Herman C. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
In previous articles we discussed the role which the minister has in the worship services. We noticed that sometimes he speaks on behalf of Christ, as Christ’s ambassador, saying authoritatively what he has been given to say in Christ’s name. Other times he speaks to God on behalf of the congregation assembled to worship. Especially this latter function of the minister is our interest now.
The minister speaks to God on behalf of the congregation when he speaks the votum, “Our help is in the name of the Lord . . . ,” when he reads the Apostolic Confession (when the congregation does not recite it in unison), and when he prays. These prayers which the congregation makes through its minister we discussed in the last article.
In connection, with these prayers we discussed various subjects: when and how often these prayers ought to be made in the worship services, whether it is preferable to use form prayers or free prayers, whether confession of sin and absolution ought to be included in the prayers, and what is the proper posture in prayer.
We turn now to the question of the content of these prayers.
While it is certainly true that no hard and fast rules can be laid down for these public prayers in the worship service, there are certain principles which ought to be remembered by all those upon whom falls the responsibility of praying on behalf of the congregation.
But before we enter into this subject, there is one other matter which ought briefly to be treated. I refer to the fact that, though the minister makes these prayers, they are nevertheless the congregation’s prayers made through the minister. In a way, this part of the worship service is the most difficult part for the child of God who sits in the pew. While he is singing, he actively, takes part in the worship. While he listens to the sermon, he appropriates the words of the minister by faith as the very Words of His Shepherd Who speaks to him. When he brings his gifts and offerings he does so in the consciousness that he actively supports the causes of God’s kingdom with those material possessions which God has given to his care. But when the minister prays, there are really two acts which he must perform, and that at the same time. On the one hand, he must listen to what the minister is saying, agree with it, express his “Amen” to what is being said; and on the other hand, he must make what the minister is saying his very own in such a way that it becomes his prayer before God. He stands consciously in God’s presence during the time of prayer and what the minister says, he consciously utters himself.
This is not always so easy. There is the abiding temptation, of course, to let the words of the minister enter his consciousness so that he is aware of what the minister is saying, but hardly makes these expressions his own. And, if he does only this, he may find that easily his mind begins to wander. He may begin to think about the implications of what the minister is saying so that his mind is involved in this rather than in making the words of the minister his own. And if he allows this to happen, he will find that his mind soon travels into entirely other paths far from prayer or from the things he ought to be praying about. The result is that, while the congregation prays, he may be thinking about all kinds of worldly things, evil things, problems and troubles, lusts and pleasures—all of which not only keep him from praying, but also are a kind of blasphemy in God’s presence.
This is true, of course, of all public prayers in which one prays for others. It is true at family devotions around the supper table; it is true when prayers are made at various programs; it is true even when the elders of the church come to visit us on our sickbeds and pray over us. But it is also true in the worship services. Truly to pray is extraordinarily difficult. It is hard enough to pray in our own private closets when we are alone with God and express before God our own personal thanks and praise, our needs and cares, our fears and worries. It is more difficult when someone else prays in our place and we are called to make that prayer our own.
We need, in such instances especially, the power of the Spirit in our hearts so that we may pray as we ought and that our prayers may be heard by Him Who sits on the throne of His grace and hears the prayers and cries of His people. But we ought also to remember, not as an excuse in our sins, but as encouragement in our weaknesses, that the Lord is mindful of our needs, our weaknesses, our frailties: Mindful of our human frailty/is the God in Whom we trust; He Whose years are everlasting/He remembers we are dust. As our merciful Father He bears with our infirmities and hears us even when we are least deserving of it.
In discussing what are the general requisites of congregational prayers, it might be well if we bear in mind, first of all, a few “don’ts.” A minister’s prayer ought not to be vainly repetitious. No prayer ought to be that. But sometimes in the inner closet we struggle in prayer and wrestle with the Lord. This sometimes requires many repetitions and we strive in prayer for strength to go on, peace for our troubled hearts, and courage to bear the burdens our Lord places upon us. But these are not vain repetitions. A minister especially ought to avoid repetition in his prayer.
In the second place, congregational prayers ought not to be courses in theology. This is not to say that prayers must not be theologically sound; nor even that deep Biblical truths cannot be expressed in prayers; but a minister must not use his prayers to instruct in theology. The sermon and the Catechism room are the places for this.
In close connection with this, prayers ought not to be used to reprimand the congregation. This ought never to be the case with prayer, under any circumstances. I recall from my own childhood a parent who would use family prayers as the time to reprimand each one of his children for all the sins of the day. This is inappropriate at the dinner table; it is also inappropriate on the pulpit.
In the third place, a minister ought not to give a preview of his sermon in his prayers. I have heard this done. By the time the congregational prayers are over, I knew pretty much what the minister was going to say in the sermon. The whole basic sermon was there already in the prayer; the sermon itself was only a broadening out of the prayer.
From a positive point of view, congregational prayers, as well as all prayers, ought to contain the “requisites” of true prayer. These requisites are beautifully set forth in the Heidelberg Catechism in Q & A 117 :
Q. What are the requisites of that prayer, which is acceptable to God, and which he will hear?
A. First, that we from the heart pray to the one true God only, who hath manifested himself in his word, for all things, he hath commanded us to ask of him; secondly, that we rightly and thoroughly know our need and misery, that so we may deeply humble ourselves in the presence of his divine majesty; thirdly, that we be fully persuaded that he, notwithstanding that we are unworthy of it, will, for the sake of Christ our Lord, certainly hear our prayer, as he has promised us in his word.
In other words, true prayer must always be Biblical, not in the sense of including expressions directly found in Scripture (although this is good), but in the sense that it is based in form and content on the Word of God.
This means that all congregational prayers ought to include the following elements always. 1) Congregational prayers ought, especially in the morning service, to be adapted to leading the congregation consciously into the presence of God. I say, “in the morning service especially” because the congregation often is not spiritually ready to worship God. Especially in our day this is lacking. There is no true preparation in many homes on Saturday night and Sunday morning for worship. While this is to be deplored, the minister has the added responsibility of leading the people into such a spiritual frame of mind in the worship service. He can best do this by emphasizing in His prayers the great glory of God, our unworthiness, and the great wonder of His grace in condescending to have fellowship with us through Jesus Christ.
2) In connection with this, it must be made clear to the congregation through the prayers that our only access to the throne of God’s grace is through the blood of our heavenly Mediator, Jesus Christ our Lord.
3) There must be time in the prayers for thanksgiving and praise. Prayer is never only petitional. Prayer is not only a time to bring our needs before God’s throne. It is a time for thanksgiving for all that God has given; and it is a time to express our praise to Him Who alone is worthy of all praise and glory.
4) Although I have briefly referred to this already, prayer must be a time for confession of sins and for seeking forgiveness for sin at the throne of grace. This must not only be a confession of sin so that each individual saint has opportunity to confess his sins, but also a time for a confession of those sins which belong to the congregation as a whole. The congregation as a whole worships in corporate unity. The congregation as a whole has weaknesses and sins which characterize her and mar her life as the people of God. Prayer must take this into account.
5) Prayers must be made especially for the worship service. The needs of the congregation in the hour of worship must be brought to God. The congregation must ask for grace for the minister, and for herself that she may submit to God’s Word in faith and receive that Word as the food of her soul. This is an important part of congregational prayers, and must not be overlooked. This is why the congregational prayers are not the time for personal prayers, either on the part of the minister or the members of the congregation. Only those personal needs which affect the corporate life of the congregation are proper in congregational prayers.
6) The needs of the congregation must be brought before the throne of God. These needs differ from week to week, from year to year. The minister must be spiritually sensitive to these needs and bring them before God. These needs are determined by the circumstances in which the congregation finds itself. They are needs that arise because God has sorely afflicted her through the loss or suffering of one of her midst, because the congregation finds itself in persecution, because sin has crept into the congregation with the need of discipline, because the congregation is reduced to poverty, because the threats of materialism or false doctrine, etc. have influenced her life. These and many more affect the congregation as a whole and these needs must be brought to God.
7) Dr. A. Kuyper says somewhere in connection with the worship services that no prayer ought to be made in the worship services which does not include a prayer for the whole of Christendom. This surely includes prayers for the denomination of which a given congregation is a part; but it recognizes the fact that God’s church is found throughout the world, that we are a part of it, and that the needs of God’s church everywhere are our needs. Never must a congregation become narrow and parochial so that her concerns and interests are exclusively bound up in her own congregational life. This happens sometimes, but is to be deplored.
It is evident from all this that the minister assumes a great responsibility when he prays in the name of the congregation. He must assume this responsibility carefully and prayerfully and prepare before the service for his prayers as he does for his sermon. When he does this, the congregation will also be blessed in this part of its worship.