It’s quite possible to fill dozens of bookshelves with books on the importance and practice of personal prayer. That’s one indicator of the importance of prayer for personal spiritual growth and for the deepening of personal faith. But how many shelves could be filled with books on corporate prayer? Maybe one small shelf. Of course personal prayer is deeply important, but it’s often the corporate prayers of the church that teach us how to pray personally.
The Bible was written not to individuals, but to a community. Yes, salvation is a personal event by which we respond to the Holy Spirit and say “yes” to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. But that salvation brings us into the community of the body of the Messiah. We are saved individually into a community. Scripture is full of examples of the community gathering together in worship and prayer.
After Jesus’ ascension, we see the community of believers gathered to spend time in prayer (Acts 1:14). After Peter and John were arrested by the Sanhedrin and released, they joined the rest of the disciples and prayed together (Acts 4:31). When Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray, he does not instruct them to say, “My Father in heaven” but “Our Father in heaven.” The Lord’s Prayer is corporate. Even when we pray it privately, it invites us to think of ourselves as part of a large world-wide community.
The Bible is clear that we need both individual times with God as well as communal times of prayer. The Bible also teaches that when we gather as a community to pray, something powerful can happen: “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:19–20). Corporate prayer not only brings Jesus’ presence, but also his power.
In their book Prayer That Shapes the Future: How to Pray with Power and Authority (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1999) Brad Long and Doug McMurray note:
Many of the greatest Christian leaders of the past have noticed a curious phenomenon: When Christians pray separately, their prayers are not as effective as when they pray together. If “one man [could] chase a thousand,” then “two [could] put ten thousand to flight” (Deuteronomy 32:20). The increase in power and results is exponential.
Corporate prayer is not a formula by which the more people that are praying, the more powerful the prayer becomes. Instead, the unique effectiveness of corporate prayer points to the importance of being gathered as the community of faith. A woman in our congregation who had just come out of an abusive situation gave birth to a son. The boy was not breathing on his own, so he was moved to the neonatal intensive care unit. The news spread around the congregation, and people began to pray. He made it through the first night, but the doctors did not give much hope that he would make it through a second. So the congregation gathered in a waiting room at the hospital to pray. Together we prayed for the baby, for the health care professionals, and for the child’s mother. We prayed for healing and for comfort.
The baby began to breathe for himself in the middle of the night. The hospital staff were amazed. They expected the baby to show signs of brain damage, but none was evident. In response to this miracle the faith of the congregation increased. A planned evangelistic outreach that we were about to cancel went ahead. A greater confidence flowed from the congregation as they shared their faith because we had seen God at work through prayer.
Calling the church to pray together in a time of need is an excellent way to build the experience of corporate prayer. But the real challenge is making it a regular part of the worship service.
Prayer of the People
The congregational prayer, or the Prayer of the People, is a central feature of every worship service throughout history. Yet this time of prayer is often cut short or considered insignificant. In a distinctly individualistic world, corporate prayer has a diminished place. Some would even suggest that this congregational prayer is sleep-inducing!
Often the congregational prayer is experienced passively. The minister or worship leader prays, while the congregation sits back and passively listens. But the whole congregation should be actively engaged in this prayer. The whole church is praying in agreement and expecting the Lord to work.
Creativity in Corporate Prayer
Creativity is needed to break out of a passive approach to prayer. Here are just a few suggestions to inspire your creativity.
Involving the congregation in corporate prayer is essential. A simple way to do this is to ask people to share their prayer requests. In smaller congregations this can be done before the prayer as people verbally offer their prayer suggestions. The prayer leader can then pray into these requests.
Another possibility might be to involve the group by responding during the prayer. A liturgical prayer could be read responsively, or the congregation could respond during the prayer with a simple refrain at various points during the prayer time. One time-honored method is for the prayer leaders to say, “Lord, in your mercy,” to which the congregation can respond, “hear our prayer!” Frame these times of prayer with a reminder that the purpose is to draw us into active engagement with the prayer.
Community and Kingdom Connections
Shifting the focus of the prayer time to situations and events outside the congregation can expand people’s vision for prayer. Identifying activities and circumstances in the local community that have the potential for kingdom building—praying for the local pregnancy care center or a mentoring program at a local school, for example—are great places to begin. Don’t forget to watch for how God answers these prayers so you can rejoice in thanksgiving for the answers. Recognizing, identifying, and celebrating answers to prayer encourages the continuation of prayer and intercession.
Seek out people in the congregation who can represent people in your community—a farmer representing the farming community, for example, or a nurse representing the health care community. Gather around these representatives and invite the congregation to pray for the work they do in the community.
Two or Three Together
Gathering in small groups of three of four during a worship service to pray encourages participation. Invite the groups to pray for a few minutes, out loud or silently, using prayer points printed in a bulletin or projected on a screen. The sound of many voices praying in small groups together can be a powerful way to encourage corporate prayer.
Invite people to write their prayer requests out on sticky notes and to bring them to the front to stick on a cross.
These suggestions are just a few of the practices that might inspire your congregation toward a more fulfilling and effective practice of corporate prayer. Remember to record what you are praying for so you can rejoice and celebrate when God answers those prayers. Answered prayer encourages people to continue to pray.