How much of what’s on our screens, in our hearts, and in our conversations gets reflected in prayer during worship?
In daily life we do many things: argue about guns, welcome rain or warmth in gardens, orchards, and farms, watch newscasts that ignite our hopes for cars that use less energy, discover that human trafficking happens not just in other countries but in our own community.
Yet we don’t often voice these laments, thanksgivings, or petitions in congregational prayer. Many churches never offer intercessory prayer in worship. In others, the prayers of the people focus only on health needs and ministry within church walls.
John D. Witvliet and his family visited dozens of churches while on sabbatical in southern California—while people around the world were glued to reports about the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. “We attended for several weeks without hearing prayer for the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or for homelessness or the economic woes in southern California,” says Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Mich.
This disconnect between life and worship blinds us to all the ways God is already at work. But Witvliet says congregations can “pray their way into living into the fullness of all that God promises to redeem.” Praying with intention is worth the initial discomfort because it helps your congregation to start with God and follow a biblical pattern.
Learning to pray together takes time. It stretches us, whether our congregations fear losing spontaneity or fear practicing innovation.
Regarding spontaneity, if you chafe against offering prayers that have already been written or outlined, then consider how much time your church puts into choosing music. You do this because you know that music shapes how worshipers understand, express, and live out their life with God. No one complains that it feels forced or not spontaneous to sing songs in which the words and musical notes have already been composed. Congregational prayer deserves the same forethought.
Perhaps your congregation has an opposite problem. Maybe you’re so married to the words in the prayer book that it feels wrong to riff on what’s already written. Or you think that only certain topics are suitable for prayer—so you steer clear of local, national, or international concerns that don’t feel spiritual enough to bring to God in corporate prayer.
A few years ago, First African Methodist Episcopal: Bethel Church in New York City got a worship renewal grant to deepen public and personal prayer practices for worshipers of all ages. “We reflected on how a deep prayer life informs our understanding of worship and service and can lead to a sense of vocation to service and justice witness,” they reported. They began praying specifically in Sunday and midweek services. They interceded on behalf of children in local public schools, the church’s partnership with the schools, people who live with AIDS, and the nation of Chile.
If your church gathers requests before the intercessory prayer, the leader can help broaden requests by asking questions such as:
“It’s good to start prayer not by turning attention to the people or churches we serve but to God. The kind of God to whom we pray makes all the difference in the world for how we pray,” Witvliet said in his address to the 2012 prayer summit at All Nations Church in metro Los Angeles.
Irish Jesuit Finbarr Lynch agrees. In his book When You Pray, Lynch explains that Christians who are preoccupied by rules, performance, and right behaviors often perceive God as mainly a lawgiver, judge, or accountant. The whole picture changes when you see yourself as being loved into existence by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and invited to share in their inner life.
This Trinitarian perception of God emerges from the whole sweep of redemptive history as revealed in the Bible. Prayerful congregations remember together what God has done and is still doing, just as the Israelites did when they sang Psalms 78, 105, 106, and 136. Prayerful congregations see themselves as grafted into the family for whom God made the heavens, spread out the earth on the waters, creates light from sun, moon and stars, and provides food for all creatures.
Our public prayers can take cues from Jesus’ entire life, from his birth, ministry, teaching, and death, to his resurrection, ascension, and promise to come again. We petition a God who—according to Ephesians 1—blesses, forgives, redeems, lavishes, makes known, and chooses us to be part of bringing “unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”
Remembering that God is making all things new gives congregations great permission in what to pray for. “We are not saved from the world that God has made but for it, and God loves the entire cosmos, all the way through,” Witvliet said in his 2012 convocation speech at Calvin Theological Seminary.
Witvliet’s seminary convocation speech described how to internalize the berakah pattern so you can biblically improvise congregational prayers, like jazz musicians learn to improvise on pre-set chord charts. The Hebrew word berakah (emphasis on final syllable) refers to prayers that name, bless, and thank God for all God’s actions.
As a boy, Jesus would have learned berakahs for hundreds of situations. The berakah for waking up was “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, who has delivered me from darkness, and given me the dawn of a new day.” Jesus used this pattern of offering blessings before petitions in the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…”
This pattern trains people to notice and trust in God’s beauty, goodness, and power no matter what happens. Then, as now, berakah prayers assume that the people who are praying are part of a progressively unfolding salvation drama that hasn’t ended yet.
Witvliet quoted from fourth and fifth century prayers offered before communion. “Sheer gratitude for all God has done,” he explained, led these early Christian worshipers to bless God for “water for drinking and cleansing…production of sound through the tongue striking the air…fire for comfort in darkness…the law of nature and the warnings of the Law.” They blessed Jesus Christ, the maker of flesh who chose to become flesh, the high priest who chose to be the sacrifice.
Tuning in to blessings made worshipers aware of God’s concern for all creation. It prompted them to pray for those in the mines, in exile, in prison, and in slavery; for travelers by water and by land; for heretics, nonbelievers, schismatics, and enemies; for temperate weather and good harvests; as well as for needs of churches and fellow Christians.
Design a mini-series on congregational prayer by gathering participants to watch, listen to, read, and discuss these resources:
Buy Prayers of the People, a guide for leading congregational prayer in worship. It includes all the guidance and prayer models contained in the prayers of the people section in the much larger Worship Sourcebook.
Attend Prayer Summit 2013 (April 15-17, 2013), at All Nations Church in Lakeview Terrace, California.
Read Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer by David Crump. Use these ideas for interceding on behalf of people dealing with modern slavery, restorative justice, and violence. Learn more about the prayer renewal project at First AME: Bethel Church in New York City.
If you sometimes picture God as the unjust judge who finally responds simply to get rid of the poor pestering widow, then take heart from three passages. Galatians 4 reveals that God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts to help us pray, “Abba, Father.” Romans 8 promises that the Holy Spirit will intercede for us when we lack the words. Hebrews 7 says that Jesus perfects our prayers and “ever lives to pray for us.”
Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, worship, music, or church education meeting. These questions will help people think about how intercessory prayer functions (or not) in your setting.