In Zambia, the practice of simultaneous prayer is increasingly commonplace. In 2018, our seminary scheduled me to visit a Baptist church on the northside of Lusaka, the capital city with over 2.9 million people. The roads were alive with well-dressed churchgoers hustling to their churches, with men in suits and women mostly dressed according to the color of their Christian denomination. Dusty streets surrounded the tin-roofed building with a cross-shaped floorplan, and the temperature increased significantly as I entered the hall filled with smiling faces, wooden benches, and purple cloth. As a guest representing the seminary, I was ushered to a chair behind the pulpit, next to the pastor. From this vantage point, I experienced simultaneous prayer in Africa.
In the local language of Chinyanja, the worship leader announced that it was time to pray—“Tipempele,” “Let us pray.” The entire congregation then began speaking, shouting, and crying out their various prayers at the same time. At least three languages were being used, and I strained to hear what I could. Some members were shouting for God to protect them from the spirits, while others sought healing or employment opportunities. To use the contemporary parlance, people were pleading for a “breakthrough.” When it was over, I was left with questions, especially as I was only a year old in the broader culture and a relative stranger to this church practice.
The practice of simultaneous prayer is not only an African matter. It’s common in Korea and other nations around the world—including in some North American circles. Timothy Cho writes,
In several Christian traditions around the world, believers have practiced a fourth form of prayer for generations as a regular part of congregational life. This style of praying is most readily recognized as a “Korean” style of prayer, but has actually been practiced in African and Asian churches around the world, and even historically African-American churches in the United States. This prayer form, called tongsung kido in Korean, is the practice of praying one’s own prayer aloud at the same time as others.
Let’s consider whether the ancient corporate prayer in Acts 4 provides a sufficient biblical foundation for the practice of simultaneous prayer. Given the global reach of the practice, it requires biblical reflection, lest the church unwittingly wanders from the biblical precepts for prayer.
3 Differences Between Acts 4 and Simultaneous Prayer
The overlap between the practice of simultaneous prayer and the corporate prayer of the early church in Acts 4 is straightforward. First, both cases express physical words to communicate with God, assuming upon his interest in human affairs and his attribute of omnipresence. Second, both practices require a corporate gathering of some kind. Third, intercessors in both situations share biblical language for prayer.
But beyond those commonalities, little overlap persists. While Acts 4 doesn’t amount to an explicit repudiation of simultaneous prayer as a practice, it’s difficult to overlook the glaring differences. Let us consider a few.
1. Simultaneous prayer is often, though not always, oriented toward deliverance and “breakthrough.”
Other passages of Scripture retell prayers of deliverance and demonstrate the validity of seeking God’s provision (e.g., Ps. 91). But Acts 4 shares how the early church prayed for perseverance, seeking to remain bold in the face of persistent opposition. Content points us away from using Acts 4 as a support for simultaneous prayer.
2. Simultaneous prayer requires the voices of many believers praying different prayers at the same time.
But while Acts 4:24 says that “they lifted their voices together,” this statement likely symbolizes their agreement in prayer or the possible recitation of Psalm 2:1–2 in unison. And in contrast to the offering of numerous prayers at the same time, Luke records only one prayer. Simultaneous prayer doesn’t find an ally here.
3. Simultaneous prayer relies upon the individual’s personal prayer liturgy and vocabulary.
While perhaps topically directed by a leader (e.g., “Everyone, pray for the poor”), every individual ultimately prays according to their historical practice and previous experiences. But in Acts 4, the church possesses a shared framework for a prayer liturgy, perhaps including the communal memorization of Psalm 2:1–2.
The contrast is stark. As it’s practiced around the world today, simultaneous prayer does not follow the model in Acts 4. While the descriptions may seem similar, this prayer of the early church is distinct, having more in common with a planned time of leader-led corporate prayer.
Follow the Apostolic Example
Seeking to reform the use of prayer in the church congregation, Robert Williamson complains, “Many prayers heard in church are not public prayers at all. They are merely private prayers which are prayed in public.”
The apostolic example in Acts 4:24–30 is our path forward.
First, let the church unite in prayer by remembering the Psalms together. Sadly, in many Christian communities, the wisdom of the Psalms is absent from worship services. The church has effectively alienated herself from the prayers of the saints throughout the Old and New Testaments. Let the church militant raise her voice in unity with the church triumphant!
Second, let the church draw from the Old Testament patterns of prayer, exalting our “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them.” Corporate Christian prayer should be distinct from the informality and individuality of private prayer. The wealth of biblical prayer is an easy bridge to unite our times of corporate prayer, instead of dividing through overly personalized prayer practices.
The wealth of biblical prayer is an easy bridge to unite our prayer, instead of dividing it through personalized prayer practices.
Third, let the church embrace the sovereign purposes of God and pray with his will in mind. The early Christians carefully weighed the content of their corporate prayers. Instead of instinctively reacting to escape persecution, they understood difficulty and opposition’s role in God’s purposes. Our congregational prayer times are precisely when we should sensitively reflect upon God’s plans for the church and resubmit to furthering his glory among the nations, even through suffering.
Unless simultaneous prayer is highly regulated, it fails to rise to the example of corporate prayer in Acts 4:23–31. Psalms, Old Testament patterns, and an emphasis on the sovereign purposes of God may occasionally occur, but ultimately, simultaneous prayer does not reach the same quality of unity. While we cannot absolutely invalidate simultaneous prayer or how God has worked through it, let us pursue the apostolic example as we gather in prayer, that we may attain the fullness of unity.