On Deep Spiritual Engagement in Worship and the Phrase "Pray With Me"

Q

Our church puts a lot of effort into making worship more meaningful for kids. While they are more engaged, it’s hard to tell if they are really benefitting from all this effort spiritually. How do we discern what is really formative, and what is just busy activity?

A

What a challenging and fruitful question—for people of all ages!

The answer to your question is difficult to discern. What seems like sheer surface busyness to some can, by God’s Spirit, be used to great effect in the lives of others.

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive for more explicit prayers for and testimonies about deep, spiritual engagement—for conversations in Advent not just about lighting candles but about experiencing deep and profound longing for God’s coming kingdom, for conversations at Vacation Bible School that aren’t merely about clever crafts and fun songs, but also about profound spiritual transformation.

Most adults and children find it more comfortable to talk about surface-level engagement in worship actions than to address deeper matters. We ask questions like these: Was the children’s sermon memorable? Could I sing the tune of the opening song? Did you notice the new banners hanging up front?

Part of this is inevitable. The deep spiritual longings and insights we carry with us can often be difficult to express in words. We may feel vulnerable when sharing them with others. And talking about these experiences, unfortunately, has been done in a variety of manipulative and harmful ways in some communities, leaving some people feeling like second-class spiritual citizens.

Still, aware of these dangers, it could benefit many of us to be more direct in talking about how our experiences of worship were used by the Holy Spirit to move, challenge, or comfort us. This can be as simple as asking each other at a family meal, a church council meeting, or a Sunday School class, “What was something in today’s worship service that blessed or challenged you spiritually?”

The deep spiritual longings and insights we carry with us can often be difficult to express in words.

When he was a pastor of Bury Street Independent Congregation in London, Isaac Watts once wrote a model prayer for adults to help children to pray “after some serious impressions in a sermon.” It is worth quoting in its entirety.

Bless thy name, O Lord, who has made thy Word reach my heart. How many sermons I have heard carelessly, and forgot them entirely! O let me not forget what I have heard this day, but let thy Holy Spirit refresh my memory, and keep the thoughts of it lively upon my Spirit [here the children should mention some particulars of the sermon in prayer, which were most affecting]. Let me love thee more than ever; let me hate sin more than ever; let thy work of grace be carried on upon my soul till I become a new creature, a sincere Christian, and let every sermon I shall hear for time to come help forward this blessed work of my salvation, for the sake of Jesus Christ my Savior. Amen.

Isaac Watts’ Prayer Today

Here is an adaptation of Watts’ prayer in more contemporary language.

Bless the name of the Lord!

You, O Lord, have put your Word into my heart. How many sermons have I heard carelessly and forgotten completely? Please don’t let me forget what I have heard today, but let your Holy Spirit refresh my memory and remind me of it daily. Especially may I remember . . .

[Here all present, children and adults alike, should mention in prayer the particulars of the sermon that they found most encouraging, enlightening, correcting, or that led them to praise God.]

Let me love you more than ever; let me hate sin more than ever. Let your grace fill my soul until I become a new creature, Christ-like in all ways, and let every sermon I hear continue the blessed work of making me more holy, for the sake of Jesus Christ, my Savior. Amen.

Watts fully expected children to listen to sermons and to have the capacity to be moved by them (even though sermons then were quite long and contained many fewer illustrations than sermons today). He expected adults and children would have conversations about sermons that left “some serious impressions.” He expected adults to have this model prayer ready to give children. He knew full well that most people heard many sermons “carelessly,” but also that God’s Spirit could prompt anyone to have a particularly vivid experience of grace. And he knew that a prayer like this could also serve as a powerful “frame” for helping children (and their parents) experience future sermons with a deeper sense of expectation.

Now, the mere existence of this prayer doesn’t mean that every parent in Watts’ congregation used it. But it does offer us a vision for conversations with our children that are both tender and direct, nurturing and firm.

Getting Deeper: Conversation Starters That Get at the Spirit

by Jolanda Howe and Joyce Borger

After worship, consider asking kids some of the following questions to dig deeper. You can ask them of yourself and other adults too.

  • How did God speak to you through worship today?
  • What did you discover about God?
  • What did you discover about yourself?
  • What did you discover about other people?
  • How can we apply the things we learned today at home, at school, at work, or with our friends?
  • What would you have added if you were the preacher?

During the week, look for other ways to jump-start faith conversations:

  • When you’re outside, ask, “Where do you see God at work in creation today?” 
  • When reading or listening to the news, ask, “Where do you see God at work in the world? When God looks at what’s happening in our world, what do you think God might think and feel?”
  • When you hear of someone who is sick or in trouble, ask, “How do you think we should pray for that person?

Q

A member of our community was not pleased with me when I said “Pray with me” prior to leading the congregation in prayer. It struck me as a very fussy complaint. What could possibly be wrong with that

A

I have heard the phrase “Pray with me” a thousand times, and can see where this concern might feel a bit fussy. But it’s worth pausing to give this some thought.

There are two different ways of thinking about what you are doing when you lead a congregation in prayer.

How much we miss when we fail to perceive the joy and power of being a corporate body, a corporate assembly of God’s people in worship!

The first sees the prayer you lead as your own personal prayer which you are offering in a public context. This approach often features first person singular language: “I pray that you will convict each one of us as we hear your Word. . . . I pray that you will bless our youth group meeting tonight.” Sometimes this approach is motivated by a good desire to insist on the deep personal involvement of one speaking the prayer. People who lead prayer should truly be praying what they are saying. But this approach also conveys that prayer is something that we do as individuals rather than as a corporate whole, the body of Christ. My guess is that the person who raised this with you thinks that the phrase “pray with me” signals this more individualistic approach to prayer.

The other approach is thinking of yourself as a representative—the spokesperson—of the community, which is the real source of the prayer. This approach is signaled by first person plural language:

“We pray that you will convict us. . . . We pray for those of us who are in the youth group.” Those who aspire to be community spokespersons in prayer prioritize speaking prayer concerns that others may have, even if they may not personally identify with each of those concerns. They may well look for ways of involving others in preparing or even leading the prayer. Typically, people who shift gears from “I” prayers to “we” prayers like these will introduce their prayers by saying “Let us pray” or “We now offer our common prayers to God” rather than “Pray with me.”

Incidentally, theologian Abraham Kuyper once perceptively described a common dilemma for prayer leaders that emerges out of these two approaches, noting that either “one truly prays earnestly and zealously, but forgets those around him [or her], and so makes them to be listeners to the prayer” or one “thinks so much about the people for whom and with whom he [or she] prays that he [or she] forgets to think of God, and so prays not at all.” So we are dealing here with a perennial concern!

It’s helpful to realize that the lines between these two approaches often blur. A first person singular prayer leader may well give careful thought to voicing the concerns of the community. And the first person plural prayer leader may well personally enter deeply into the prayer. Further, I can think of several people who routinely introduce a prayer by saying “Please pray with me,” and then go on to pray a “we” prayer all the way through.

One of the most limiting aspects of worship in our time is pervasive individualism. Many subtle patterns in worship reinforce the idea that a congregation is a group of individuals in one place rather than a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. How much we miss when we fail to perceive the joy and power of being a corporate body, a corporate assembly of God’s people in worship!

In this context, it can be very constructive to take on the discipline of setting aside the “Pray with me” and “I pray . . .” language in public prayer and living fully into the idea that the prayer is, as much as possible, the prayer of the collective whole.

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin College.