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How to Make Congregational Prayer More Participatory

Especially for children, listening to the congregational prayer can feel more like enduring a monologue than participating in the prayers of the people. But it doesn’t have to.

Especially for children, listening to the congregational prayer can feel more like blindly enduring a monologue than participating in the prayers of the people. In fact, some of us recall receiving peppermints from our parents so we’d sit quietly during “the long prayer.” But many congregations have discovered ways to help everyone consciously pray together.

Sing your prayers

Sing intercessory prayer songs from other cultures, such as the Brazilian lament “Pelas dores deste mundo/For the troubles.” Its first verse in English begins “For the troubles and the sufferings of the world, God, we call upon your mercy…”

Or sing the Lord’s Prayer as set by Greg Scheer to a tune that Arabic Christians use, “Abana Alathi Fi Ssama/ Abana in Heaven.”

"Singing prayer songs from other cultures and languages helps worshipers look forward to God’s 'on earth as it is in heaven' promise to gather people from every tribe, nation, and language," explains Scheer, who serves as minister of worship at Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Teach church school classes a musical refrain that will be used later in congregational prayer. Find a simple hymn melody that a middle school pianist can play to close the intercessory prayer.

Pair songs and Bible stories

Intercessory prayers form faith when they remind worshipers of God’s ongoing work in salvation history. That’s why Lester Ruth suggests pairing songs, Scripture, or scripture songs in worship.

“Think of a short praise song. What Bible story about God’s saving activity might be read in front of the song to provide a commemorative context? Think of a praise chorus. What other song with a strong commemorative basis in God’s saving activity might be sung in front of it? Or vice versa.

“Think of a song with strong commemorative content. What short praise/intercession song might follow it as an appropriate response?” Ruth asked in a worship symposium session on public biblical praying. He teaches Christian worship at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina and at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Florida.

Pray the headlines

Paul Ryan sometimes collects and scans 15 or 20 recent news headlines, divides them into themes of thanksgiving or petition, and inserts them into individual PowerPoint slides. You can include photos from these stories. Show each slide for five or ten seconds to guide worshipers in silent intercession.

“It may be helpful to add verbal cues before each section: ‘Loving God, we lift up to you silently the needs of the world’ or ‘Gracious God, hear our prayers of thanks for the good in our world,’” he writes in a Reformed Worship how-to article. Ryan is the associate chaplain for worship at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Move while you pray

According to a U.S. Congregations survey, worshipers hold hands during prayer in 72 percent of Catholic churches. They do this most often during the Lord’s Prayer.

Mission consultant Keith Tanis often used a kinesthetic prayer to help his Reformed Church in America congregations ask for the Holy Spirit’s illumination. It begins with worshipers praying aloud “God be in my mind” as they touch their foreheads and “in my mouth” as they touch their lips.

If you Google Lord’s Prayer motions, you’ll find dozens of videos and articles on how to do this prayer with gestures. Worship leaders from many kinds of churches say that these motion prayers are especially meaningful for increasing participation among children and people with developmental disabilities.

Build in responses

Global music expert Emily Brink travels the world to present and learn at churches and worship symposia. While visiting China, she noticed that everyone said amen at the end of every sentence of the congregational prayer. “Voices rose and fell in volume and enthusiasm, sentence by sentence, as they matched their voices to the intensity of the one who led them in prayer,” she wrote in Reformed Worship.

Back home, Brink tentatively began saying an audible amen at the end of the congregational prayer. She found that doing so helped her listen and participate in the prayer. “I’m more hesitant to say amen if I haven’t really prayed the prayer with the one who was intending to lead me in prayer,” she wrote.

The Psalms for All Seasons psalter includes many simple refrains for congregations to recite, chant, or sing during congregational prayers, with phrases such as “for God’s mercy endures forever” or “Creator Spirit, come we pray, come renew the face of the earth.”