Q As our worship services have evolved over the past few years, intercessory prayer seems to get less and less attention. What can we do about that?
A Indeed, in many places the “long prayer” isn’t very long anymore. Sometimes brevity trumps specificity: we take time to pray generally “for the needs of the world,” but rarely offer specific prayers for the situation in Sudan, for local homelessness, or for a host of other concerns. (See also Ron Rienstra’s article “Standing on Holy Ground,” p. 16.)
In fact, intercessory prayer may be the single act of worship most in need of reform (or resuscitation) in the church today. Happily, this reform effort does not have to generate divisions because of style. Churches of all styles need help in this area.
As you work on this in your congregation, here are four things to consider:
- Teach and reflect on biblical texts about intercessory prayer. First Timothy 2:1-4 and Philippians 4:6-7 offer sweeping mandates for the breadth of our prayers. But then remember that the church is called not only to teach but also to model this kind of prayer life.
Develop models for prayer that include congregational participation. The “long prayer” approach, which asks a congregation to pray along with a single leader, is often difficult because of how hard it is to pray along. Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper once rightly concluded that this act of worship required heroic persistence on the part of worshipers that very few people could really achieve. Alternating spoken and sung prayers, or including a spoken congregational refrain, are two simple ways of helping
people pay attention.
- Link public intercessions with prayers all week long. (See also “How to Spend an Hour with God” on p. 31.) Think of public prayers as a time to gather up the intercessions that are being offered all week long in your congregation’s small groups, Bible studies, council meetings, youth group, and community outreach ministries. Encourage people to echo each week’s public intercessions in their personal prayers all week long.
- Expand the breadth of concerns in your prayers while maintaining very specific prayer references.
- Consider making a promise to pray specifically for at least five headline stories in the newspaper each week. Further, consider including on your church’s website links to the newspaper stories that elicit your prayers—a way of announcing both to members and to people in your community the kinds of things your congregation is intentional about praying for.
- Consider adopting a simple rubric for prayer that invites all who lead prayers to pray each week for at least one or two specific needs in each of the following categories: the world, the nation, the city, the global church, and the local church. In general, we are better at praying for local than global concerns.
- Expand the range of questions you ask while gathering prayer requests. Consider, for example, asking your congregation, “For which country or part of the world shall we pray today?” or “For which voiceless and powerless persons shall we pray today?” These questions are likely to expand the range of topics people mention in a prayer request time. (See The Worship Sourcebook, p. 177, for more suggestions.)
All of this will take more time in worship. But if your intercessory prayers are thoughtful, specific, and connected with the prayer life of the church throughout the week, this part of the service—even if it takes a bit longer—may feel a bit shorter.
Q People in our congregation are asking for our worship to be more relevant to daily Christian life. How should we approach this?
A I would hope that worship services in each Christian tradition clearly speak to specific needs, challenges, and opportunities in daily life. In any given week, sermon references, intercessory prayers, prayers of confession, and introductions to the offering each are occasions for very concrete, specific references to life outside church. Part of faithful leadership is making sure that your worship services accomplish this.
At the same time, worship and church life ought to offer not just relevance but also both rest from and resistance to our cultural milieu. If culture is busy and noisy, worship may be one place for quiet. If culture is self-preoccupied, our practices of praise, preaching, and prayer are each times to practice self-forgetfulness. Another part of faithful leadership is reminding your church of this perspective. You may need to teach your church that consciously (and explicitly) resisting culture is one of the best ways the church has of being relevant.
There is also one other way of thinking about the relationship between worship and daily life that needs a lot more attention. Writers such as Alexander Schmemann, Dorothy Bass, Leanne Van Dyk, Thomas Long, and Don Saliers, to name only a few, have been exploring the ways in which our liturgical practices are like “condensed expressions” of the Christian life. In worship, we practice and reinforce certain moves or actions and are then challenged to carry these out all week long:
- Our songs of praise prepare us to praise God all week long in little spontaneous doxologies every time we see one of God’s blessings come our way.
- The passing of the peace is a rehearsal for how we are to treat people all week long, as we seek to relate to people by offering them not revenge, or ill will, but nothing less than the peace of Christ.
- The prayers of the people are a condensed form of our prayer life all week long (see the previous question and answer).
- A prayer for illumination is not only appropriate prior to a sermon, but also when we open our Bibles for personal or family devotions during the week.
- The offering is not merely a means for paying our dues at church, but is a symbol about how we are to handle money all week long.
When we begin to think about public worship in this way, a lot of actions that we might think to be irrelevant to daily life—songs and hymns of praise, prayers of confession, the passing of the peace—actually become some of the most relevant things we do.
However, this way of thinking about worship practices is new to many people. I encourage you to begin to talk about it, and then to share your insights by writing a letter to Reformed Worship.
In the church where we go to now
the words of the preacher
begin innocently enough
to thread through the fabric of our lives.
They draw together shapes
not previously recognized,
and connect portions of the narrative
as yet unread, or not yet readable,
a pattern not apparent,
as though written and stitched
by a random hand.
The church where we go to now
is, and is not, the church
of our fathers and mothers.
The old words do not come easily,
here, the songs have faded and frayed,
they have been crushed and ground
by the lives of our forebears,
the weight of history.
The preacher is not innocent.
She is both fearful and full of joy.
She would unburden us,
but the slim silver sliver that she guides
as it moves through,
and there is blood on the pattern,
the page, on the hand,
as well as healing,
just as there was for our mothers and fathers.
She pulls the thread, taut,
then snaps it between her teeth.
Amen. For now and forever
amen to this bite of a new
from Brendan Luck, A Devil’s Whim Chapbook,
Gaspereau Press, Kentville, Nova Scotia. Used by permission.