Whatever happened to congregational prayer?

(Photo: Unsplash/DNK Photo)

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, church services used to include a time of congregational prayer. No, not a 10 second prayer in between the songs but a solid 5 to 10 minutes of concentrated prayer giving praise and presenting requests to the God who hears.

Youth are often stunned when I explain that less than 10 to 20 years ago church services, in most denominations, included a time of praying together in church services. However, today prayer is often not part of a Sunday service but outsourced, much like an Airtasker app outsources domestic chores.

On the menu

For thousands of years church services had a fixed menu of items including songs of praise, offerings for the poor, a Bible reading and unpacking how it points to Jesus, the Lord's Supper/Passover, and prayer. Much theological discussion lay behind the order of these items, however, the menu remained founded upon this Biblical template and its "regulatory principle" for worship services.

For example, some would structure it around 'we speak – God speaks.' That is, we sing, tithe and pray then read the Bible and hear the sermon. Others had a hymn sandwich of 'song – item – song' to keep returning to praise after each item. The point is, different theology always drives the different order, however the menu was the same. So, what is the theology behind removing prayer from Sunday services?

Off the menu

Compare today: many churches have dropped items off the menu. While I have never seen the offering deleted, prayer is the one that is often removed, seen as "too boring" or not fitting in with contemporary music. Some will argue it is not "removed" but just moved to a separate time.

It has been outsourced to the prayer meeting, usually hosted by half-a-dozen faithful saints separate from the service. This "air tasking" of prayer reflects the theology of the church. Many would argue it is really giving prayer its own special time of intense value. This is true. However, it is also true that it shows the devalued value of prayer in a congregation. And there are many reasons for this.

Firstly, if one of the aims of church services is to equip the saints towards love and good deeds, air tasking prayer produces a generation of saints that may never have prayer modelled to them. The removal of prayer from a church service means a member could go their whole life without praying with his/her whole church family.

They have no opportunity to learn and participate in the prayers of God's people. As an example, look at the impact Hannah's prayer had on Mary, (Luke chapter 1 verses 46-551 Samuel chapter 2 verses 1-10) and consider the way Mary's prayer has been used in worship and to build the church today. Congregations should be equipping their members to pray through worship services.

Secondly, we also lose a Kingdom focus of God's rule on earth as in heaven. Church planter DavidJones emphasises "kingdom-centred" congregational prayer. He talks about specific prayers focused on advancing God's kingdom in the world and growing the universal Church. He explains, "It is so easy for us to slip away from that and become preoccupied with our own personal needs and struggles. Of course God cares about that and we should bear one another's burdens in prayer, but ... this message of the kingdom must be taken to every ethnic group and people from every tribe and language brought in. That's what should drive our praying."

Jesus said, "My house shall be called a house of prayer" (Matthew chapter 21 verse 13). Praying as a church body during services helps keep this broader focus on His Kingdom.

Thirdly, if the heart of God is relationships then talking to God is foundational. We do this privately and in small groups, such as our prayer meetings and Connect/Life groups. However, it has been a foundation for the church over the past 2,000 years to pray as a whole family.

To come together and talk to God is part of bringing Him adoration, confessing our sins, giving thanks for His blessings and asking for His help/supplication (A.C.T.S). As Corrie Ten Boom explained, "Prayer should be the steering wheel, not the spare tyre."

Prayer is essential. Few in the church today would argue with this. However, the centrality of prayer in our Sunday worship services has been deleted by air-tasking it out of the service. Outsourcing congregational prayer robs the saints of learning how to pray and learning about the God that invites prayer.