Let’s talk about corporate prayer. Houston, we’ve got a problem.
Yes, I know it is dangerous to hold oneself out as an expert on anything related to prayer. My true confession is that I’m a whole lot better at praying in public than in private. Probably an occupational hazard.
What drives me around the bend is not so much a theological problem — although I have some of those related to prayer — but a basic communications challenge. Corporate prayer is supposed to be just that, corporate.
When we are called upon to represent others in prayer — whether a congregation or a family gathering — we must set aside the “I” language of private prayer and embrace the “we” language of the group. We are speaking to the divine on behalf of everyone gathered along with us, not just letting everyone else eavesdrop on our private prayer life.
Is this just being nit-picky? I don’t think so. Imagine any other scenario in which you are the designated spokesperson for a group of people — maybe at work or in the family or community. With people surrounding you, eager to hear you articulate their participation in whatever the issue may be, imagine their disappointment if you speak only of what “I think” or “I want.” They are left out. “I” is about you, not them.
By this point, some of you are swearing off ever praying in public again for fear I’ll come make fun of you. I don’t intend to scare anyone off but to help us all live into a more natural way of speaking. When we can embody the needs and hopes of the group and voice those before the divine presence, we do tremendously important work.
“When we can embody the needs and hopes of the group and voice those before the divine presence, we do tremendously important work.”
I sat through hours of the Southern Baptist Convention last week and heard oh, so many prayers. Dear God in heaven, so many prayers. And not to pick on Southern Baptists, this is a universal problem for any religious group that doesn’t rely solely on a prayer book. So many “professional Christians” give no thought to the words coming out of their mouths. They just jabber, endlessly. Sound and fury signifying nothing.
So many repetitive words, usually along the lines of “we just come to you today” or “Heavenly Father” over and over and over. I can imagine God saying in reply: “I know who I am already! I’m still here. Get on with it!”
In my experience, 90% of corporate prayer is intended to be intercessory prayer. That means prayer that asks for God’s intervention and help for ourselves and for others. There are other forms of prayer that most often are appropriate in private settings or even small group guided meditations. Those might include praying Scripture or declaring the greatness of God or repeating short phrases multiple times.
Especially on Sunday mornings and in other church group settings, though, we’re not usually leading in meditative or mystical prayer. We’re called upon to lead the congregation in intercession. That calls for language such as “grant that we might,” “help us, Lord” or “reach down and touch those who are hurting” or “bless these gathered.”
I’ve previously written about the dangers of Sneak-a-Preach. That’s when a church leader uses any element of worship that’s not supposed to be a sermon to insert a mini-sermon anyway. Most often this happens in corporate prayer. A good diagnostic question to ask is this: “Does my prayer sound like a sermon about God or a petition to God?”
And while we’re on Sunday mornings, I have another burr in my saddle that I’m sure will anger some of my preaching friends. I’m bothered when preachers believe they are so special that every other prayer planned and spoken in corporate worship has not been sufficient to bless their sermon. Thus, after all the prayers of the people, and hopefully after all the prayers spoken during a week of sermon preparation, they insist on beginning the sermon with their own prayer for themselves.
As a telling note, these start-of-sermon prayers always use “I” or “me” language, seldom “we” language. “Bless my words,” “Bless my speech.”
Now, I know some of you preachers have been taught to do this in seminary. But could you consider the possibility that your preaching teacher was wrong? Even if your heart is pure in this practice, here’s how it looks to those in the congregation and especially to anyone who already has led in worship: That preacher just wants to draw attention to himself or herself and show how pious they are. Were our previous prayers not good enough?
“Dear preacher, we don’t need to pause and watch you genuflect at the 50-yard line before the ball is snapped.”
Dear preacher, we don’t need to pause and watch you genuflect at the 50-yard line before the ball is snapped. We trust you’ve been prayed up before you got to the pulpit, and we know others have prayed for you as well. Please just preach the sermon in true humility, not teed up by a pietistic performance masquerading as humility.
Can you imagine any other worship leader doing such a thing? What if the minister of music stopped and prayed a public prayer that she would be inspired to lead the music? What if the choir huddled together for a pre-anthem prayer to make sure God would bless their song? What if the Scripture reader refused to read the passage without first praying for clear speech?
For the preacher to claim this special, self-centered prayer privilege in worship signals that the spoken word is the main event of worship and everything else is just window dressing. Yet many times, those who attend worship may be blessed by the music or the Scripture readings more than the sermon. And no amount of pre-sermon prayer posturing will change that.
Back to corporate prayer for the rest of us. Even if you want to be spontaneous in prayer, consider the benefits of at least jotting some notes about the main things you want to cover. There’s nothing wrong with a written prayer, in my book, but if that’s too stiff for you, at least give yourself some prompts. That way you’ll be sure to say what you want to say and won’t be distracted by fear that your memory is failing.
There is beauty in hearing a prayer that gathers up all the pains and possibilities of the body, that gives a unified voice to diverse people. But that requires thoughtfulness.
Think of it this way: Would you go to make a petition before the governor or Congress or the president or even the school board without preparing in advance what you’re going to say? Absolutely not.
How much greater a responsibility is it to intercede before the divine Creator and carry the burdens of those around you? That’s a task that definitely requires advance planning and a careful choice of words.
It might even require some advance prayer for guidance.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global.
Beware of the ‘Sneak-a-Preach’ | Opinion by Mark Wingfield
A response to Tish Harrison Warren about livestreaming worship | Analysis by Rick Pidcock
I’d rather swim than worship | Opinion by Bill Wilson