Priestly Prayers: Intercessions for the Church and World

... our intercessory prayers are seldom as wide as the world.

I have a complaint against you, Pastor," said the old brother. He had seemed so happy to see me when he answered the door. "Ah, the pastor. Come on in." But I was barely seated before he wagged a bony finger at me and voiced his complaint.

This time it was Israel's invasion of Lebanon. (The time before it had been the drought and starvation in Ethiopia.) "And you didn't even mention it in your prayer last Sunday," he said, shaking his head. "Not a word. I was disappointed."

He was right, of course, and he started me thinking. What is the scope of intercessory prayer in the worship service?

What should the pastor's prayer include?

Prayer for All

Prayer is an essential ministry for the church (Acts 2: 42; Acts 6:4). From the time of the Reformation, Calvinists have firmly established prayer as part of the liturgy and recognized that only in times of decadence does intercessory prayer become minimal. The Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church in North America bears witness to this tradition in Article 61:

The public prayers in the worship service shall include adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication, and intercession for all Christendom and all men [women and children].

But how alive is that tradition of intercession in most Reformed and Presbyterian churches?

In some ways intercession is flourishing in our services. We pray for specific people with specific joys and sorrows rather than for an unnamed group of "sick and shut-ins." We pray in detail for the families, circumstances, and challenges of the missionaries we support. We make emphatic mention of unfaithful members. We offer thanks for those being baptized, those making profession of faith. We are sure to remember those who graduate, visitors in our service, and those who are traveling in faraway places. We intercede for outreach contacts and from time to time remember those, both in our land and around the world, who are persecuted.

So the field of our intercession is extensive, but is it extensive enough? Do we really offer "intercessions for all Christendom and all men [women and children]"?

Most of us would have to admit that our intercessory prayers are seldom as wide as the world— and often nearly as narrow as our congregation. We need to learn that while it's important to mention immediate personal and congregational concerns, we shouldn't dwell on them too long. The Bible sets a far more comprehensive agenda for our prayers.

Prayer for the City

When the prophet Jeremiah commands the people to pray for the city, he isn't thinking of Jerusalem. He's asking them to pray for Babylon, the city of exile. "Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile" (Jer. 29:7a).

Such prayer for an idol-worshiping city hardly seems to fit the particularism of the old covenant. Pray for Babylon—the enemy city? Pray for it? "Yes," said the Lord through Jeremiah. Why? "Because if it [the city] prospers, you too will prosper" (29:7b). The well-being of God's people is interrelated with the well-being of the city of exile.

God certainly calls us to pray for our friends, our families, and our congregations. But he also calls us to pray for people in other countries, for our enemies, for the "city"—"for everyone" says 1 Timothy 2. "[God] wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:4).

Paul also reminds us to make special intercession for "kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness" (1 Tim. 2:2). We should pray for these dignitaries in their official function—that they do justice, protect the vulnerable, and provide a framework of stability. As in the case of prayer for Babylon (Jer. 29), "their welfare" and "our welfare" are interwoven. Under just rulers we quietly can live godly lives.

Clearly, then, there is a universal aspect to the intercessions of the church: We are called not only to pray for everyone, but also to pray for every aspect of human life. So when a denominational agency sends out a prayer guide that tells us to "ask for the Lord's continued blessing on the disaster relief work in West Memphis, where volunteers are working in the intense heat of the South," we recognize that as an appropriate prayer request.

Indeed! God calls us to offer intercessions "for all Christendom and all men, [women, and children]." No one person excluded. No area of human life bypassed. Everything in this world is related to God's plan of redemption. The whole creation groans until it shares in the freedom and glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:20-23). The connections between current affairs and the kingdom of God are there. It is up to us to find them and voice them in our prayers.

We have to get over the idea that the Holy Spirit is exclusively on the side of spontaneity.

Preparing to Pray

Once we begin to take seriously the admonition to pray for all people, several questions arise.

How do we make all our prayers personally relevant for the congregation? How do we answer those who accuse us of praying about secular matters or about using prayer as a way of voicing personal opinions? How do we prevent our prayers from becoming too long?

The answer to all of these questions is careful preparation. Yes our prayers must be relevant—just like our sermons. Preparation is essential. Yes, it's important that we offer kingdom perspectives rather than personal opinions in our prayers. Preparation is essential. Yes, prayer should not be "secular"— but when we pray properly, the concerns we bring cease to be "secular matters." Preparation is essential.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle many of us must overcome as worship leaders is our own wordiness. Again, preparation is the key to making sure a general prayer doesn't gel too long. Say it once, not twice. Decide beforehand what you will intercede for this Sunday and the next. Train yourself first, and then educate the congregation.

We have to get over the idea that the Holy Spirit is exclusively on the side of spontaneity. The Spirit also loves forethought, planning, and order. Most of us could improve our prayers through the use of pre-crafted materials—sometimes our own, sometimes those we borrow from others. If your denomination provides printed prayers (see examples on pp. 32-34), be humble enough to use them. Make time also to visit a Christian bookstore and check out prayer books from other denominations and publishers. You're sure to find much that will enrich your congregational prayers.

Intercessory prayer may seem to be the easiest part of the worship service. We may feel that we can wing our way through it week after week. Yet, as public prayers of the body of Christ, the prayers we raise in worship deserve proper care and our best gifts. After all, the people who hear these prayers will be carried along by them to the throne of grace.

We mustn't forget the educational value of our prayers either. Public prayers serve as a model for all other prayers. If the worship leader's prayers are too narrow, too one-sidedly concerned with the personal problems of members, how will these members learn to outgrow their narrowness of focus? Members must learn from us that the whole world is the field of prayer. If we thoughtfully form and articulate our prayers, we'll be helping members of the congregation learn to pray thoughtfully and articulately.

Choosing the Right Words

Language is such a fascinating subject, and in public prayer the use of language is extremely important. Two extremes should be avoided: prayers filled with well-oiled cliches and prayers that are too artfully literate or too colloquial. Both types are extremely hard to pray along with.

Making the words of prayer more pointed can stir up the congregation's interest and prevent boredom. Add a telling adjective, find a sharper verb, focus on the right noun. Perhaps I can illustrate that with a little exercise. The following prayer request comes to you from a denominational agency:

Illness is common among overseas staff. Pray that good health and strength may be given daily so that through the power of God the work of the devil can be checked.

What shape would you give to this petition?

One option is to lay out the whole problem in great detail:

Lord, be with the missionaries overseas. They and their families are often exposed to new health risks which they do not experience at home. Keep them healthy and strong. Help them to avoid unnecessary risks. Yet at the same time make them willing to sacrifice for the sake of the Christ who called them. As they have dedicated themselves to opposing the kingdom of darkness in all of its manifestations, grant that Satan may gain no foothold in their hearts at a time of suffering, nor cause others to stumble because of their weakness.

A good comprehensive prayer, wouldn't you say? Probably too comprehensive. It includes too much information (which the Lord does not need) and covers too many sub-items. If a pastor covers one topic this extensively, he will be unable to include other needed intercessions in his prayer.

What's the solution?

The other option. Concentrate on the essentials; find more telling words:

Lord of the whole person, immunize missionaries against health hazards. Turn their weaknesses into triumphs for your kingdom. Two carefully crafted statements such as these are more likely than the longer petition to hold the congregation's attention and will leave time for other intercessions.

It is simply not true that a well-formulated prayer stifles emotion. When the content and form of the prayer are clearly before us, we can concentrate on being priestly intercessors. We can let our emotions match the urgency of our petitions.

"Long" Prayer?

Do you give your congregation reason to call your intercessory prayer the "long" prayer?

Probably. And that's not bad. When it comes to prayer, most of us are too concerned about time. But you might consider making the "long" prayer seem shorter by breaking it into smaller segments.

The Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican (Church of England) tradition provides one model. Each petition ends with phrases such as ". . . world without end" or "in Jesus Christ our Lord." These words cue the congregation to join in with an "Amen" or "Lord, have mercy."

The feeling of "length" can also be eased by having more than one person offer a petition. When one voice stops, the next voice takes over. One member prays for your missionaries, an-

other for single parents, another for the Christian School, another for a special outreach program, and so on. Members can benefit by learning to participate in congregational prayers in one way or another.

At which point in the liturgy do we offer these intercessory prayers? Often they're most appropriate toward the end of the service. After the Lord has spoken to us in his word, we respond to him. Yet we need not be dogmatic about this placement. In some services the intercessory prayer may be more appropriate earlier in the service. In the evening service, for example, it may be appropriate to offer the intercessory prayer before the message as a conclusion to a time of sharing or praise. In services that require that the congregation pray primarily for local needs (a shocking accident, ordination of new elders and deacons, etc.) intercession may become part of other prayers in the service (prayer of confession, prayer for illumination).

Priestly Prayers

As priests of the whole world we are called upon to pray for all. Proper preparation can help the worship leader (and/or members of the congregation) to remember each concern of our globe-embracing intercessions once or twice in the year. Remember that the church is the priestly intercessor for the whole world. We must do what the world cannot do for itself: pray to the one God of heaven and earth through the one mediator between God and humanity—the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5).

Excerpt

our children from the pervasive secularism of
our day.
Direct the affairs of those who serve in government
that we may lead quiet and peaceable lives,
godly and respectful in every way.
Give us this day our daily bread, Father.
The blessings of this good land have made us rich
beyond expression.
And we do thank you deeply!
But we remember our brothers and sisters here and
abroad who suffer the indignities poverty can
bring.
Bless the unemployed who are the victims of eco-
nomic depression orjob discrimination.
Bless the poor barely surviving on minimum in-
comes.
Bless the aged who must sometimes live out their
days in circumstances of absolute dependency.
Bless the hundreds of millions of people in our
world today who suffer from acute hunger and
from the oppression of the rich.
O God, let our abundance at this time supply their
want.
As Jesus had compassion on the multitudes, so let
our hearts be broken—and opened—and emp-
tied—and may your love be multiplied.
Forgive us, Lord, our debts, as we fully desire to
overlook the chasm of hurts which have stood
between us and our debtors.
Forgive us the irreverence of our many idolatries.
Forgive our obsessions with food, alcohol, drugs,
sex, money, or other things.
Forgive our anxieties about circumstances of the
moment.
Forgive our enslavement to work, our over-devotion
to leisure.
Forgive our participation in the violent temper of
our times.
Forgive our artfully concealed prejudices.
Forgive our impatience with sickness or pain.
Forgive our lack of trust.
Even as you have promised, Lord, let no temptation
overtake us but such as are common to all peo-
ple, for we know you are gracious and will
provide us a way of escape that we may be able
to persevere.
Grant us, we pray, deliverance from the evil one.
Bring peace to the striving nations, unity to a di-
vided church, deliverance to a host of op-
pressed peoples, and salvation to the unsaved
masses of the world.
For truly, Lord, yours is the kingdom and the power
and the glory, forever!
Amen!

—-from part 4 of the Service Book, CRC Publications, 1981

Excerpt

PASTORAL PRAYER

Our loving Father in heaven, we praise you for your
majesty as Lord of the universe.
We remember with awe, Lord, how you voiced the
heavens into being, and how you shaped the formless
universe by the breath of your brooding Spirit.
Yet, mighty God that you are, you choose, with affectionate
tenderness, to know each person by
name.
You come, with intimate nearness, to give power to
the faint. You take us into your arms; you bend down
to nourish us.
We reach up to receive your love.
We truly find our desires satisfied in you.
Praise be to you, O God!
Hallowed be your wonderful name, that name of
presence, power, and authority whereby people
are healed, demons are cast out, and believers
are baptized.
As we stand now in awe of your holy name, renew
within us a humble spirit of repentance.
Give us a holy discontent with our spiritual apathy
and our sometimes ritualistic faith whereby we
take your name in vain.
Anoint us anew with your living Spirit, O risen
Christ.
Inspire within us a fresh spark of evangelistic fervor.
Fill us with a holy passion for lost souls, a constraint
to witness to the power of your name, a compulsion
to love, an overwhelming desire to put our
faith into action.
May your kingdom come, Lord.
May it come quickly!
Come, Lord Jesus, to destroy completely that Satanic
kingdom built by violent force, by ruthless competition, by
retaliation, by elimination of the weak.
Come, Lord Jesus, to bring about your kingdom of
peace built by the shedding of your blood once
for all, by the force of love and nonviolence, by
self-denial, and by the defense of the weak in
your name.
Move us to be part of the building of that kingdom.
Your will be done, Father, as in heaven, so on earth.
We make our plans, but you guide our steps.
Show us where you would have us live, and at what
occupations you would have us labor.
Teach us to what degree you would permit us to
seek profit, and for what ends you would have
us exercise the stewardship of restraint and the
higher righteousness of giving away.
May your will be done in the homes represented
here today: where there is distress and division,
Lord Jesus, sow your peace and bring reconciliation.
Bless, Lord, the ministry of the schools and protect

Excerpt

PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING AND INTERCESSION

We praise you, O God! We acknowledge you as Lord. We thank you for the inexhaustible well of your love amid the arid deserts of this world. We thank you for Jesus Christ, who provides us with living water. And we thank you for your faithful, positive witnesses reaching into that well of love and sharing the water with others and with us.

It is now our time and we too would draw deeply, and share with the thirsty of our time:

with those forgotten and unloved;
with those whose strength is unequal to their tasks;
with those burdened by negative attitudes, or self-destruction;
with those weighed down by guilt and shame;
with those whose bodies are sick, whose minds are confused,
whose spirits are broken;
with those who are victims of violence, hunger, poverty, and
insensitivity;
with all these thirsty brothers and sisters we would share the living water we have found, and point them to the never-ending source, the well-spring of life in Jesus Christ our Lord; in whose name we offer these prayers. Amen.

—from Pray to the Lord—Prayers for Corporate Worship. Used by permission of the Commission on Worship of the Reformed Church in America.

William Vander Beek is a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church.