Tom Swieringa co-leads Wyoming Kingdom Enterprise Zone(WKEZ), a church multiplication initiative by Reformed and Christian Reformed churches in Wyoming, Michigan. He has pastored and planted churches in Iowa, Michigan, South Dakota, and Texas. In this edited conversation, he talks about cooperating with God in intercessory prayer, during worship and beyond.
How do you define prayer in worship?
Worship is about giving God glory. As you welcome people to worship, it’s important to say that our focus in worship today isn’t on us, it’s on God. Worship draws us into the presence of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who live in perfect unity. We begin to taste and glimpse that community through music, through the scriptures—which constantly speak about brokenness, social justice, and unconditional love—and through prayer.
We worship to learn more from God, listen to him, and talk with him. That communication with God is what we call prayer. Prayer includes silence so we can hear back from God. Prayer is breathing in, breathing out, a continual conversation with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
How do you discover who or what to intercede for?
Notice that most of Paul’s letters are written in the plural. God puts each church in a particular place for his glory, his plan, and his love for the hopeless, broken, and prisoners in that place. God has called and gifted us, but we don’t all get every gift. So how do we as congregations find out the purpose for which God has prepared, called, and gifted us to act on? In prayer we pause, listen, and watch how God brings his body together to cooperate with the Spirit.
How exactly do you do that in worship?
Before the intercessory prayer, the leader can say, “Let’s pause together in silence to ask, ‘Holy Spirit, what would you have us pray for?’” After the silent pause, the leader can ask, “Has the Spirit shown you anything?” Someone says, “I feel nudged to pray for Joel in Central America.” So you pray for that, then pause again, and ask, “Anything else?” Someone else says, “The city council meeting on Tuesday will be voting whether to lay off police officers and fire fighters.”
What might keep this approach from working in worship?
Teaching needs to happen before you start, so people understand why they’re praying this way. I like to ask, “Does anyone here have faith? Raise your hand.” Almost everyone raises their hand. I say, “Then let’s participate in this prayer. We’re doing it under the authority of God and this church, so we have permission to ask.”
Then you simply step in and see where the Spirit leads. Listening for a couple of minutes feels like ten minutes at first. It’s a change for worshipers who think that the pastor or worship leader leads the prayer. This approach sees the Holy Spirit as leading the prayer. And all the worshipers are cooperating in the prayer, not just listening.
It’s also important to teach the ABCs. Make your request and prayer audible. Keep it brief. Use conversational language. And converse with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Does congregation size or worship space affect how well this works?
If you have 100 people spread out in a space built for 600 worshipers, then you may need to ask people to move together. If you have 400 people, all sitting together, Spirit-led prayer can happen. You can ask people in a certain section to gather around someone to pray. Children and young people are often the most ready to step into the stream of prayer at that moment.
Have you seen any dramatic answers to intercessory prayer?
A pastor called to ask for a healing service because so many people in the congregation were sick. He also said, “There seems to be something that we as a church are sick about but we don’t know what it is.”
I went to that church on a Sunday morning with a team from Wyoming Kingdom Enterprise Zone. I preached the message. Before the prayer, I explained that God had given me a visual image of someone having a problem with their right eye. I asked whether that person was there so we could pray for healing. I asked the worshipers, “How about all of you? What are you seeing that God wants us to pray for?” One person mentioned having a grandson with problems. He goes to another church, so she said, “Can I stand in for my grandson while you gather around me and pray?”
We went on that way, pausing, listening, sharing, and praying. I was ready to wrap up when the sound booth guy called out, “We’re in church now, so I’ll just say it. We as a church need healing.” We put the pastor in the middle, with the elders all around, and we prayed for about 20 minutes. It turned out to be a two-and-a-half-hour service.
So did any healings result?
We heard later that the grandson we’d prayed for had completely healed. We’d prayed for a man with aggressive cancer before he started treatment. The tumor disappeared. We prayed for another man with tons of tumors. He went to the biopsy and the tumors all turned out benign.
But what about people who receive prayer but are not healed?
That leads us into a theology of suffering. 1 Corinthians 12 talks about the Holy Spirit giving different gifts, each for the common good. Verse 26 says, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it…” We know that God is sovereign. We know that we’re joining in the stream of prayer when we ask our loving Father to pour his healing love into a person. A lot of people have prayed over me and anointed me with oil. I’ve had both knees replaced, experienced major back surgery—16 surgeries in all— and I go to a pain clinic for chronic pain.
I have growing to do. I need to trust God. But it would be dangerous to say that because I didn’t have enough faith, God didn’t heal me. When I ask what God has in mind for me, he says, “Look at all the people you wouldn’t have met if I had healed you.” That’s true. When the pain clinic is packed, there’s time to start conversations. When I had therapy for six months, I got to know the staff. They’d ask me to work out next to particular people who needed prayer.