Rev. Kleyn is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan. Previous article in this series: November 1, 2006, p. 66.
Prayer properly belongs in the worship services of the church. Just as prayer is vital for the spiritual life of the individual believer, so is it vital for the life of the church. When she worships, the church must spend time in congregational prayer to God.
The Scriptures teach us that the early New Testament church was a praying church. “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42).
The Scriptures also give specific admonitions to the church to pray. In writing to the church at Ephesus, Paul points out that she must pray always “with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, … watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints” (Eph. 6:18). And in instructing Timothy concerning the proper running of the church, Paul states: “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made…” (I Tim. 2:1). These admonitions show that prayer is to be a priority for the church, and must occupy a very important part in worship.
All of this is summarized in Lord’s Day 38 of the Heidelberg Catechism, where we are told that keeping the Sabbath day holy means, among other things, that we “diligently frequent the church of God … publicly to call upon the Lord.”
The church as a whole prays to God in the congregational prayer. The prayer is not merely that of the man who leads, but it is the prayer of the whole congregation. All of God’s people unitedly speak to their Father in heaven.
We must keep in mind, in this connection, that worship is characterized by conversation. When we gather in worship we enjoy and experience fellowship with God through speech. At times in that holy conversation the minister speaks to the church as God’s mouthpiece. At other times, however, the minister speaks to God on behalf of those who have gathered in worship. The latter is what takes place with the congregational prayer.
The congregational prayer is, therefore, the prayer of every believer who is present in the worship service. When the minister speaks the words of the prayer, all God’s people are to participate in speaking to God.
This means that the congregational prayer is not a time to be passive and inattentive in worship. It is not a time to let the mind wander elsewhere, while simply listening out for and hoping to catch the “Amen.” And it is certainly not a time to relax and take a nap. Those who have come to worship God must be fully aware of the words the minister speaks to Him on their behalf, consciously making the prayer their own.
This takes concentration and great effort. The congregational prayer is a difficult part of worship for the members of the congregation. In other aspects of worship (such as singing, giving of gifts, listening to the sermon), the child of God more actively takes part. During prayer, however, one can easily let the mind wander, either to other things, or to further thoughts concerning something the minister mentions in the prayer. Then he or she is not praying.
Active participation is absolutely essential, for otherwise God does not hear our prayers. The only prayers acceptable to Him are those prayed “in spirit.” Our prayers must be sincere and from the heart. If they are not, they are an abomination to God, and the whole activity of bowing the head, folding the hands, and closing the eyes is seen by Him as hypocrisy. Let us be sure to “draw near with a true heart” (Heb. 10:22a).
With regard to the content of the congregational prayer, it should include especially four things: praise of God, confession of sin, petitions, and giving of thanks. Just as these ought to be a part of our personal prayers, so also of the church’s prayers.
The responsibility in this regard rests, of course, on the shoulders of the man who leads the worship service, and thus also the prayer. In leading in prayer, he must see to it that he expresses not merely his own personal praise, confession of sin, petitions, and thanksgiving, but that of the whole church.
Leading the congregation in prayer is therefore an important part of the minister’s work. He needs to prepare for this part of worship. And as he leads, he must be thinking of the praise and gratitude and needs (both physical and spiritual) of those who have gathered to worship. He must strive to pray well on behalf of God’s sheep.
Because they feel the burden of this part of their calling, many ministers testify of the fact that they find leading congregational prayer to be one of the most difficult aspects of the whole worship service.
And yet what a most blessed part of worship—that all God’s saints, through each making the congregational prayer his or her own, together bow before their God and unitedly open up their hearts to Him.
Closely related to the content of the congregational prayer is the fact that it must serve as a means to prepare God’s people spiritually to enter His presence and to worship Him aright. It must serve to humble them before the Lord their Maker. It must be a means to turn their minds away from earthly cares to things spiritual and heavenly.
This is necessary because of the fact that those who gather in worship come from many different walks of life. In the week that has gone by, each child of God has faced unique struggles. Each has confronted temptations and battled with sin. Each has experienced various trials and distresses in life. And the saints often bring these things with them into the house of God. Because of this they can easily be preoccupied with earthly cares and struggles as they enter God’s presence.
This is perhaps mostly so on Sunday morning. One of the main reasons for this is that often God’s people do not prepare themselves for worship as they should. Little thought is given, ahead of time, to the fact that they go to church to meet with God. They fail to come into God’s house as humble sinners. They fail to realize they are approaching the holy Lord of heaven and earth before whom even the holy angels cover their faces.
By means of prayer, therefore, God’s people need to come consciously into the presence of their Lord and Maker. They should direct their minds to consider the greatness and holiness and majesty of the God before whom they bow. They must realize their unworthiness as sinners to be in His presence. They must understand the great wonder of God’s grace in being willing to fellowship with them. Doing this, they can then lay aside their earthly cares and worship God in spirit and in truth.
And when God’s people remember all this, they will also show proper reverence and respect. This attitude will determine what they say to God, and how they say it. It will also determine their posture in prayer. One who has in mind that he is speaking to the great and holy God of heaven and earth does not slouch in the pew during congregational prayer. Nor does he distract himself and others by noisily fiddling with candy. Rather, he shows due honor and respect by quiet attention and a respectful posture.
Congregational prayers are possible only because of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The church is sinful and made up of sinners. And those who are sinners have, of themselves, no access to God. Thus the church is, by nature, separated from God because of sin. She has no right to speak to God or to call Him “Father.” She has no right to His favor and fellowship.
Yet God, by a wonder of grace, allows His church to draw near to Him, even very near. He allows her to open up and pour out her heart before Him. The saints may cast all their burdens and cares upon the Lord, knowing that He cares for them.
This is possible only through the Lord Jesus Christ. By paying the price for our redemption, He has brought us into God’s family and earned for us the right to call God our Father. Because of His work we are pleasing in God’s sight.
In addition to this, Jesus Christ is our Advocate. This means that He intercedes with God on behalf of the congregation. As the church’s Bridegroom and Head, He prays to God for her. He knows what His people truly need and brings those needs to the throne of grace. And as the church’s Advocate, He also perfects the prayers she brings to God. He makes those prayers acceptable to God and pleasing to His ears.
Because of Christ, God receives and hears and answers the congregational prayers of His church. What a wonderful gift and blessing congregational prayer is!
It is an opportunity for God’s people to express and experience their unity as the body of Christ. Just think of it—during congregational prayer fifty, or two hundred, or even five hundred believers together confess their sins to God, together pour out before Him all their needs, together give Him thanks and praise. They are all speaking, at the same time, the same words to God. What a wonderful expression of the oneness of God’s people as a communion of saints.
It is also an opportunity for God’s people to pray for each other. We ought to do this in our individual and family prayers, too. But certainly congregational prayer is a most significant way, perhaps even the main way, in which God’s people bring petitions to Him on behalf of their fellow saints. If one would happen to forget to do this during the week (which, of course, would be to his shame), he nevertheless does it through the congregational prayer. And at the same time he is reminded to do this in his personal prayers. What a wonderful thing that saints can pray for each other.
Finally, congregational prayer is especially an opportunity for God’s people to experience together what is at the very heart of all worship, namely, fellowship with God. What a blessing that the church as a whole may enjoy this intimate fellowship with her Father in heaven.
May the church ever make good and proper use of the gift and blessing of congregational prayer.