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The Prayers of the People (Bible Study)

Reformed worship is built on the conviction that congregational worship is essentially a conversation with God. In some elements of the worship service, such as the greeting, scripture reading, sermon, and benediction, God speaks to us. In other parts of the worship service, the worshipers speak to God through songs, commitments, and prayers.

Lesson 7                                     See all lessons
Scripture: 1 Chronicles 29:10-19 and 1 Timothy 2:1-8


Reformed worship is built on the conviction that congregational worship is essentially a conversation with God. In some elements of the worship service, such as the greeting, scripture reading, sermon, and benediction, God speaks to us. In other parts of the worship service, the worshipers speak to God through songs, commitments, and prayers.

The prayers in a worship service lift the corporate voice of the people heavenward. If you use arrows (An up arrow means we are speaking to God, and a down arrow means God is speaking to us), then prayers are up arrows. To make this clear for the worshipers, it is often helpful to include an invitation to prayer with the firm assurance that God is listening to us, such as, "We join our hearts and voices to offer our prayers to God" or "God hears us when we call to him. Therefore, let us join in prayer, offering our praise, thanksgiving and intercessions to God."

The two Scripture passages speak to the practice of corporate prayer. In the first we find David standing before God's people and leading them in prayer. He led the people as they gathered the gifts necessary for building the temple. He anticipates that his son Solomon will be king and will build the temple. In this context, he leads them in prayer. Read David's prayer carefully. Notice how it is a prayer of praise (v.10-13), an expression of humble surprise (v.14-17), and a request that God will continue his work among the people and Solomon (v.18-19). At the end of his prayer, the people respond with words and gestures (v.20).

In the second passage Paul writes pastoral instructions about worship to Timothy, the pastor at Ephesus. High on the list of these instructions about worship is the encouragement to public prayer. There are several key ideas here. He encourages Timothy to lead the church in praying for others, particularly public officials (v.2) in a day when public officials did not look kindly on the Christian church. God is pleased in our praying (v.3), and public prayers come from within the life of a congregation where there are good relationships (v.8).

Types of Worship Prayers

There are many purposes of prayer in worship services. Perhaps if we identify a number of these distinctions, you will be more aware of the nature of each prayer in a service.

Opening Prayer: a brief prayer near the opening of worship when the congregation thanks God for his presence and calls on God, particularly the Spirit of God, to be present and give blessing while we worship.

Prayer of Confession: a corporate prayer in which sins and sinfulness are confessed, and the congregation asks God to forgive them.

Prayer for Illumination: either before the Scripture reading or between the Scripture reading and sermon, this prayer asks for God's Spirit (who wrote the Scriptures) to illumine our minds and hearts as it is preached and received.

Prayer of Application: a prayer after the sermon in which we give thanks to God for the truth of the word that we have heard and for his blessing as we attempt to respond to it and obey it in our living.

Offertory Prayer: either before or after the offering has been received, this prayer asks God to use these gifts and pour out his blessing on the ministries these gifts support.

The Prayers of the People: though given many different names (Congregational Prayer, Prayer of Intercession, Prayers of the People, Pastoral Prayer, or a "Collect"), this is typically the longest prayer of a worship service. It gathers the joys and celebrations, needs and concerns of the worshipers as well as intercedes for the needs of others, the worldwide church, and the nations of the world.

Special Sacramental Prayers: at both Baptism and the Lord's Supper special prayers of thanks and intercession will be offered.

You can likely think of others also. The nature and structure of each worship service will indicate which are needed and where they should be placed. It is sometimes helpful for worship planners to ask about the purpose and placement of each prayer in the service.

Methods of Praying

Just as the types of prayers will include much variety, so should the methods by which we pray. Hopefully, this list of admittedly incomplete methods will stimulate your ideas, discussions and planning.

1. Extemporaneous or Written Prayer by a Pastor or Worship Leader. The only voice heard is that of the leader. This prayer is presented conversationally. It requires careful forethought by the leader so that it meaningfully represents the voice and concerns of the entire congregation.

2. Historic Written Prayer. This prayer is printed and read, either by a leader or by the congregation in unison. It has been selected from historic worship literature and is often a time-honored prayer. This type of prayer enables worshipers to sense the unity of the church across the generations.

3. Unison Prayers. When written prayers are printed in the worship bulletin or projected, all worshipers merge their voices together and pray in unison, which means the words used should again represent the voices of the entire congregation. Those who write the prayers should also make the phrases relatively short and readable.

4. Sung Prayers. The integration of song and prayer deserves more attention in the church. Much hymnody is sung prayer. In addition, many songs serve as responsorial sung prayers. The sung refrain can be an integral part of the prayer and a way for worshipers to participate in the prayer. Many responses are available in Christian hymnody.

5. Open Spontaneous Prayer by the Worshipers. In some congregations, or at some occasions, all members of the worshiping congregation are invited to verbalize their prayer as they desire. Some speak from their pew. In other churches an open microphone is provided. Small groups may be formed to pray together creating a “concert of prayer.” Worshipers may be invited to speak out just the name of a person, concern, or joy that they would like to lift up.

6. Responsive Prayers. A responsive prayer has a rhythm built into it. The leader and the congregation both participate. In some instances the leader concludes each section with "Lord in your mercy" to which the congregation responds with "hear our prayer." This pattern can be done multiple times within a prayer. A similar pattern can use sung responses.

7. Repetitive Prayers. We've used repetitive prayers in conjunction with the children's message. We call them "Echo Prayers." The pastor speaks a brief statement, and the children repeat it. This continues for the entire prayer. Through this method, our praying also becomes a time for teaching how to pray.

8. Bidding Prayers. In this case the worship leader "bids" the worshipers to pray for a certain subject and then gives them silent time to pray privately for that subject. This continues until a variety of subjects have been lifted up in prayer. At the conclusion the prayer leader closes the prayer or the people can pray together a printed prayer.

The task of formulating or selecting prayers for a worship service can be a daunting task. We are planning words that others will use to speak to God! Carefully consider which prayers should be included, where they should be located in the worship service, who will lead them, and if and how they will be written.

Tips for Discussion Leaders

Your group may be somewhat reticent in discussing this subject. Perhaps they feel inhibited because prayers are sacred and private. Encourage them to enter the discussion to help the prayers of worship be as meaningful as possible. Try to draw all members of your group into the discussion.

Discussion Starters

1. Take the worship sheet of last Sunday and note the different prayers. Identify the purpose each one has. Is the intent or purpose of each prayer in the worship service clear? Is it clear to the leaders and to the worshipers?

2. Do you have sufficient variety in the types of prayers that are offered? Do some prayers fulfill the same purposes? What other types could you consider including?

3. Do you think you have too few or too many prayers in your worship services? Why?

4. Are the intercessory prayers of your congregation sensitive to the needs of the congregation? Are they sensitive to the needs of the community? Do they express a concern for the world and those who suffer, or are they focused only on the needs of your particular church and local community?

5. How does your congregation feel about written vs. spontaneous prayers? Are they willing to respond in word and song to prayers? With what methods of praying is your congregation most comfortable? What new methods could be used to help them pray more genuinely and creatively?

6. Do the words used in prayer—both those spoken by a leader on behalf of the congregation and spoken by the congregation—reflect the voice and concerns of the range of people present? Is anyone left out of prayer? What changes in either language or method could help include more people in the congregation?

Further Reading: Let the Whole Church Say Amen!—A Guide for Those Who Pray in Public by Laurence Hull Stookey (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001). (If you want a workbook that will help plan prayers for worship, this is it!)

Lesson 8
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