I remember hearing a story about an African church leader who was brought to America to tour churches. At the end he was asked his thoughts.
He replied, “I’m surprised by how little prayer I witnessed.”
The American church, at least in my experience, tends to be lackluster in prayer. This is especially evident in corporate worship services. It can be hard to find an evangelical church service that even contains one three-minute prayer. Yet Jesus said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer” (Matt. 21:13).
Maybe it’s our independent American spirit, or maybe it’s a lukewarm faith. Regardless, many churches need to repent of prayerlessness, especially in corporate worship.
Put Prayer Back In
There are two principal ways corporate prayer can be implemented and encouraged in a local church. First, worship services should be filled with prayer. It’s insufficient to sing a few songs, read a text of Scripture, sing another song, and close the service. Though songs can be understood as a form of prayer, they’re not enough. Without formal prayer throughout the service, we are robbed of opportunity to learn and participate in the prayers of God’s people.
I’ve had the privilege of speaking on family worship at churches and various conferences. I always encourage families to pray together—it’s one of the essential means of grace. Inevitably, one question is asked during a break. A man will linger in the corner, wait for others to finish their questions, and then finally ask: “What if I don’t know how to pray? What do I do then?”
I doubt this is an anomaly. More likely, it’s epidemic. And I’d guess much of the epidemic flows from the lack of prayer in our worship services.
Teach Them to Pray by Praying
As a leader offers extended prayer in the worship service, congregants are taught how to pray. They hear the structure, the tone, the words, the manner, the items that rise to importance, and the Word applied. Prayer is as much caught as taught.
Each Lord’s Day worship service should include an extended time of prayer so that people are taught. But instruction is not the only reason. We are a people of prayer. We are sons and daughters who should long to speak to our heavenly Father—and not just individually, but together. The Christian life is not a solo endeavor. Our spiritual lives are inextricably tied to other members of the body. Corporate prayer reminds us of this common bond.
It’s also helpful to fill corporate worship with different types of prayer. This allows for teaching and expression along different lines. I think an average service should include a prayer of invocation, adoration, confession of sin, supplication (pastoral or prayer of intercession), illumination, and thanksgiving. The prayer of supplication should be an extended prayer—not so long that people fall asleep, but long enough that the congregation knows it as a long prayer. I believe this should either be a pre-written prayer or a studied prayer.
The typical pastor or elder today—myself included—lacks the ability or experience to offer an extended extemporaneous prayer, in a way that richly engages and edifies God’s people, without writing or thinking through it beforehand. Other prayers in the service could be extemporaneous or even written prayers the entire congregation prays together aloud.
Include Prayer Services
The second principal way corporate prayer can be encouraged in the church is by having a regular prayer service. This is a service in which prayer dominates the hour. I’ve attended too many “prayer services” filled with teaching, preaching, or singing to the exclusion of prayer. By definition, a prayer service is mainly for prayer. It’s an occasion for the church to gather on its knees before its Lord. These services should be regular—at least monthly, if not weekly.
But don’t make them too routine in structure. Prayer services need to vary so that minds don’t run too far afield. If the service is an hour, divide the hour into segments. Use different methods of prayer, types of prayer, and subjects of prayer in the various segments. The combination of methods, types, and subjects is truly endless. This prevents a prayer meeting from becoming tedious, and it also allows for each prayer service to have a different feel, though the same practice is taking place.
As our prayer in corporate worship grows in maturity, so it will grow in the personal lives of our people. This is a much-neglected discipline and a means of grace. I would love to see this changed in the evangelical world. I’m confident our Father would as well.
- 20 Quotes from John Onwuchekwa on (Corporate) Prayer (Matt Smethurst)
- 20 Quotes from Tim Keller on Prayer (Matt Smethurst)