On the Use and Importance of Corporate Prayer
SIGNIFICANCE OF CORPORATE PRAYER
What’s the difference between individual prayer and corporate prayer?
In individual prayer, I am simply responding to God myself—my own knowledge of him, my relationship with him, my experience with him. In corporate prayer, when somebody opens their mouth to pray for a whole group of people, then the person leading has to think not just for themselves but they have to think, "What does this Bible study group, or what does my family, or what does this local church need to praise God for, thank him for, confess, and ask him for right now?"
In corporate prayer is the person praying speaking to God, to people, or to both?
To both. People don’t think about that sometimes. You know, it’s like when somebody talks about someone else praying in a quiet voice, and then the person who did the praying responds in a sort of self-righteous way, "I wasn’t talking to you." Well, actually, if you’re praying out loud you are talking to them in part. You see this in the prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. You’ll see that in the Psalms, too. Basically if you’re opening your mouth and asking us to close ours, then you are in part speaking to us. And you just have to take account of that fact.
So practically, if you’re the person leading that prayer, pray "We," not "I." You may occasionally pray "I," but generally you should pray "we" because you’re representing yourself and all those other people before the Lord.
Let me follow up on a point you were just making about seeing corporate prayer exampled in Scripture. Since it’s based in Scripture, is corporate prayer something pastors should—normatively should—be doing?
Oh, yeah. It’s the example you see in Acts. Also, Paul exhorts Timothy to do this in his correspondence with him. Yeah, definitely.
Is the church that fails to take corporate prayer seriously depriving its members of something?
Yes, I think you deprive yourself and your members of one of those key parts of what your identity is as Christians. Paul tells the Corinthians that we have the same Spirit in us, and corporate prayer is a wonderful acting-out of the ontological unity that we have spiritually as we literally speak with one voice to God. To deny that, and to instead view the church’s gathering as your quiet time with five hundred other people, is to miss out. It screens out the local church from the reality experienced as a Christian. It’s an impoverishment.
So what are some of the benefits for the individual Christian of corporate prayer? Here I am; I’m a member of a congregation; I’m sitting here participating in this corporate prayer—what are the benefits for me? How will I grow in grace?
Participating regularly in corporate prayer begins to take out the individualistic assumption that Christianity is only about me and my relationship with God; and it begins to re-situate us as individual Christians in the congregation so that we become aware of this person who’s sick, this person who’s just had a baby, this person who’s unemployed, this person who’s just become a Christian. Participating in corporate prayer helps us discover that our lives as followers of Christ are tied up with one another’s. It helps us discover how God cares about the congregation as an entity—that it should be marked by the fruit of the Spirit and the love of John 13:34-35.
That’s not how Christians in America normally talk. You hear about "my own spiritual desires and demands"; you don’t really hear about the local congregation’s desires and demands. But regularly participating in corporate prayer reintroduces these ideas and reorients our thinking.
So it works against disunity.
Yes, among many other things. It works against disunity because you begin to realize that that person that you are disregarding, mocking, or dismissing is actually part of your own body. You have to approach them and their problems—even when you disagree with them—differently than you would before.
Including owning their…
Yes, it’s not "their problem," it’s "our problem." This pulls you into church discipline. It pulls you into correcting other people. It pulls you into other aspects of life together because you tangle your life up with theirs.
To what extent are you conscious of pastoring the people as you pray?
I am really aware of that when I’m preparing a prayer. I won’t write out a manuscript, but I’ll make notes of what I want to pray for and while I’m doing this I will think along these lines. When I’m actually praying, though, I am really aware of being in the presence of God, and I’m only secondarily thinking about the people.
Are you saying that you’re more aware of being in God’s presence when you lead in corporate pray than when you pray individually?
Oh, yeah! I’m highly aware of—you know—"Lord, here we are in your presence at CHBC, and here’s what we would like to talk to you about." Yes, I feel very conspicuous.
More than when you preach?
Similarly or more. Certainly not less. I mean, I feel like I’ve walked up to the Chief Shepherd, and I’m his little undershepherd. And I’ve got all these sheep, and I’m trying to get them to, sh-h-h-h, pay attention now, you know, I kind of feel like that. I hope I’m not now ruining your experience of the pastoral prayers here at CHBC with distracting images.
Oh, not at all…What are you trying to teach people through your corporate prayer about their individual prayer lives? What would you want them to replicate?
I got a great letter once from a member who was a new Christian, saying that she had learned how to pray in her own personal devotional life from being in the services at CHBC. In fact she had even learned how to pray in public by listening to the different prayers that were prayed. So I would hope that we would model different aspects of our relationship with God by the prayers that we have in public.
SUNDAY MORNING GATHERING
So, getting practical, you have two different services—the Sunday morning and the Sunday evening service. Let’s start with Sunday morning. What do you do on Sunday mornings?
We certainly think that different churches have freedom to do it different ways. But at Capitol Hill Baptist we will always have a prayer of praise (which is focused on some aspect of God), a prayer of confession (where we confess our sins), a prayer of intercession/pastoral prayer (where we pray through various concerns that we have as a church family), and a brief prayer of thanks. There will also be a prayer after the sermon in which we try to pray certain truths into our hearts; and there will sometimes be a brief prayer of invitation for God’s presence at the beginning of our service.
You mentioned prayers of praise, confession, intercession, and thanks, which is basically what we see listed in the bulletin every week. But the Psalms have more than just these four categories. There are also prayers of lament, remembrance, and more. Would you ever do a prayer of lament? Why do you camp on those four?
Some of the things that the Psalms illustrates for us are contained in individual prayers. So they’re not all prayers that will be normal in the corporate worship. Having said that, a prayer of lament certainly can be appropriate publicly and corporately, and I think we certainly would have elements of that.
Prayers of remembrance?
Yes, and that happens in the prayer of praise often. But back to the prayer of lament—I think that in my own pastoral prayers, at the end, sometimes I’ll reflect on what we Christians are and how our culture understands us, and I’ll lament that.
Any further comments on what you want accomplished in the prayer of praise?
We try to distinguish it from just a prayer of thanks. The prayer of thanks is me thanking God for something that he’s given me. A prayer of praise is a prayer acknowledging an aspect of God’s character that’s been revealed to us. So we might praise him that he is a saving God; whereas we might thank him for his salvation of us. We would praise him that he is a revealing God—that he, in and of himself wants to make himself known—whereas we might thank him for giving us the gift of his Word and his Spirit—things like that. So I think it’s good to help us to think of God as the Bible reveals him to us even before we meditate on what he’s done for us.
So for the few theological nitpickers out there who I’ve heard try to demolish the distinction between thanks and praise by saying, "We only know him through his economy of redemption," you’re still going to say . . .
That he has revealed more about himself than merely the economy of redemption.
What’s being accomplished in the prayer of confession?
We certainly can’t confess every sin that we’ve committed. But we mean to lead the congregation in thinking about their lives before the Lord, especially in light of whatever text the church will be studying that particular morning. So it’s meant to encourage self-examination and to help us meditate on God’s holiness and how that matches with the lives we’ve been leading. Then at the end, with the entire bill being totaled up, as it were, we ask for his forgiveness in the name of Christ.
Which you then conclude with…
Well, after the prayer for forgiveness for our sins, we read an assurance of pardon from Scripture. We don’t do that as priests saying, "I absolve you." But we do quote from God’s Word on how God gives us forgiveness through Christ. There are many great verses which assure the saints and instruct others.
Seven or eight years ago, I remember you said that you didn’t do a prayer of confession every week because you were concerned about causing visiting or former Catholics to stumble, whereas now the practice is to do one every week. Why the change?
I just got to thinking about it and decided the damage of not doing a weekly prayer of confession was greater than the risk of doing one.
Yeah, and we might change it back at some point. I don’t know. But I think it seems like a good, healthy part of church life.
Will you walk me through your pastoral prayer? You seem to take an extended time on that. What do you do, and why you do it?
Let me start with the "why." I think the pastoral prayer is important for showing ourselves and others that the church is not doing what we appear to be doing, but that all this is God’s work. Ultimately, everything that we do is dependent upon God and his grace, his mercy, his action. So I think the time given to intercession is a proper, appropriate, worshipful, thankful expression of dependency, and it’s a good and right thing for Christians to do.
It’s a form of praise.
It is. It’s another form of praise as we confess our neediness. And we confess it out loud and publicly because we’re confident of his sufficiency and of his good will toward us in Christ.
You often state that at the beginning of your prayers.
I’ll sometimes say something like that. Other times I’ll begin with a statement from a prayer of Daniel’s in Daniel 9 where Daniel calls on God to act and to answer for the sake of his name.
I’ll begin my requests by asking the Lord to intervene in situations that will be strikingly on the mind of the congregation if some member has recently been married or died or if there’s a situation that the whole congregation’s aware of.
Then I’ll pray for other classes of people: maybe the unemployed, maybe those longing to have children, something like that. Sometimes I’ll pray for members by name.
And then I’ll pray for those in authority over us, and I’ll pray for two or three things about our city or nation that are at stake. I often pray for the schools. I think the public schools are a very important part of the future in this country. Part of what praying for our authorities means very practically is praying for those who have authority in the public schools.
Then I will pray for those who have gone out from us to preach the gospel, which for us means missionaries, seminarians, and pastors.
I’ll also pray for at least one other church by name and its pastor. Sometimes it’ll be another Baptist church, but more often than not it will be a church of another denomination. Usually it will be a church in our own area, but sometimes I pray for specific churches or ministries outside of this area.
Then I will pray for a number of different countries. Sometimes I’ll pray for their governments; sometimes for religious freedoms; certainly for the spread of the gospel.
I try occasionally to thank God, because he has done so much to answer our prayers. It seems appropriate to remember that when publicly praying, lest we make it look like we’re beggars because he doesn’t greatly give to us, when he does. I know we’ve already had the prayer of praise and we’ll have a prayer of thanks, but I just want to thank him a little bit here, too.
Finally, I will pray for Christians to be marked by certain characteristics, including our own congregation. And here I’ll usually pray through the points of the sermon for us as a congregation. I pray that God would help us to hear, understand, and change.
How can a pastor get from a place where the Sunday morning gathering has one or two undefined prayers to having these three or four defined prayers every Sunday morning?
He should just start planning it into the service. He can teach on it in his sermons, as he has opportunity to mention prayer; quickly explain why he’s doing these different things. Part of what prevents pastors from doing this, though, is the larger issue of thinking of the service like they’re on TV time—no wasted time, no wasted space. So teach them, "Look, we’re not about that. It doesn’t matter if we get done at 12:00 or not."
OTHER NUTS & BOLTS
How long are your pastoral prayers?
I don’t know. My guess is 5 to 12 minutes.
How long are the other prayers—the prayer of praise and of confession?
The prayer of praise, I’d guess, is like 4 to 7 minutes. The confession is a little shorter, like 4 to 6 minutes, maybe.
A few moments ago, you said you make notes. Do you encourage guys to write out their prayers, or is spontaneity the better way to go?
There are advantages to both. What you want is sincerity, but you also want it to be well thought through. If you’re able to think on your feet well and not distract your people but lead them to the Lord, that’s great. But if you get tongue-tied and repeat yourself a lot, then I don’t care if you’re sincere to the point of crying, that’s not best—generally—for leading public prayer.
So you don’t have a problem with people writing out prayers?
No, it’s fine. Now, if they read their prayers in a way that’s distracting because it sounds like they’re reading an essay, that’s a problem.
Once we had a staff member who quoted Luther to the Lord, and told the Lord that he was quoting Luther: "Oh, Lord, as Luther once said…" We told him later, "you don’t ever need to tell the Lord who said something again."
So if the person praying doesn’t come across as if they’re reading an essay to God, but that they genuinely perceive themselves to be praying, then I think that it’s fine to have notes or a manuscript.
Earlier you said that when leading corporate prayer, we should pray "We" instead of "I." Any other practical tips for leading the congregation in corporate prayer?
Speak up, speak clearly. If you can’t speak loudly and clearly, you’re just frustrating the old people, and that’s not kind.
Don’t say heretical things.
Try to teach some godly friends in the congregation that it’s a good thing for them to give you feedback—not to judge your relationship with God, but to help you better represent the Lord and teach people by your public prayers. It’s appropriate for you to be humble enough to hear feedback from them.
SUNDAY EVENING PRAYER MEETING
Moving to the Sunday evening prayer service, how are your goals different for the evening service than the morning service as a time of corporate prayer?
People share various things, and I’ll call on various folk to lead us in prayer for those things. So you hear more of a living body since it’s not just the service leaders praying in monologue; it’s a bunch of people praying.
Unlike many prayer services I’ve attended, people don’t raise their hands and say, "Will you pray for this?" Instead, people come to you beforehand. I know it hasn’t always been that way. How did you make that transition?
At first, our church had a normal Wednesday night prayer meeting where one old deacon prayed for all the sick people in the hospital, and then people put up hands and asked for unspoken concerns. So I tried to get them to move from praying about their uncle’s cancer to their own cancer; and then from praying for their own cancer to their own spiritual life; and then from praying about their own spiritual life to their evangelism; and then from their evangelism to the church’s evangelism. My goal has been to move their prayer to the more personal and spiritual, as well as to the corporate.
How did you do that?
I would tell people "no" when they wanted to pray for a sick baby.
Right, okay. Anything else?
I would say, "I’ll pray. Thank you for telling me. Let me encourage you to get your small group to pray, or your friends." When they say, "Can I share tonight?" I’ll say, "Um, no," and then I’d try to explain what I’m trying to do. It’s the one time the church has to get together and pray about things that affect us as a church, so . . .
How did you transition from people raising their hands, "Pastor, will you pray . . . ?" to everybody understanding that they needed to come to you beforehand?
Well, they just saw that that’s what happened. I think that everybody came to understand it pretty easily. And they appreciate it because they benefit from the work you as the pastor do of brush clearing. You’re not going to have one guy talk for seventeen minutes about a situation nobody understands, leaving everyone else struggling in their carnal flesh wishing they could get out of there. People appreciate your work of making sure beforehand that that doesn’t happen.
Somebody comes to you with something heavy on their heart—it’s a neighbor or someone they love who has cancer. Any tips on how to pastorally respond with a "no"?
You pray with them right then. Encourage them in prayer. And ask them questions about their relationship with that person.