Let Us Pray: Turning a monologue into the prayers of the people

How can we make congregational prayers more .meaningful? Like most pastors and worship leaders I've struggled with that question, searching for ways to make the prayer or prayers of the worship service truly the "prayers of the people."

The problem with the traditional Reformed "congregational prayer" is that the congregation may or may not be particularly involved. In an ideal situation the pastor will be sensitive to the needs in the congregation and the world and will be able to skillfully articulate these in prayer to God on behalf of the people. Furthermore, the people, who are sitting in the pews with heads bowed and eyes closed, will be good listeners who are able to enter thoroughly into whatever they hear to make the prayers that are spoken their own.

In such a situation there may be real accord, a genuine concert of prayer. But that is hoping for a lot.

This ideal is met all too infrequently. On the one hand, some preachers are gifted in neither the necessary sensitivity nor the ability to compose or spontaneously articulate the real burdens of the congregation in a way that makes listening and understanding easy. They drone on and on and, with all the good will in the world, the people find their minds wandering or fogging over. On the other hand, not everyone present is capable or even willing to enter into the spirit of corporate prayer in this fashion.

It goes without saying that a lack of interest dooms any method of public praying. But there are perhaps better ways to engage interest and involvement on the part of greater numbers of people—including children and bored teenagers. The six examples I will give are based on the assumption that a passive role for the people is the least promising for their genuine participation, and that the key is to open for them a more active part in prayer.

Bidding Prayers

There is some problem with the terminology here. Bid simply means "petition." Historically the bidding prayer was the intercessory prayer ("bidding the bedes" or "ye shulle stonde up and bydde you bedys"— 14th century example from Worcester). Whatever the correct usage, what I'm talking about is what today are usually called "bidding prayers" (see box, p.25).

In a bidding prayer the leader simply lays out an area of concern—for example, "Let us pray for the sick" (sometimes followed by a list of names). This is the "bid," the "gebed" or petition. A period of silence follows to allow the people to take up the needs of the sick with the Lord in silent prayer. I suppose it would be possible at this point for the people to speak up and pray aloud for these concerns, but I've never tried that.

This method of prayer has always appealed to me. It seems well-designed to get the people involved, to actually lead them in their prayers. But I haven't used bidding prayers much. The problem for me has been lack of feedback. People seem to tolerate a bidding prayer of this sort well enough. But I haven't detected any real enthusiasm for it. And I sometimes wonder what is going on during those times of silence.

For those who want to pray and enter into the spirit of things, the bidding prayer is great. But what about those who are used to a more passive role and are uncomfortable with anything else? What about those who are uninvolved? I'm concerned that the bidding prayer is a waste of time for them and perhaps resented.

The lack of enthusiasm may be due to the time spent in silence. Reformed Christians aren't used to silence in worship and seem to feel uncomfortable with it. Some members of the congregation might feel that the bidding prayer is a retreat into private meditation during an experience of worship that is supposed to be corporate. Encouraging people to pray out loud would seem to take care of that objection.

Written Agendas for Prayer

Sometimes I list a few categories and specific items of concern in the bulletin. I got this idea from Hughes Oliphant Olds. He was describing the prayer practices of the Presbyterian church in Lafayette, Indiana. I remember being profoundly moved by seeing in the sample bulletin that the Lafayette CRC was included among the churches to be prayed for at that service.

So. now I include the holy catholic church with our prayer categories, listing under it the names of at least three specific churches in the area (one or two CRCs, plus one other church in the community). Over the course of a year, we systematically pray for all the CRCs of our classis and a good selection of the other churches of the community.

I also list specific missionaries or fields of mission endeavor. I include both the missionaries we support and others mentioned in the monthly prayer guides distributed by the denomination.

To make the list personal to the congregation, I include each week the names of a few member families or individuals. In that way, we make sure that we systematically and publicly pray for everyone in the church.

Why provide a printed "agenda for prayer"? In the first place, it eliminates some of the mystery: "I wonder what the pastor is going to pray about today..." It also helps us to be systematic about covering the vast areas of concern for which we should be praying.

Perhaps most important, such an agenda enables the people to reflect on the concerns themselves. It frees them from total dependency on catching exactly what the pastor is praying about at the moment. And it communicates clearly: 'This is what we are praying for together."

A prayer agenda can also serve as a guide for prayer during the week. It can help the shut-ins and others who are absent to be aware of and participate in their congregation's prayers.

Encourage Prayer Requests

Precede your prayer with a time for sharing needs, concerns, requests, and praise. This practice puts more of the responsibility on the people for coming up with matters for prayer. It often results in a remarkable family feeling and a warm sense of intimacy.

Some worship leaders walk down the aisles with microphones, encouraging members to speak their prayer requests audibly before the whole congregation. I prefer to field the requests and summarize them briefly into the mike so all can hear— thus avoiding the problems created by individuals mumbling out lengthy and sometimes highly inappropriate prayer concerns (e.g., for an estranged wife, that she would change in such and such a way, etc.).

True, this format for prayer can lead to surprises and to some awkward or tense moments. Once, in another setting, I encountered a woman who was gripped with a sense of the Spirif s filling and launched into two or three minutes of ecstatic "prophecy." Fortunately, what she said was biblical, so I simply led the congregation in a brief prayer taking up the biblical admonitions or encouragement which she had articulated. It is possible that on another occasion a rebuke would have been in order. But these are simply the responsibilities of worship leadership as I understand them from the New Testament (particularly 1 Cor. 12 and 14).

One variation on this method of congregational praying is to allow for requests in writing. We have a prayer box in the narthex at 14th St. Church for that purpose, but it's hardly ever used. More successful in my experience has been to ask the people what they are thankful for on the Sunday before Thanksgiving Day and allow space in the bulletin for them to list their blessings. All these expressions of thanksgiving can be printed in the Thanksgiving bulletin and some of them included in the Thanksgiving prayers.

Litanies

The litany, a prayer read by the worship leader with spoken or sung congregational responses, is a more formal, less spontaneous method of corporate prayer (which requires a lot of bulletin space). We've had some beautiful experiences with prayer litanies, especially when the congregation sings the responses (e.g., a Pentecost prayer box; see also the sung prayer on p. 29).

Spontaneous Prayers

Open, free, spontaneous prayers—people contributing in as the Spirit leads—are another way of involving the congregation in prayer. However, opening up prayer in this manner works well only in smaller congregations. Larger groups discourage participation. If more than twenty or thirty people are involved, others become irritated because they are unable to hear.

 

Excerpt

BIDDING PRAYER

Let us pray for the Church and for the world.

Grant, Almighty God, that all who confess your Name may be united in your truth, live together in your love, and reveal your glory in the world.

Silence

Lord, in your mercy
Hear our prayer.

Guide the people of this land, and of all the nations, in the ways of justice and peace; that we may honor one another and serve the common good.

Silence

Lord, in your mercy
Hear our prayer.

Give us all a reverence for the earth as your own creation, that we may use its resources rightly in the service of others and to your honor and glory.

Silence

Lord, in your mercy
Hear our prayer.

Bless all whose lives are closely linked with ours, and grant that we may serve Christ in them, and love one another as he loves us.

Silence

Lord, in your mercy
Hear our prayer.

Comfort and heal all those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit; give them courage and hope in their troubles, and bring them the joy of your salvation.

Silence

Lord, in your mercy
Hear our prayer.

Almighty and eternal God, ruler of all things in heaven and earth, mercifully accept the prayers of your people, and strengthen us to do your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

From The Book of Common Prayer

 

PRAYER LITANY FOR THE POWER PROMISED FROM ON HIGH

Come Holy Spirit, from heaven shine
forth with your glorious light!(sung first time by leader)

Refrain(sung by all)
Come Holy Spirit, from heaven shine
forth with your glorious light!

Come Father of the poor, come generous
Spirit, come, light of our hearts!

Refrain

Perfect Comforter! Refreshing, renewing
breath of God! You make peace to dwell in our soul.

Refrain

In our labor, you offer rest; in temptation,
strength; and in our sadness, consolation.

Refrain

Most kindly, warming Light! Enter
the inmost depth of our hearts.

Refrain

Without your presence, we have nothing
worthy, nothing pure.

Refrain

Wash away our sin, send rain upon our
dry ground, heal our wounded souls,
make us holy as you are holy, so we may
come with joy to the table of the Lord.

Refrain

With warmth bend our rigidity, inflame
our apathy, and direct our wandering
feet. Overcome our timidity and
hesitancy. Empower us to be bold
witnesses for Jesus Christ.

Refrain

On all who put their trust in you, and
receive you in faith, shower all your gifts.
Grant that they may grow in you, and persevere to the end; give them lasting joy! Alleluia!

Refrain

Come, Holy Spirit.O come Holy Spirit.
O come Holy Spirit, from heaven shine
forth with your glorious light!Amen.

Text: Norman B. Steen, 1989
Tune: Norman B. Steen, 1989; arr. Emily R. Brink, 1989
© 1990, CRC Publications