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The Role of Prayer in Public Worship

The prayers in a worship service constitute a very sacred time in which the corporate voice of God's people is lifted heavenward. Such efforts should never be done unthinkingly, and such prayers should never be written carelessly. Indeed, in some ways, corporate prayers require more thought than personal prayers because they must address the needs and concerns of many. Let there be careful forethought to the prayers we offer, regardless of whether we offer them extemporaneously or through written form.

The Voice of the People

Reformed worship is built on the conviction that congregational worship is essentially a corporate conversation with God. In some elements of the worship service God speaks to us—in the greeting, the reading of the word, the sermon, the benediction, and so on. In other parts of the worship service the worshipers speak to God—through many of our songs, our commitments, and certainly in our prayers.

The prayers in a worship service constitute a very sacred time in which the corporate voice of God's people is lifted heavenward. Such efforts should never be done unthinkingly, and such prayers should never be written carelessly. Indeed, in some ways, corporate prayers require more thought than personal prayers because they must address the needs and concerns of many. Let there be careful forethought to the prayers we offer, regardless of whether we offer them extemporaneously or through written form.

The prayers of a worship service, therefore, must always be recognized as the voice of the people. If you use little arrows to signify the direction of the dialogue (an arrow up means we are speaking to God; an arrow down means God is speaking to us), then all of the prayers in a worship service deserve an up arrow. To make this clear to the worshipers, it is often helpful to include an invitation to prayer, such as, "We join our hearts and voices to offer our prayers to God," or "God calls us to be a praying people. Let us join in prayer, offering our praise, thanksgiving, and intercessions to God."

Sometimes the prayers of a service are offered by the pastor, sometimes by another member of the congregation, or sometimes by the entire congregation in unison. Variations are helpful.

Types of Worship Prayers

There are many varieties of prayer that will appear in worship services, depending on the location in the service and the purpose for which the prayer is intended. Each will likely have its own focus and purpose. Identifying a number of these types can raise our awareness of the distinct nature of each prayer we insert in a service.

Prayer of Invocation – A brief prayer near the opening of worship in which the congregation calls on God, particularly God's Spirit, 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 for his mercy 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 now to illumine our minds and hearts as it is preached and received.

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

Offertory Prayer – A prayer that is focused specifically on the offering that is given. Either before or after the offering has been received, this prayer asks for God to use these gifts and pour out his blessing on the ministries these gifts support.

Baptismal Prayer – Immediately after the water has been administered, this prayer gives thanks for God's promises and the washing that baptism represents, and seeks God's blessing and direction for the person baptized.

Lord's Supper Prayers – Two types of prayers are often found at the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. The first, before the actual sacrament, includes thanksgiving for God's grace and the work of Jesus Christ, and seeks the work of the Spirit as we come to the table. The second, after the sacrament, is the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving and takes the form of an acclamation of thanksgiving for the finished work of Christ that we may celebrate.

The Pastoral Prayer – Though identified by many different names (Congregational Prayer, Prayer of Intercession, Prayers of the People, Pastoral Prayer, or a "Collect"), this is often the major prayer of a worship service; it gathers the joys and celebrations, needs and concerns of the worshipers, and also provides intercession for the needs of others, the church in the world, and the needs of the nations of the world.

Specific Prayers of Thanks – At certain times a spontaneous prayer of thanks is appropriate. A testimony has been given, a missionary has reported on God's blessings, or a team of volunteers is leaving for a work project. At such times it is good for a congregation to pause with a focused prayer of thanks for such events.

You can likely think of others as well. Obviously no single worship service can or should include all of these. The nature and structure of each worship service will indicate which are needed. But it is wise for worship planners to step back from their work occasionally and ask about the prominence and appropriateness of each prayer in the service.

Methods of Praying

Just as the types of prayers will include a great deal of variety, so should the methods in which we pray represent a variety. Perhaps if we suggest an admittedly incomplete listing of some different methods, it will stimulate your ideas, discussions, and planning.

1. Extemporaneous prayer by a pastor or worship leader. This prayer is not written out and is presented conversationally. This requires careful forethought by the leader so that the prayer meaningfully represents the concerns that need to be included. The leader must be very conscious that he/she is serving as the voice of the entire congregation and must formulate the thoughts of the prayer accordingly.

2. Formulary prayer of a historic nature. 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. Such as prayer enables the worshipers to sense their unity with worshipers of another generation and speaks about the oneness of the church across the generations.

3. Written prayer by a local leader. Many members of each congregation are gifted with ideas and words that enable them to write very meaningful prayers. Some are adults and some are children and youth. Each can contribute from their own experiences and age level. They lead the congregation by reading the prayer they have previously written.

4. Unison prayers. When written prayers are printed in the bulletin or worship sheet, all worshipers are able to merge their voices together and pray in unison. Those who write these prayers must be careful that the phrases are relatively short, readable, and of the kind that all worshipers can take on their own lips. It's a beautiful sound for all to pray together in unison.

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. At other times small groups (a "concert of prayer") are formed to pray together. On other occasions, worshipers are invited to speak out the name of a person, concern, or joy that they would like to lift up without the need to turn it into a complete sentence.

6. Responsive prayers. A responsive prayer has a rhythm to it. The leader and the congregation both participate. In some instances the leader will pray about some concern and conclude this section with a phrase such as "Lord, in your mercy," and the congregation knows to respond with "hear our prayer." This can be done multiple times within a prayer. The same pattern can be experienced with sung responses.

7. Repetitive prayers. Sometimes our praying becomes a time also for teaching others, particularly children, how to pray. We've found it helpful to include a form of repetitive prayer in conjunction with the children's message in the worship service. We call them "Simon Sez Prayers." The pastor speaks a brief statement and the children repeat it. This continues for the entire prayer. Both praying and modeling take place.

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 privately pray for that subject, followed by his/her "bidding" them to pray for another subject. This continues until a variety of subjects have been lifted up in private prayers during the times of silence. The prayer leader closes the prayer.

Singing Our Prayers

The integration of song and prayer deserves much more attention. Not only is song a meaningful way for the worshiper to express thoughts and emotions to God, but songs that others have written become gifts to us that serve as vehicles to verbalize what we want and need to say. The book of Psalms has alternately been titled “The Prayerbook of the Bible” and “The Songbook of the Bible.” This dual naming reflects the close relationship between prayer and song and the integration that we encourage.

Sung prayers can encompass each of the types of prayer as introduced above. Where a prayer needs to be addressed more specifically to a person or event, the spoken prayer can be followed by an appropriate sung prayer response. Many of the shorter cyclical praise and worship songs can effectively be used in this role.

Many of the hymns that we sing also are directed to God as prayer. John Calvin called the gift of song in worship “sung prayer.” A congregation who is alerted to this fact will sing with a different spirit—and the spirit can change from prayer to prayer, as the text changes. Some sung prayers are pleas, some are strong calls for God to act, some are filled with praise, and some are filled with petition. Let the texts of the prayers influence the spirit in which they are sung! When the order of worship identifies a song selection as a "sung prayer," worshipers are aided in knowing how to sing it. Imagine a whole congregation praying in song with the words, "My God, how wonderful you are . . ."

A sung refrain used throughout a spoken prayer is yet another way to integrate song and prayer. The refrain is not an interruption to the prayer, but an integral part of it. As the psalmist in Psalms 42 and 43 weaves a repeated refrain through his thoughts (see 42:5, 11 and 43:5), so too can a congregation. Several sung responses are included in Sing! A New Creation. "Psalm 25: To You, O Lord, I Lift My Soul" (SNC 199) gives a model of this responsorial form of prayer. Using this model, you can design a pattern of prayer using other passages of Scripture or write new prayers with other refrains. "Let Us Pray to the Lord" (SNC 202) provides an example of a brief response within a bidding prayer. "O Lord, Hear My Prayer" (SNC 203) and "Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying" (PsH 625) provide models for sung prayer responses that can be used with a variety of spoken prayers. Many such responses are available in Christian hymnody.

Instrumentalists involved in leading worship should not forget the valuable contribution they can make to the prayer life of the congregation. One of the purposes of prelude and offertory music is to foster a sense of the holy in the time and space of worship. Often congregational members will use the quiet times (what seem to be the inactive times for them) in the very active posture of prayer. Musicians can offer the opportunity for worshipers to direct their thoughts in anticipation of what will happen in worship or to focus their thoughts into prayers of response for what has happened in the service. Musical selections can serve to help or distract the worshiper. Thoughtful selections can be such an encourager in worship.

A Careful Work

The task of formulating and/or selecting prayers for a worship service can be a daunting task. We are planning words that others will take on their lips and speak to God! Worship planners will want to take great care in deciding which prayers should be included, where the prayers should be located in the worship service, who will lead the prayers, and how they will be written. We plead that sensitive and faith-filled effort be given to the prayers of worship.

We suggest several avenues that will be helpful resources.

1. Identify members of your planning team, worship committee, or congregation who are gifted in writing and leading in prayer, and engage their efforts. Do not limit yourself to adults. Children and youth will make valuable contributions that will express their perspective on the matters of prayer.

2. Make use of valuable resources that will provide ideas and formulations. It is not necessary to write all our prayers. Many saints have written beautiful prayers that have been used by other Christians for a long time and preserved for our use today. Many books of historic prayers are available, but be cautious in evaluating them before you use them to be sure they express what you believe. You may be familiar with such widely used guides as the Book of Common Worship (Westminster/John Knox Press) or the Book of Common Prayer (Oxford University Press). A new publication has just become available that provides a Reformed source for worship: The Worship Sourcebook, published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Faith Alive Christian Resources, and Baker Books, is now available and has a wealth of resources for every part of the worship service.

3. Involve your worship committee and/or worship planning team in periodic evaluative discussions about the prayers in your worship service. Spend a short while with questions like these:

  • Do we have too many or too few prayers in our worship services?
  • Is the intent and purpose of each prayer clear to all worshipers?
  • Do we have sufficient variety in the types of prayers, or do we need more?
  • Are there other methods of praying that we should consider including? Which ones?
  • Are the prayers of our worship life generally engaging? What can be done to improve them?
  • Are the prayers sensitive the needs that worshipers are bringing?
  • Do our prayers speak of our concern for the world and its suffering?