... 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. 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." (Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church, 2020)
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 the homebound." 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?
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" (Jeremiah 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] who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Timothy 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 Timothy 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 (Jeremiah 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 we receive a prayer guide that guides 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. 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 (Romans 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.
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 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.
We must get over the idea that the Holy Spirit is exclusively on the side of spontaneity.
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 get 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 must 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.
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 pastors covers one topic this extensively, they will be unable to include other needed intercessions in his prayer.
What's the solution?
Concentrate on the essentials; find more telling words:
Lord of the whole person,
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.
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, another for single parents, another for schools, 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 possibly 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).
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 Timothy 2:5).
A PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING AND INTERCESSION
We praise you, O God!
–adapted from Pray to the Lord: Prayers for Corporate Worship. Used by permission of the Commission on Worship of the Reformed Church in America.
Updated February, 2024
Priestly Prayers: Intercessions for the Church and World
Reformed Worship 11 © March 1989 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.