Many congregations wrestle with the question of who should lead them in worship, especially in spoken prayer. Historically this has been the task of the pastor, but there is much to be gained by including the different voices of the congregation in the leading of prayer and in other parts of worship. Read the following testimony from one church that has moved toward such a practice and what they discovered along the way.
When God’s people gather each Lord’s Day to worship at Nazareth Presbyterian Church, they expect to be led by me—their pastor—and a ruling elder. Reformed and Presbyterian elders and sessions have responsibility for worship in our congregations. That is part of the reason that I ask our elders to join me each week in leading worship, but I confess that my motives are also selfish; I appreciate having some of the responsibility for leading removed from my shoulders. But as our elders pray, I have come to realize that their voices noticeably broaden and enrich the prayers we pray and the worship we offer God.
One Sunday our elder prayed these words:
We pray for our service personnel all over the world, lonely and without their families near them.
Those words are not unusual for a pastoral prayer, but when they are prayed by elder Gene Cothran, a retired career Air Force officer who served around the globe, the words have an added depth in the ears and hearts of worshipers.
Another elder prayed:
Thank you for the blessings of love and kindness we have received, for forgiveness that we regularly receive from you and others. . . . Encourage us to return and forward all these things among those we meet, to forgive when we are too angry to forgive, and to show kindness to those whom we meet daily.
For me and other worshipers, those words have a particular authenticity to them when prayed by elder Paula Cash, whose genuine kindness we receive and see exhibited week-in and week-out in her life, in her work at a local college, and in our church.
Each year as we orient our session (group of elders), elders are encouraged to choose a month during which they will lead worship. No one is required to lead, but there is rarely a vacant month. So that the elders’ gifts in leading may be used in varied ways, I ask them to lead different parts of the service on different Sundays. On a Sunday when an elder is unable to lead, we ask a young person to lead worship.
For those leading, there is a simple orientation with directions for such things as making a smooth transition from the last notes of a hymn into the prayer that follows, or good practices for reading Scripture. If the order of worship is unusual, or if something else is out of the ordinary, the elder and I meet before worship to be sure we know what each of us is to do.
Weekly preparation is by e-mail communication. I alert the elder leading worship to the theme of the service based on the Scriptures, and suggest the parts of worship he or she might lead. Then I send calls to prayer, words of assurance, and prayer texts their way, always with the encouragement to make those pieces their own by editing or rewriting.
At least one Sunday a month I ask the elders to compose the prayers of the people, alerting them a week in advance. The only prompting we use is a resource from The Worship Sourcebook (Faith Alive)—section 4.2, “Gathering Prayer Requests,” offers useful prompts to the elder to guide his or her prayer composition (see also Prayers of the People from Faith Alive). From there, our elders compose their prayers as led by the Spirit and by their observations and awareness of the world and church around them.
So, for instance, Vicki prays:
Lord our God, we give you all our thanks, and praise your name with all of our hearts and souls. We thank you for the gift of life and the lives of others that surround us. We give thanks for the wonders of this world that you have created for us: the fields that you have filled with food and nourishment for us and others, the mountains and hills that hold the beauty we adore and the materials to sustain our lives, giving us clothing and shelter. We thank you for the promises that you have given to mankind that assure us of everlasting life beyond our earthly existence.
We pray that you will guide us in our work, and all of our different occupations and vocations. Guide us also in the stewardship of your world and the churches in which we gather to worship, commune, and learn to be better witnesses to you, speaking and acting to fulfill your will in this world. . . .
We pray for the people who have lost their homes due to extreme forces of nature. Be with those people and their families as they rebuild their neighborhoods and lives. And be with the hundreds of volunteers and relief people who give their time and talents to help those in need at this devastating time in their lives.
Creator God: you who made heaven and earth, you who designed the plants and animals of our planet, we thank you. Your work is beautiful. You have blessed us with a Savior, your Son, who came to earth to teach us how to live; your Son, who died so that we could live in your grace; your Son, who gave us commandments, rules to live by, who taught us to love our neighbors unconditionally. . . .
In our own congregation, we pray for those who have lost a job, lost a loved one, or who are just lost. Remind us that you are with each of us as we make important decisions. Help us to use our talents to serve you and to remember that all we do is for the glory of your name.
As elders lead our prayers, their prayers—spoken with their trust in God, from their lives, in their words, with their voices—raise us all wonderfully before God.
There are added fruits from the Spirit’s work with our praying elders. Many who lead testify to growing in their devotion through this ministry. Most note that they gain a new perspective on the gathered congregation, seeing their friends in Christ anew from the pulpit side of the sanctuary. None have ever said, “Please don’t ask me to do this again.” I expect that more than one elder who leads our worship and our prayers would agree with Mike Baier’s e-mail on a recent Friday when he was composing the prayers of the people: “. . . every time I have done it, I realize that I have considerably more I would like to add.”