Class IV: Corporate Prayer
You have walked into a class on prayer this morning. That's probably not too surprising if you've been around churches for long—you've probably had a number of classes on prayer over the years. But let me explain what's going to be different about this class. We're going to be looking at the role that corporate prayer has to play in our life as a church. Not your life individually. Individual prayer is crucial—but that's not the topic of this class. Our prayer together as a church is the topic here.
Those of you who have been attending this Sunday School know that the goal of our time together is to understand what we can do as church members to foster the love and unity in our local church that uniquely and compellingly demonstrates the power of the gospel. Think of Jesus' words in John 13:35: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Given how central prayer is to our lives as Christians, it makes sense that prayer is a vital part of building unity in our church.
Why Prayer Is Important
Generally speaking, why is prayer so important? Prayer is how God's people respond to him in thankfulness and praise. Prayer is how God's people cry out to him for mercy and deliverance. Prayer is how God's people call upon him to accomplish the work of his kingdom. In short, prayer is how we actively demonstrate our utter dependence on him. It honors him as the source of all blessing.
God calls his saints to be active in the work of the kingdom, whether through preaching, evangelism, and so forth (1 Cor. 3:9). But as we lean on him through prayer, we are reminded that the salvation of individuals and the growth in his churches ultimately comes from him, not from us. When his kingdom is advanced through prayer, he gets the glory because it's eminently clear that he's behind it all. (Indeed, it reminds us that even our activities of preaching, evangelizing, and praying are the result of his work.)
A Few Biblical Examples of Prayer
As early as Genesis chapter 4, "men began to call upon the name of the Lord" (v.26). They realized their dreadful separation from God through their sin after the fall.
In Elijah's great contest with the prophets of Baal, he called upon the name of the Lord, and the prophets called on the name of Baal (1 Kings 18). Elijah prayed:
Oh Lord, God of Abraham, Issac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all of these things at your command. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again. (1 Kings 18:36-37).
The Lord answered Elijah by bringing down fire upon the offering. So God was glorified because it was evidently clear that he was the one true God, not Baal.
In Psalm 50:15 God says: "Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me."
In the New Testament, God's people are still commanded to call out to God, but Christ taught that we should pray to the Father in his name. In John 14:13, Jesus says, "And I will do whatever you ask in my name so that the Son may bring glory to the Father."
These examples illustrate how God uses prayer to make it very clear that he is the one who blesses. Therefore he gets the glory.
Raising the Question
But I wonder if you've considered just how important it is to pray together with other Christians. In today's individualistic culture, not much emphasis is placed on corporate prayer. But as we'll see, the Bible attaches great significance to God's people coming together to pray.
For the rest of our time together, we'll begin by thinking about why God has called us to pray together as a church. We'll then consider how corporate prayer contributes to unity, and how we, as members of this church, can contribute to this unity by actively involving ourselves in the prayer life of the church.
My hope is that through the material we cover, we will have a better understanding of the importance of corporate prayer, and that we will be thinking in a more focused way about seeking opportunities to pray with other members of the church.
II. WHY IS CORPORATE PRAYER IMPORTANT?
Let's begin by considering the importance of Christians praying together in the church. I would hazard a guess that the first thing that comes into most of our minds when someone mentions prayer is our own personal prayer times with the Lord rather than corporate prayer. Private prayer is certainly very important. We know this from Jesus' teaching in the Gospel of Matthew where he says:
But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:6).
Clearly, Christians are commanded to pray privately, even secretly.
But the Bible also very clearly calls upon Christians to pray together. Indeed, in Matthew 6, verse 9, just three verses after the verse I just read to you, Jesus instructs his disciples on how to pray by setting forth what we know as the Lord's Prayer.
Beginning in verse 9, Jesus says,
This then is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
Did you notice all the plurals—"our," "us," "we"? In providing a model prayer for his disciples, Jesus puts it in a form that commends it for corporate use. The prayer naturally lends itself to group prayer because of its using "our" instead of "my." Even praying the Lord's prayer privately—which is fine to do—will remind you that you are praying as part of a family of other believers. The Lord's Prayer is an invitation not only to pray but to pray together with other believers.
So why is corporate prayer—praying together with other believers—so important?
1. It Advances God's Kingdom in Face of Opposition
First, corporate prayer is important because God uses prayer together to advance his kingdom in the face of opposition.
The early church had a number of obstacles to overcome, including persecution. In spite of persecution, it continued to expand. How?
If you have your Bibles, turn to Acts chapter 2 where we learn that the early church gathered regularly for prayer. In verses 42 to 44, Luke writes,
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common.
As a result—verse 47—"the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."
Yet this growth often occurred in the face of persecution, which we see several times. In Acts 4, Peter and John are released from prison and the church gathers to hear their report. Then they prayed together, praising God for his sovereignty and asking for boldness in the face of the threats. Luke then tells us:
After they had prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. (Acts 4:31)
The result was that the gospel spread even more.
Another example occurs in Acts 12. When King Herod (Agrippa I) arrests Peter in order to please the Jews, the church gathers together and "was earnestly praying to God for him" (Acts 12:5). The night before Herod was to put Peter on trial, Peter was miraculously delivered from imprisonment (Acts 12:5-11).
So we see the power of united prayer in the early church. That power comes from the Holy Spirit, who seemed to be especially active in their corporate prayer. But the Holy Spirit didn't stop working with the early church. Throughout history we've seen God's work to be particularly active when his people have faithfully prayed together.
The power of the Spirit in the early church and throughout history should embolden us to pray together regularly for the expansion of the gospel in our country and around the world. God's work will not be thwarted! And following the example of the early church, we're to call upon him to continue in that work. That's why our church consistently prays for the work of other churches both in the morning and evening services. That's why our church prays for religious freedom in countries where Christians are being persecuted. But it's also why our church desires to see the church expand in the very face of persecution—that God's power and wisdom will be displayed as his church expands—inexplicably (by human wisdom)!—when all the forces of hell are arrayed against it.
2. It Imparts Wisdom and Guidance
Second, God imparts wisdom and guidance to churches as his people gather together in prayer seeking such wisdom.
Corporate prayer was important for the early church as they sought God's wisdom for the internal affairs of the church, such as choosing its leaders. We know from James that God generously gives wisdom to those who ask him for it. So, early in Acts, the church prays together for wisdom when selecting a replacement for Judas among the disciples. They prayed, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry . . . ." (Acts 1:24-25). And through the casting of lots, God gave them the name of Matthias. Thus prayer is a means that God has given his church through which he guides the church.
3. Our Dependence Glorifies God
Third, God is glorified through our dependence on him in united prayer.
Earlier we talked about how prayer magnifies God by showing our dependence upon him. That dependence is particularly striking when God's people gather together to praise his name, confess their sins, and make their requests known to him. Why? Because such prayer clearly displays our dependence on God to a watching world; it expresses audibly our needs in a powerful way.
In corporate prayer we show our utter dependence to God as a church.
4. Our Unity Glorifies God
Fourth, God is glorified through the unity of our prayer.
As we've heard in past classes, unity among God's people glorifies God. That's why in Paul calls on the entire church in Ephesians 4 to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. Praying together is one way that we satisfy this command—it visibly unites us together as God's people.
But there's also a special unity through corporate prayer aside from the unity displayed in the physical gathering. When Holy-Spirit-indwelt Christians come together to pray, there is a unique kind of unity and power in the Spirit. Not only do we commune with God, we can trust that a special communion occurs with each other as the Spirit works in us simultaneously and gives a common faith and heart for God's will.
Two things to take away from this section: (i) we grow spiritually as we hear others commit to prayer; (ii) we offer a powerful witness to non-Christians who see the love and commitment that we have for one another in our prayers.
III. HOW DOES CORPORATE PRAYER PROMOTE UNITY?
That's the "why" of corporate prayer. Now, let's get to the "how." How does corporate prayer promote unity in our church—and what can we do as church members to further that end? Let me walk you through three ways that corporate prayer promotes unity.
1. Corporate Prayer Draws Us Together
Perhaps the most obvious answer is that praying together has a natural tendency to draw people closer.
When we pray together, we are leaving behind our own selfish desires and focusing on God and others. So, for example, on Sunday evenings, our church prays for each other in various ways: we thank God for his grace in people's lives; we ask him to heal the sick; we thank him for the good things he has given, like children and marriages; we ask him to bless various ministry and evangelistic opportunities; we ask him to comfort the hurting; and so forth. Both praying for others, and hearing others pray for us, naturally draws us closer together as we learn more about each other and, as we feel the effect of those prayers in the work accomplished by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes you'll the pastors describe the evening service as our family time. Praying together draws us together as a family.
How then can we be good stewards of this gift of united prayer? One way is to pursue opportunities to pray with others. For example, have a time of prayer in your small groups (which I trust many of the groups already have). Pray before studying the Scriptures, and then pray for each other so that unity is fostered. And when you pray in small groups, don't just have one person pray but have everyone pray. For example, you can have each person pray for the person on their right or left.
Other opportunities include praying as a family, praying before meals with friends, praying with missionaries, praying with co-workers or friends we see during the week. And you can probably think of many more ways.
One more opportunity to consider is whether there are prayer requests you could share with the congregation that could draw us together and help us as a body to marvel at the power and mercy of God. Think of corporate prayer for you as a service to this congregation. For some of us, that might feel a bit strange. We're fairly private people who think of asking others to pray for us as placing a burden on them. But that's not how the Bible views things. There's a great passage in 2 Corinthians 1 where Paul is sharing about a particularly difficult situation.
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many. (2 Cor. 1:8-11).
That last verse is right on point: "Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many." Was it a burden on these believers to pray for Paul? Absolutely not. It was a tremendous blessing to lift him up and share in the joy of God's continual deliverance of him. What if Paul had decided that his problems weren't worth bothering the church? We should thank God that he did not.
So think about how you can share your needs with others so that we may be drawn together as believers and encouraged by God's amazing work. Are you struggling in your faith? Are you struggling at work? Are you struggling in your marriage? Are you struggling with evangelism? I remember when a brother in this church shared on Sunday night that he was struggling with his belief in God. His openness was a good example for us. As the church rallied around him in prayer, we were all able to praise God as our prayers were answered. Allow others to bring you before our Lord in prayer—it is a privilege for them.
2. Corporate Prayer Fosters a God-Centered Mindset
A second way corporate prayer builds unity in the church is that it makes us more like-minded theologically as scriptural truths—such as God's glory and sovereignty—are applied to various situations and circumstances.
God through his Word shapes and molds our minds to know his truths. Prayer gives us an opportunity to apply these truths to specific prayer situations. As God-centered prayers are vocally shared among Christians, they bring greater unity by growing this God-centered mindset among those in attendance.
I think the clearest example of this in our church life occurs in our Sunday evening times. I've been very encouraged in listening to the prayers during that service—not because of how eloquent they may or may not be; not because of their level of sophistication or simplicity; but because they increasingly reflect the truths of scripture.
The Sunday evening prayer time has helped me to pray more biblically, and therefore caused me to be more like-minded with others. Here are some examples of common scriptural themes that I continuously hear on Sunday nights:
- a desire to see God glorified whatever the circumstance;
- a recognition of God's sovereignty;
- praise for God's grace and mercy in Christ;
- praise for God's grace in others' lives;
- a desire for the gospel to be proclaimed among all peoples;
- and a recognition of our sin and hopelessness apart from Christ.
So in prayer, we unite around the truths of God.
The pastors and elders also try to foster this God-centered mindset through the various prayers in our Sunday morning service: the prayer of praise, prayer of confession, prayer of petition, and prayer of thanks. In these prayers, we seek to communicate the gospel by focusing on how God is worthy of all praise for who he is and what he has done, and how we are sinful, needy people in need of a Savior. Also, you may have noticed that often the themes in these prayers reflect the themes in the morning's text of Scripture.
While we're on this topic, let me address one issue that you might wonder about. Sometimes people observe that many of the men who lead our church in prayer on Sunday mornings have written out their prayers. That may strike you as a bit strange, maybe even inappropriate. After all, aren't our prayers supposed to be genuine—from the heart? And doesn't reading prayers lend itself to unhealthy motivations—seeking the adoration of men rather than God?
Concerning a prayer's genuineness, I don't think there's any reason to say that something that is spontaneous is somehow more genuine than something that's been carefully reflected upon and considered. Concerning an individual's motivation, well, the concern is certainly correct. Whether we are reading a prayer or praying spontaneously, we should pray to bring glory to God and not to ourselves. In other words, I'm not sure we can say that someone who prays spontaneously is any less susceptible to wrong motivations as someone who writes out his prayers beforehand.
The important thing to remember here is, the person leading corporate prayer is responsible for leading the prayer in a way that teaches and edifies the whole congregation. Thus, it's often helpful to spend time in advance thinking through how one can pray in a way that edifies the congregation.
Given that praying together fosters unity by making us more like-minded as we hear God-centered prayers, how can we be good stewards of our prayer time?
Let me suggest several ways:
#1—Pray the prayers of Scripture. The Bible presents us with actual examples of prays that we can pray. Think of the Psalms. Think of Daniel 9. Think of the Lord's Prayer. Think of all of Paul's wonderful prayers, as you'll often find at the beginning of his letters (for example Eph. 1:15-19; 3:14-19; Phil. 1:3-6; Col. 1:9-14; 1 Thes. 2:3-4; let me also recommend to you a book: "A Call to Spiritual Reformation" by D.A. Carson, which looks specifically at the prayers of Paul.)
# 2—Pray the commands of Scripture. Think of the different things Scripture commands God's people to do, from the Ten Commandments to Paul's commands to put off the old man and put on the new man. As you pray for God's people, ask God to help them fulfill what he requires of them.
# 3—Pray the "ambitions" of Scripture. That may sound like a strange way of putting it, but consider what Scripture is ambitious about for the lives of God's people. For example, praying for someone who is ill involves praying that God would comfort and heal the person, but it also means asking God to use that illness for that person's spiritual good and God's glory. We know from scripture that God often uses trials in the lives of his people for just these purposes. Another way of summarizing this point would be to say, Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness in your public prayers.
#4—Pray the promises of Scripture. The Scriptures are filled with promises for God's people, and we're told that all of God's promises are "yes" and "amen" in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). There are countless examples I could point to. Here's one—Isaiah 41:10: "Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand." So are you in a time of trial or tragedy? Go to the Lord and pray this promise back to him: "Lord, based on the righteousness of your Son which you have mercifully granted to me by faith, please, fulfill this promise: strengthen me; help me; uphold me. Your Word promises that you will, and so I fall entirely on this promise!"
3. Corporate Prayer Creates a Unity of Purpose
A third way that corporate prayer creates unity is by uniting Christians around the ministries of the church.
If you attend our Sunday evening service, you will hear a number of announcements about the various ministries at our church, which we then pray for. As the church listens and prays, we become excited together about church plants in Central Asia and Northern Virginia, or about our outreach to other churches through the Weekenders or the latest publications that Nine Marks is working on. Thus, our unity is fostered in corporate prayer as we grow and unite around a common vision of ministry.
IV. PRAYING INDIVIDUALLY FOR UNITY IN THE CHURCH
We've been spending most of our time talking about the importance of corporate prayer in our church. But, of course, private prayer is also important in our church. There are many ways private can be used to build unity in our church. Let me draw your attention briefly to four of them.
1. Pray for the Preacher and His Sermon
As we taught in previous weeks of this class, preaching is the most important thing we do together as a church. Accordingly, we should specifically pray for that time by praying for those preaching and those listening to God's Word.
Over and over the apostle Paul pleads with the church body to specifically lift him up in prayer. So he says to the Ephesians, "Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the Gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains" (Eph. 6:19; also Col. 4:2-4).
How specifically can we pray corporately for the preacher (in addition of course to our individual prayers)? Two thoughts:
First, use the time while the offering plate is passed—right before the sermon—to pray for the sermon, for the preacher, for your own heart, and for the hearts of others. Ask God to encourage and strengthen the preacher to proclaim God's word effectively and powerfully. Pray that the Spirit would convict people of their sin, turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, and grant an people a desire for God in all his goodness and glory.
Second, use your small groups or family time during the week to pray for Sunday's preaching and the church's times of teaching generally. Just include that as a regular prayer item along with your prayers for each other.
2. Pray Through the Church Directory
In addition to praying for the preacher and his sermon, we should pray for the members of the church. One way to do this is to pray regularly through the church directory, whether by yourself or with others. Pray through the directory one page a day. Ask people how you can pray for them as you have occasion. And then let them know that you have prayed for them. This will encourage others and promote unity.
3. Pray for the Church's Various Ministries and Evangelistic Outreaches
In addition to praying for the preaching and for members individually, we should pray for the church's outreach. Praying for our various forms of outreach unites our hearts around common ambitions. How can you do this? First, join us on Sunday nights. If you are not used to attending church twice on Sundays, it may seem like a bit of a challenge at first, but this is a wonderful time where the family gathers together and prays. This is when we hear about many of the church's outreaches, evangelistic and otherwise. Second, take notes and then pray on your own through the week for the church's work outside its walls.
4. Pray for problems in our church
Lastly, use your individual prayer time to lift up to God difficulties in our church. When you see something that bothers you—anything from someone struggling with anger to concerns about the building—then pray. You might decide to do other things as well, like address the matter to an elder. We're always happy to talking about these things with you. But always start by praying hard for us as a church. Don't just sit back and ignore a problems or complain about it. Pray. Ask God to give you a right heart, but also to preserve his church and to transform us more clearly into his image.
To conclude, we've looked this morning at the importance of prayer in the church and how it promotes unity. We've also considered various ways that we, as members of this church, can foster unity through praying with others. I hope this class has encouraged you to strategize on how you can be good stewards of corporate prayer time, whether that's in our Sunday services, small groups, family devotionals, Angel Tree prayer meetings, morning prayer times, discipling relationships, or just impromptu prayer with others.