Corporate Prayer Is More than Your Personal Quiet Time
Prayer is personal. Jesus tells us to “shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matt. 6:6). But prayer is also corporate. The Psalms, for example, are the hymnal and prayer guide for God’s gathered people. So how should we think about corporate prayer, and why does it matter?
I recently talked with a friend who stopped coming to church because it wasn’t holding his attention. “I don’t get anything out of it, so why come? This,” he said pointing to the great outdoors, “is my church!”
My friend would say his Christianity is exclusively about him and Jesus. But when that’s the case, at best you have an anemic Christianity. At worst, can you be sure it’s Christianity?
The West’s tendency to idolize individuality leads theologian David Wells to lament,
We have come to believe that our top priority should be that we seek our own authenticity before all else. . . . Where these assumptions have intruded upon the Church, our spirituality has become extremely privatized, highly individualistic, inimical to commitments, and quite ethically indifferent. Because this is so, we lose our appetite for God, our taste for his Word, and our sense of dependence on Christ. Our God has become too small and is now often lost amidst our inner preoccupations.
If we’re to face the big problems of life, we need a big God. How then do we regain a vision of his greatness? One place to begin is by remembering how, as Christians, we’re all part of a family—members of the same body: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12).
So, yes, we are individuals, but in Christ, we are more than that; we’re one!
ACTIVE, NOT PASSIVE
To catch a baseball, you need each part of your body to do its part. If your arm doesn’t show up, you may end up with a black eye.
In the same way, if the church is a body, each part must be active (Eph. 4:16). When the congregation listens to a sermon, they’re not being entertained, they’re being equipped (Eph. 4:12; 1 Thess. 5:21, Acts 17:11). When the congregation sings, they’re not just expressing themselves, they’re singing to each other (Eph. 5:19). When the plate is passed, they don’t just give, they give to sustain a gospel ministry that serves the whole as well as other churches (1 Cor. 9:14; 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 9:7). What we do as a church, we do collectively.
So it is when a church prays. It prays collectively. When someone leads the congregation in prayer, we don’t just watch, we pray with them. Corporate prayer is not just 300 people having their own quiet time; it’s 300 people praying together.
Two suggestions to help our church families in this:
First, encourage the individual praying to use the pronoun we instead of I. He is not doing spiritual show-and-tell; he is praying on behalf of the church. He is approaching God to make requests, confess sin, or give thanks on behalf of the entire family.
Second, encourage the congregation to say “amen” at the end of the prayer. In Paul’s instructions for corporate worship, he asks, “How can anyone in the position of an outsider say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?” (1 Cor. 14:16b). To say “amen” is more than a formality. It is to say, “I agree with what was just prayed—that’s my prayer, too.” And if you don’t agree, don’t say amen!
TEACHING BY EXAMPLE
John Stott once wrote,
I remember some years ago visiting a church incognito. I sat in the back row. . . . When we came to the pastoral prayer, it was led by a lay brother, because the pastor was on holiday. So he prayed that the pastor might have a good holiday. Well, that’s fine. Pastors should have good holidays. Second, he prayed for a lady member of the church who was about to give birth to a child that she might have a safe delivery, which is fine. Third, he prayed for another lady who was sick, and then it was over. That’s all there was. It took 20 seconds. I said to myself, it’s a village church with a village God. They have no interest in the world outside. There was no thinking about the poor, the oppressed, the refugees, the places of violence, world evangelization.
Those who lead the church in prayer are praying to God and teaching the congregation how to pray, for better or worse.
Pastor, what do your prayers teach your congregation about God? Is he a mere village God? Or is the God of Scripture that leaves us in awe and encouraged at the same time? Those who lead in prayer should think carefully about their manner, topics, and content.
In your manner, do you reflect an appropriate awe of God, while at the same time resting in bold confidence? Are your prayers heartfelt and warm, or cold and mechanical? Are they flowery and stylish or in the vernacular of your private prayers? One of the ways we learn best to pray is by praying with others.
What about the topics you pray for? In other words, how do you know what categories to pray about? The prayers in the Bible instruct us here. Consider the topics set out in the Lord’s Prayer as an example: when we pray, we ought to pray for God’s name to be honored (Hallowed be your name), God’s rule in our lives and those around us (your kingdom come), the grace to trust God (your will be done), our needs (give us this day our daily bread), and pardon from sin (forgive us our debts…). Two great books on praying the categories of Scripture are D. A. Carson’s Praying with Paul, and Matthew Henry’s A Method for Prayer. Letting Scripture set the topics pushes us out of our prayer ruts. If we have a big God; let’s pray big prayers.
Finally, the content of our prayers. Not only should Scripture set the agenda for the topics we pray about (authorities, from 1 Tim. 2:2), it should also shape what we pray for concerning those topics (e.g. wisdom, justice, humility – Ja. 1:5, Ps. 72:2, Mk. 10:45). When you pray about an injustice that affects the members in your church, does your public prayer model how to pray about the injustice? Whether there’s reason to celebrate or mourn, do your prayers teach your people to pray scripturally?
We must push against the toxic effects of a privatized Christianity because we understand what it means to pray together as a church. In doing so, we find a God not whom we’ve domesticated, but who makes us tremble in awe and pray all the more because he both commands us to pray and is graciously willing to hear.
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 David Wells.
 John Stott (Bill Turpie, ed., Ten Great Preachers, p. 117).