary with the immediate family. At the end of the ceremony, the mike is given to anyone who wishes to offer prayers for the child or adult who has been welcomed into God’s family. We gather in the same manner to pray for members who are leaving on a mission trip, for elders and deacons being installed, for leaders of ministries that are just starting up, and so on.
We have also encouraged our elders to lead in the congregational prayer if they feel comfortable doing so. Not all do. However, leading in prayer is a powerful way to visually affirm the spiritual leadership of those who serve in the “ministry of the Word and prayer.”
In addition, the dozen or so people who serve on the worship prayer teams know we can be called on at any time to come forward to pray for a particular person or need. A few weeks ago, for example, the sermon focused on encouragement during the storms of life. We had just been through the “storm” of seeing our church building destroyed by winds and snowfall. Now we had chosen a team to lead us through the process of rebuilding. The prayer team was called forward to lay hands on the new leadership team, asking God’s wisdom and power to rest on them as they steer our course over the next year. It was a good conclusion to a much-needed service of encouragement and faith.
Looking to the Future
As we rebuild our church, we are forming a “prayer dream team” to offer suggestions as to how our prayer ministry should impact the design of the new building. This is a rare opportunity to make our building reflect the centrality of prayer in our ministry.
We have done much over the past six to eight years to make prayer a central part of our congregational life, worship, and ministry. But we have just begun to scratch the surface of this powerful gift that God has given us.
If you are hoping to make prayer a larger part of your church’s future ministry too, you will need a few people with a vision for prayer. That was all we started with. God does the rest.