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Public Intercessory Prayer that Renews Worship

Want a no-cost, non-controversial way to renew worship for all ages in your congregation? Start praying for the worldwide church.

Before church, you read or hear news about conflict in Ukraine, Muslims killing Christians in Pakistan, Christians killing Muslims in Central African Republic and earthquakes in the Americas. Your congregation may even pray for these people on Refugee Sunday (June 15 and 22, 2014) or International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014).

After church, you talk with friends about hopeful news, maybe higher graduation rates at the local high school, a good crop or jobs forecast or Pope Francis’ care for the poor.

But did you know that these news reports and conversations contain the seeds for significant worship renewal? You just need to start including them in public intercessory prayer. That’s why praying for the worldwide church was such a priority at the 2014 Calvin Symposium on Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

In a symposium plenary address, John D. Witvliet noted that many churches have experienced “an outpouring of creativity in church music and the arts, of excellence in preaching.” Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW), invited people to give the same “creative, collaborative, intentional growth in our capacity for public prayer, one of the central acts of worship.” (You may know such prayers as bidding prayers, congregational prayers, corporate prayers, intercessory prayers, prayers of intention or prayers of the people.)

This focus can help your church see that God cares about the whole world, offers us the gift of prayer and calls us to live out our prayers.

Pray for all God cares about

Witvliet described the congregational prayer as “a significant, formative area of the Spirit’s work,” especially for children, new Christians and those who struggle with faith.

He cited 1 Timothy 2:1-4, which commands Christians to pray for all people and all those in authority. “This command stretches us to see all that God is doing and could well be doing to redeem the world that God so loves. When we walk in step with that biblical command to pray for all, we are walking in step with the Spirit,” he said.

Worshipers notice prayers that ask God to guide town councils, bless those who serve people with dementia, intervene in Syria or keep everyone safe during the Olympics. “Extending the range and specificity of our prayers invites people to imagine a God who can bring about redemption where we least expect it,” he said. But if public prayers never thank God for “the common graces that God provides…to all of God’s children, even beyond the Christian church, then we’re inviting people into a truncated view of the Spirit’s work in the world.”

Symposium speakers from many nations explained how to pray for their churches and countries. Judith Mosomos requested prayers for the millions of Filipinos who work overseas, many without documentation, to support families back home. Most are lonely and many are exploited. Mosomos, a Filipino, is acting director for church, worship and music at the Methodist School of Music in Singapore. Eric Sarwar, a Presbyterian pastor from Pakistan, shared horrific statistics and stories of Christians falsely accused under the blasphemy law.

Anne Zaki, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship's Resource Development Specialist for the Middle East, used five fingers as a visual to request prayers for five things: to remember God’s past faithfulness, to imagine a hopeful future for the next generations, to guide all those in authority, to show favor to the powerless and “for Jesus to come back quickly, not in a world-hating way, but in a way that says, ‘We’re ready.’”

Witvliet told about a church where a small group gathers each Saturday over coffee to read newspapers. They choose headlines that are projected on Sunday as prayers unfold, either moving from individual to global concerns or the reverse. This habit moves several to pray even while watching or reading the news alone.

Worship coordinator Jeanne Motley took this idea home to First Presbyterian Church of Montrose, Colorado. During Wednesday church family nights in February, she gathered newspapers and magazines, large poster-sized paper, scissors and glue. "I asked each table of adults and kids to cut out pictures or words and glue them on the poster as prayer prompts. We had someone from each table bring up their poster and pray for the countries, people or situations represented on their poster. It was a meaningful activity and hopefully reminded us to pray as we read," she said. 

Start with gratitude

Throughout the symposium, Witvliet and others described and modeled what it means to pray out of gratitude, not guilt, and to persist in praying.

“No matter where we come from, no matter what we come from, you fill us with joy in your presence, because eternal pleasures are always at your right hand,” Anne Zaki prayed during one worship service, drawing on the words of Psalm 16:11.

During the closing service, Lisa M. Weaver opened her prayer before communion with words from the classic hymn “O Thou in Whose Presence My Soul Takes Delight” and then prayed, “We thank you, God, for the invitation to pray. We thank you that you bid us to come. And, God, before we ask you for anything, we want to thank you for everything.” She is a Baptist pastor and a Vital Worship Grants Program Advisory Board member.

“Intercessory corporate prayer is an incredible gift from God,” said Mark Charles, a CICW resource development specialist in worship and culture. He explained this gift can be wasted when people don’t believe God’s promises and only offer self-centered prayers. For example, continually pleading, “God, be with us” ignores God’s repeated promises to be with us always.

Jerry Pillay said God’s promises gave Christians the boldness to keep praying against apartheid. “Prayer turns us back to God. It has become the lifeblood that brought us into new life,” said Pillay, general secretary of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa. Ecumenical groups gather now to pray for free and fair elections in South Africa and elected leaders who will promote reconciliation.

The gift of prayer is for all ages and all people in your church. Karen Campbell, a Presbyterian Church in Ireland pastor, grew up during “The Troubles.” At weekly prayer meetings, only the “spiritually elite” dared to pray, and their prayers never mentioned the political violence they were all experiencing.

Campbell said Christians are returning to St. Patrick’s model of communal prayer. Celtic Christians had “prayers for every situation…rooted in the reality” of having toothaches, milking cows and watching chicks hatch. “It wasn’t the priests who did the prayers but the laity,” she said. Recent events are creating hope of achieving peace where diplomacy has failed: prayer rooms in schools and churches, ecumenical clergy prayer walks and Twitter-generated silent public prayer events..

Witvliet mentioned a church in Minnesota that stretches out a map each week during Sunday school. Kids put candles on three places, which get prayed for specifically in the congregational prayer.

Live your prayers

“If you give the congregational prayer task to many members of your church, then your whole church will learn to pray. You can say, ‘Now we’ve prayed together. Go out and connect with these people and live out these prayers,” Zaki said in her plenary address.

Witvliet told about a pastor that meets every week with a different group in church to find out their prayer concerns. There’s a Christian high school that uses its curriculum for chapel prayers. While studying Manifest Destiny (U.S. justification for claiming territory), they used “A Prayer of Indigenous People, Refugees, Immigrants, and Pilgrims” (Lift Up Your Hearts hymnal, #270).

Connecting with others in the worldwide church may reveal shared concerns, such as timidity in public prayer. “Pray that our churches in Mexico will declare God’s justice rather than preach a prosperity gospel of naming and declaring [claiming] that people will get a car or house or family harmony. The church’s message has become sweet and divorced from this painful reality that most Mexicans live. Worship services are music concerts oriented to honor the personality of the leaders,” said Elizabeth Hernández Carrillo, coordinator of music and liturgy at the Theological Community of Mexico.

Connecting with others in the worldwide church may reveal gifts you can receive. “Something we in South America can contribute to the world church is the strength of lay leaders. We know how to do ministry or missions with little or no money. Our churches are full of kids and young people, and lots of church musicians are only 13 or 15 years old,” Maria Cornou, a CICW visiting scholar, said during her presentation on praying for South America. 


Learn More

Don’t miss this story’s companion conversations and article about how to sing your prayers for the worldwide church.

Watch and listen to these Calvin Symposium on Worship resources:

Use these resources to plan a worship service for Refugee Sunday or International Day of Prayer for Persecuted Churches. Create a “walking with refugees” prayer station worship experience. Then take action with resources from Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice, Open Doors UK and Canadian Council for Refugees.

Adapt written prayers from Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, Church of England, Mennonite Church Canada and The Text This Week. Also see this Prayer Journal template from Compassion UK

Start A Discussion 

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, worship, church education or youth meeting. These questions will help people think about how to discuss ways to enrich congregational prayer.

  • Consider doing an audit of the time and resources that go into each element of your worship services—sermons, music, Bible reading, announcements, public prayer and more. What first steps can you take to include or give more time to intercessory prayer and make those moments more meaningful?
  • What have you experienced in another worship tradition that helped (or could help) you pray more often and more specifically for the worldwide church?
  • Sit in silence with others while you ask God what holds you back from acting on scriptural promises of prayer or praying for local, national and global issues. Share your insights.