Most of us evangelicals know that we’re not brought into God’s presence by singing songs over and over again until our eyes roll into the backs of our heads. And we know we’re not brought into God’s presence by sitting in a stone building with colourful windows. Instead, most of us evangelicals know that we’re brought into God’s presence by Jesus, his death, resurrection and ascension, and the pouring out of his Holy Spirit. We know that our whole lives are spent in the presence of God and that we should offer everything to God. We know that meeting together on earth as a church is an expression of the heavenly reality that we’re all united to Jesus. We know that church is all about the gospel—the good news about Jesus.
But how do we express that when we’re assembled? How do we express that what we’re doing together is a function of the gospel? There are many things that are helpful, but I’d like us to focus on just one particular thing: prayer.
Prayer and the gospel
Praying together in church is a brilliant way of expressing the centrality of the gospel in our life together. Prayer exemplifies the gospel. Prayer appropriates the gospel. And prayer is an appropriate response to the gospel. Let me explain.
Firstly, prayer exemplifies the gospel. The very shape of Christian prayer is an expression of the gospel. Any time we pray to the Father in the name of the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, we’re exemplifying the gospel—we’re utilizing the access to the Father won for us by Jesus and mediated to us through the Spirit. This is a great thing for us to do together (cf. Heb 10:19-25).
Secondly, prayer is also the way we appropriate the gospel. Take a prayer where we confess our sin, thank God that Jesus has done what it takes to forgive us, and then actually ask him to forgive us. Not only does this describe and teach the gospel, it’s a way for us to receive the benefits of the gospel personally (cf. 1 John 1:8-2:2).
Thirdly, prayer is also a very appropriate response to the gospel. In 1 Timothy 1:7, the Apostle Paul has a whinge about some teachers who don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to God’s law. They think it’s something you can obey, forgetting that it’s been given to sinners who can’t obey God’s law (1:9-10). Paul reminds Timothy that the essence of the gospel message is God’s grace to sinners (1:15). He then goes on to talk about how they should respond: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people” (2:1). So for grace people—that is, people who realize that the Christian life is all about what God does for us—prayer should be our first and most natural response to our God.
Prayer exemplifies the gospel. Prayer appropriates the gospel. And prayer should be our appropriate response to the gospel. That is why it makes sense that prayer be central to what we do together.
Prayer and the church
Historically, evangelicals have been good at making prayer a central part of what we do together. This emphasis on prayer is reflected in our evangelical heritage in places like the Book of Common Prayer. The prayer book services (which are shamelessly copied in the Presbyterian Book of Common Order) are built around hearing God’s word and prayer.
As evangelicals, prayer has been and should be a central element of our corporate worship. This is why I was so disappointed when I attended a very well-regarded evangelical church while on a holiday a couple of years ago: the singing was nice, the Bible was read and faithfully explained, there was an interesting missionary presentation, but there was no formal time of prayer. The only prayers during the service were short, extempore offerings from a song leader who was long on hair, but short on theology. He prayed prayers that told Jesus how much we love him. His were prayers that I would describe as ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ prayers, but that are much better described by CH Spurgeon as “an unhallowed and sickening superabundance of endearing words” (p. 56).1 I’m no great fan of tradition (nor am I an Anglican), but I have to say, give me an old-fashioned prayer book service over that rot any day of the week!
Prayer and the pray-er
So how should we pray in church? There’s obviously plenty that could be said on this subject (and I recommend CH Spurgeon’s chapter on public prayer in Lectures To My Students, which is a more in-depth discussion than this one). But I have five simple suggestions.
1. Pray all kinds of prayers (cf. Phil 4:6)
In traditional evangelical services (as reflected in the prayer book and so on), there are two main formal times of prayer. The first involves a prayer of adoration and confession. Adoration is where we praise God: we tell him how great he is; we remember the great things he’s done; and we remember that he’s worthy of all our praise, honour, obedience and love (cf. Rev 4:11).
Confession, which neatly flows from adoration, is where we acknowledge that we haven’t given God the praise, honour, obedience and love he deserves (cf. Rom 3:10-12). We then say sorry to God and ask for forgiveness. We also remember that through Jesus, we have forgiveness. Such a prayer might also end by asking God, through his Holy Spirit, to enable us to start living for God as we should.
I reckon that these kinds of prayers of adoration and confession are excellent prayers to pray in church. They beautifully express and appropriate the gospel. In fact, if you turned Two Ways to Live into a prayer, it would look a lot like this sort of prayer.
The second time of prayer in a traditional evangelical service involves a prayer of thanksgiving and supplication. In thanksgiving, we thank God for all the good things he’s given to us. In supplication, we ask God for things.
Again, I would argue prayers of thanks and supplication are excellent kinds of prayers to pray in church. Jesus himself wasn’t too impressed with ungrateful people (cf. Luke 17:11-19), and it seems to me that people of the gospel of grace should surely be thankful people. In addition, saying that we rely on God but then not asking him for anything seems, at best, counterproductive.
I think it’s vital to pray different kinds of prayers in church. For this reason, in our church, our general rule is to keep to the tradition of having these two formal times of prayer that incorporate these four kinds of prayer. I don’t think it’s necessary to follow the tradition, but it does help to include different kinds of prayers during our time together.
2. Pray wide
I used to have the great privilege of meeting one-to-one with a very mature Christian man each week to pray and chat about life and ministry. One time I asked him about his prayer life: I said, “What do you pray about?”. He said, “You’ll laugh when you hear this, but I pray for big things. I pray for things like the transformation of western civilization from a post-Enlightenment focus on the individual to a focus on relationship with God and with community.” I didn’t laugh—not even after I’d looked up all the words in a dictionary. I was impressed. Furthermore, his words made me want to cry at the narrow, self-centred poverty of my own prayers.
So now I pray for big stuff—not just on my own, but in church. I pray for an end to world poverty. I pray for the downfall of Islam. I pray that God will grant repentance and faith to billions of people in China and India. I pray for all the governments of the world—that they will serve their people with integrity. I pray for an end to greed, war and environmental degradation. I pray for our government and for Australians to be changed so that they will want to hear about Jesus. It’s big stuff. But God is a big God; I think he can handle it.
3. Pray narrow
The only problem with big prayers is that they can be very general. In addition, God isn’t just a God of big stuff; he’s the sort of God who counts the hairs on people’s heads (Matt 10:30). That’s why I think it’s great when people pray the sort of prayers that talk about specific people and their particular needs. It’s a way of rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn (cf. Rom 12:15), and it’s a beautiful expression of our love and concern for each other.
I remember hearing a prayer at church a few weeks ago. There were a number of tragic situations occurring in our church at the time, and the person who lead us in prayer prayed with detailed knowledge, deep concern and real faith. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and we came away feeling like we’d done worthwhile business with God.
4. Pray long
It can be hard to concentrate on other people’s prayers (not to mention our own), and most good value evangelicals have a right and a deeply felt phobia of being boring. But I think that only keeping to short prayers will impoverish our congregations. I don’t think that we can seriously pray for ourselves, our families, our church, our community, our country and our world in 50 words or less. I don’t think we can pray informed, valuable, caring prayers from a list the size of the back of a postage stamp. I think we need to push our congregations to get used to longer prayers (assuming our next point—that is, that they’re well prepared).
Spurgeon wrote that “ten minutes is a better limit than fifteen” for a prayer (p. 61). His view was that, between the two formal prayers, prayers shouldn’t exceed 20 minutes. In our age, where our brains have been destroyed by TV, I think this is probably still way too much.
What I’m about to say is purely my own experience, but I find that I need around 400-500 words for a first prayer and around 800-900 for a second prayer. I’ve heard shorter prayers that were boring, and longer prayers that were riveting, but for me, that seems to be about the right length.
5. Let the Spirit work in your preparation
Spurgeon believed that true prayer in church should be done without notes. He writes that “free prayer is the most scriptural, and should be the most excellent form of public supplication” (p. 54). He says that you need to let the Spirit “warm your soul with hallowed fire in the hour of congregational prayer” (p. 69), and that this happens better if you let the Spirit lead you at the time.
Although I don’t like disagreeing with Spurgeon, my experience is that the Holy Spirit seems to work through me much better in the quiet of my study than in the busyness of the Sunday meeting: I use less trite phrases, I am more economical with my language, I am less repetitious, and I am better informed.
My other experience is that I find most people’s extempore prayers excruciating to listen to. Spurgeon himself said that written prayers “have no better apology than the feebleness of extemporaneous devotions” (p. 55). I think that, all things considered, for most people, if you’re going to pray for more than about 30 seconds, you need to write down what you say. I’ve tried extempore prayers in church, I’ve tried using notes, I’ve tried writing my prayers out, and I’ve found that my prayers come out much better when I follow the third option. It takes a long time, but it’s time well invested.
So my encouragement to you is to set aside at least an hour to prepare. Write it down. Try to come up with something logical and structured. That will make it easier for people to stay with you. God’s Holy Spirit can and will work through your diligent and faithful preparation.
Church is about the gospel. We believe that, and we ought to express it in what we do together. Prayer is one of the best ways to exemplify, appropriate and respond to the gospel. So let’s get praying together. Let’s, as the Apostle Paul put it, “continue steadfastly in prayer” (Col 4:2).
- How would you describe the culture of prayer in your church? What do you think has caused it to be this way?
- If the gospel is about God’s goodness in the death and resurrection of Jesus, which brings us into the presence of God our Father and allows us to speak to him about anything, how does the gospel challenge your and your church’s prayers? What should you change?
- What are some ‘big prayers’ that you and your church should start praying?
- Thank and praise God for the forgiveness and life found in Jesus, and for the privilege of calling him Father.
- Ask God to forgive you and your brothers and sisters in Christ. In particular, ask him to forgive you for mistreating his gift of prayer, and ask him to help you become a more faithful pray-er.
- Pray some of the ‘big prayers’ you identified in question 3.
- CH Spurgeon, Lectures To My Students, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1954. All page numbers are taken from this edition. ↩