Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, Michigan.
God’s house is a house of prayer (Matt. 21:13). All our public worship is to be “prayerful” worship, that is, worship consciously given in the presence of God. This is what prayer is. Prayer is coming into the very presence of God. Since God’s house is a house of prayer, one of the most important aspects of public worship is the congregational prayer. Just as prayer is the chief part of thankfulness for the believer individually, so it must be regarded as the chief part of the thankful worship of the gathered congregation. Both the minister who leads in congregational prayer and God’s people who collectively offer up the congregational prayer must take this element of worship seriously. Each has a role to play, a calling to fulfill in the worship that congregational prayer is.
The Minister’s Role
The minister of the gospel is called upon to pray at many different times and in various settings. He prays when he brings God’s Word in his pastoral labors, with those whom he counsels, at sick beds, while teaching catechism classes and leading Bible study societies. He prays at council and consistory meetings, in various committees of the church and denomination, as well as at the broader assemblies. He prays at weddings and funerals, in circumstances of great joy and deep sorrow. Chief among his duties in prayer is his calling to lead in prayer during the worship service, especially his calling to lead in the congregational prayer.
The apostle Paul refers to this duty of the minister when he exhorts Timothy regarding the “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks” that as a pastor he is to offer up to God on behalf of the congregation (I Tim. 2:1). The Form of Ordination of the Ministers of God’s Word underscores the importance of this duty when it lists as the second main calling of the minister his calling to lead in congregational prayer: “Secondly. It is the office of the ministers publicly to call upon the name of the Lord in behalf of the whole congregation.” Article 16 of our Church Order likewise refers to this aspect of the minister’s labors, mentioning it first in the order of the duties that fall to the minister: “The office of the minister is to continue in prayer and in the ministry of the Word….”
What the minister must be conscious of is that he is called to lead the congregation in prayer. He is not offering up personal prayer in the hearing of the members of the church, but he is functioning as the spokesman and representative of the congregation. It is not his prayer, in the final analysis. It is the prayer of the congregation. In the preaching of the Word, the minister functions as the spokesman and representative of God. Similarly, in the offering up of the congregational prayer, he is the mouthpiece of the congregation.
Because of the importance of the congregational prayer, the minister must prepare himself before he leads the congregation in prayer. Thorough preparation is necessary before the minister mounts the pulpit to preach God’s Word. The same sort of careful preparation ought to take place before the minister brings the saints into God’s presence in the worship of prayer. Woe to that minister who does not prepare or who prepares inadequately for preaching! But woe also to that minister who does not diligently prepare for the high and holy calling of leading God’s people in congregational prayer! At the same time, what rich blessings God’s people and the minister himself reap as the result of good preparation before offering up the congregational prayer.
Preparation for congregational prayer may take various forms. Each minister will have his own way of preparing. Certainly that preparation ought to include reflection and meditation. This will often be the last part of his preparation before going to church to conduct the worship service—fifteen or twenty minutes spent in quiet contemplation of the congregational prayer he will offer up. That preparation may include the reading of a psalm. So many of the psalms are prayers and contain prayers. Reading and meditating on a psalm will often suggest to the minister thoughts and petitions to include in his congregational prayer.
It may also be helpful to read the prayers of others. The minister can profit considerably from others who have struggled with and mastered, at least to a great degree, the spiritual art of public prayer. Let me recommend the prayers of John Calvin. You can find collections of his prayers in various volumes. Many of his Old Testament commentaries, which were not written really as commentaries but delivered as lectures to his students, include his prayers with his students when these lectures were given. There are other helpful collections of public prayers. Allow me to recommend a few. Prayers of the Reformers, compiled by Clyde Manschreck; Prayers in the Congregation, by Henry Ward Beecher; C.H. Spurgeon’s Prayers, introduced by Dinsdale T. Young; The Joseph Parker Treasury of Pastoral Prayers, introduced by Stephen Olford; and The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, edited by Arthur Bennett.
Careful preparation will enable the minister to avoid the many pitfalls that attend offering congregational prayer. There are any number of faults of which the minister ought to be aware as concerns congregational prayer. These faults concern both the form of congregational prayer and the contents of these prayers. The limitations of space prevent us from discussing these faults. I recommend that the serious-minded pastor who is concerned to avoid and perhaps even overcome these faults consult Prof. Herman Hanko’s fine work, Public Prayer. The Professor deals at length with these faults, both pointing them out and suggesting ways in which they can be overcome.
Prayer is a gift. The ability to pray publicly, to lead others in prayer, is a gift. It is a gift and ability necessary in the ministry of the gospel. A man who cannot pray publicly cannot be a minister. But like all spiritual gifts, this gift too can be developed. The minister ought to strive for the development of this gift, always working at improving his congregational prayers.
The elders have a role to play here. The elders are called by God to supervise the work of the minister. That supervision extends not just to his work of preaching, but includes also the minister’s congregational prayers. The elders ought to feel free to offer suggestions, and even necessary criticisms, concerning the minister’s congregational prayers. And the minister ought to be open to the suggestions and criticisms of his elders.
The Congregation’s Role
As important as the minister’s role is in congregational prayer, not to be overlooked is the role also of the congregation. It is the congregational prayer, after all. It is not the congregational prayer because it is a prayer for the congregation. It is the congregational prayer because it is a prayer offered by the congregation. This is the understanding that the members of the church must have of the congregational prayer. It is their prayer to God as the gathered congregation of believers and their seed.
The members of the church must consciously make the prayer of the minister their own. They must not only follow the prayer, but they must pray along with the minister. They must cry out to God, make supplication before Him, extol His great name, offer up their petitions, and give expression to their thankfulness before Him. This is difficult, exceedingly difficult, as the work of prayer always is. For the members of the church, congregational prayer is an exercise of faith. And it is the struggle of faith to pray aright.
One of the great difficulties of congregational prayer is the temptation to allow our minds to wander when the minister is praying. How easy it is to lose focus and to begin thinking about ourselves. While the minister is praying, we allow our minds to be filled with thoughts of our earthly lives, thinking about the events of the past week or making plans for the week ahead. Only when the minister concludes the prayer with the “Amen” is our attention re-directed and our thoughts brought back again to worship. The members of the congregation must work at it, not to allow this to happen, to stay focused during congregational prayer.
It is vital that the minister duly prepare himself before offering up congregational prayer. But the members of the congregation ought also to prepare themselves for this important aspect of public worship. This ought to be part of the spiritual preparation for the Lord’s Day and for each church service. The members ought to go to church ready and eager, not only to hear God’s Word, but to pray. Due preparation on the part of the members will go a long way to preventing lapses in this part of worship.
The members of the church ought to strive for reverence during the congregational prayer. This is an important part of all prayer and is certainly an important part of congregational prayer. The members, including the children and the young people, ought to reflect reverence during the prayer even in their posture. Our custom is to sit during the congregational prayer. But then, the members ought to sit erect, with heads bowed and hands folded. Congregational prayer is not a time to slouch down in the pew, relax, and take a snooze. Not only is that irreverence in prayer, but it assures that we will lose focus in the course of the prayer.
Parents must teach their children the place and importance of congregational prayer, as well as proper behavior during prayer. They ought to instruct their children to sit still during the prayer, with hands folded and heads bowed. And they ought to take a peek, once in awhile, to make sure that their children are behaving properly during the congregational prayer. Parents often ask their children about the contents of the sermon: “What did the minister preach about today?” That is a good practice and encourages the children to listen to the sermon. It might be a good idea for parents to ask their children periodically, “What did the minister pray for today?”
In the way of both the minister and the members carrying out their respective roles in congregational prayer, these prayers of the church will be a blessed part of the public worship of God. The congregational prayers will honor God, as He deserves to be honored by the worship of His church. And just in that way the congregation herself will be richly blessed through these prayers.