December 18, 2014

The Evangelical Liturgy 18: The Prayers Of The People

lpSee Dennis Bratcher’s excellent article on “The Prayers of the People” in liturgy. A full tutorial on different kinds of prayers, litanies, collects, etc is available from ELC Canada.

The idea of congregational “prayer requests” in a worship service is enough to cause anyone orchestrating a seeker service to run screaming from a planning meeting.

In my own tradition, asking for verbal prayer requests runs a real risk of killing any gathering in which it occurs. One will very likely hear “too much information” about medical procedures, family problems and various situations where God’s intervention is required. The focus of prayer is rarely anything other than personal and medical. If one is a visitor in such a situation, these kinds of enumerations can provide an instant reason to never return.

Of course, a community of faith does pray together, and prayer concerns can span the gamut of human experiences, from the sublime to the trivial to the ridiculous. It is not commendable to say a church is a community of strangers who do not grieve together or do not feel the brokenness of life together.

Liturgy should teach people to pray. The most basic of liturgical functions is to craft the thoughts, words and heart-expressions of a people into an act of worship.

When I first began visiting liturgical churches, I have to admit I was quite surprised at the amount of time given over to prayer for various concern and how orderly those prayers were managed. It was remarkable compared to the medical and gossipy free for all I was used to.

For example, in a Presbyterian church I often visit, prayer requests are placed in the offering plate, immediately removed by the ushers/deacons, brought forward and given to the minister who incorporates them into the pastoral prayer. Like good Presbyterians, it’s all very orderly.

In the Episcopal church I visit in my home town, intercessory prayer is a complete subset of the worship service, starting with a prescribed litany of prayer concerns and continuing into a time of sharing the names and situations of persons being remembered in prayer. Apparently, it is possible to simply say, “Pray for Gary Garrett in the hospital for cancer treatment,” and for the congregation to say “We pray to the Lord.” No elaboration needed.

In my Baptist church experience, prayer requests are frequently long speeches of graphic detail that seem to say “I know more than anyone else here;” i.e. a kind of competition in community know-it-allness. Well motivated, but quite dysfunctional as an act of worship.

I now have come to appreciate the “Prayers of the People” as a valuable and attractive part of the Catholic/Anglican/Lutheran liturgical tradition that can actually discipline Protestants to be more intentional, efficient and even theologically consistent in the use of prayer requests in worship.

The real jump for Protestants and Evangelicals here is the role of the prayer leader. At “prayer request time,” many worship leaders become very casual and conversational, an asset in many settings. The more formal “Prayers of the People” tradition keeps the worship leader is “liturgical leadership” mode and does not invite casual conversation.

In the Presbyterian church where I often lead worship, I have a “liturgy” of my own at this part of the service. I come to the level of the congregation. We have brief mentions of prayer concerns. We have silence, pastoral prayer and the Lord’s Prayer. This is a meaningful part of the service. I do become “more casual,” but not in a way that signals we have lost the worship focus. Placing prayers of the people in the context of other prayers is helpful. This is not right out of the “prayer book,” but it works well in a small congregation.

I realize that in some churches, sheer numbers make individual participation in the “Prayers of the People” impossible. I doubt that a church of more than a 300 could pull it off meaningfully. I would still consider a “Prayers” portion of the liturgy to be important. (Pentecostals or Youth ministers who want to divide into groups and prayer with your neighbors, calm down.)

Many evangelicals have a “Prayer Meeting” as a weekly worship service, though this is largely vanishing. Making such services meaningful and not tedious or gossipy is a challenge. Other churches will place this kind of prayer entirely in small groups.

Liturgical resources for incorporating intercessory prayer into the liturgy are common in most prayer books. These will broaden out the prayer concerns and help congregations think about the full menu of intercessory concerns.

Comments

  1. Wednesday night prayer services for us had gotten tedious to say the least. The youth used that night to go to their classes, so it was mostly just a handful of the faithful. I certainly don’ t mind preaching to a small crowd, in fact, I’m not sure now I could preach to a large one, but we were having mid-week Prayer service with very little prayer. So we have started doing the following service once a month. It is a start. Sorry about taking so much space. It is hymns, scripture readings, and prayes.

    Evening Prayer Service

    Welcome/Hymn

    Psalms 95:1-6 Pastor

    Prayer of Thanksgiving

    Hymn

    I John 1:8-10 Pastor
    Prayer of Repentance

    Hymn

    Acts 3:1-8 Pastor

    Prayer of Healing for the Sick and Afflicted

    Hymn

    Mark 16:9-16 Pastor

    Prayer for the Lost, and the Spread of the Gospel

    Announcements

    The Lord bless the, and keep thee: the Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: the Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give the peace. Amen. Num 6:24-27

  2. I like the idea of having one person (pastor, lay leader) offer prayer for the people and naming names/situations in a concise manner. But the casual “free for all” you mention definitely seems to degenerate into an unpleasant situation very rapidly. We’re not just robots, we’re real people with real problems so bringing those concerns into corporate prayer can be a powerful demonstration of the fact that we care for each other and God cares for us. However, as with so many other issues in this series, I think it comes down to where our focus is in a corporate worship service. If our focus is to worship God and keep all attention on Him, rather than on having times to chat and be friendly, times for whoever wants to to share the latest goings on in their lives, etc, then I believe we’ll find the right balance. Even passing the peace and walking all around the church to shake hands, talk, etc to me distracts our focus from God—-there’s plenty of time for conversation, for fellowship, for interpersonal sharing of specific needs in detail, etc outside of the primary worship service. But really, what other time is there in the week to come together as a body and focus ONLY on God and direct all thoughts to Him and not ourselves?

  3. A common practice in Catholic prayer settings (outside Mass), where people bring up needs to be prayed for, is to say “For a private intention”. This is expected when personal medical, family, or other sensitive/private needs are being brought up for prayer.

    It avoids placing intercessors in the possible position of listening out of inappropriate curiosity (the sin of gossip works both ways), and encourages others, by example, to keep private things private.

  4. In my tradition (Episcopal), the problem is almost the opposite of what you are saying here: prayers were just a boring, dry time to get through before the Peace. How do you make them lively and living for people who have heard the form a zillion times?

    I always loved crafting the prayers of the people. One thing that was important was finding spaces in the prayers where people could include their own prayers. I almost always included the phrase “either silently or allowed.” One thing that was useful was having a prayer leader who wasn’t afraid of silence, allowing the prayers to breathe a little, allowing people to find their own words.

    Another part of the prayers that was always a challenge was finding prayers of thanksgiving. Why is that so hard? The Book of Common Prayer has a wonderful litany of thanksgiving and I often used that as a starting point. A couple of favorite lines:

    For minds to think, and hearts to love, and hands to serve,
    We thank you, Lord.

    For health and strength to work, and leisure to rest and play,
    We thank you, Lord.

    I always tried to pay attention to local news when writing the prayers since that was often what was on people’s minds even when they didn’t quite know that was on their minds. The prayers in the Episcopal Church can often be quite dry and I was pleased when the responses showed that the prayers did in fact articulate the prayers of the people. It was always challenging, though. Probably how it should be.

    • “One thing that was useful was having a prayer leader who wasn’t afraid of silence”

      I echo that sentiment. In other places in services as well, sometimes it’s nice not to have to fill every moment with talk or music and just have a chance to be still.

    • SIlence has its own post coming in this series.

      • Christiane says:

        Michael, I hope you will address the reasons that some fundamentalist Christians oppose ‘silence’ and any forms of silent reflection on the Word of God. This is something that is so confusing to many who are not in that tradition. Thanks if you can.

      • Great, I hope you will have some Quaker Quotes! (I know it’s bad). In my times of leading prayer I have found the best way to keep people from being to “talkative” in their prayers is to have times of silence between each prayer request. It take longer but people seem to see the need to keep their prayers shorter & to the point. But I always error on the side of people sharing their concerns & prayers, wordy or not.

  5. I once attended an OP Church. The litany of prayers for my neighbour’s best friend’s daughter’s uncle were legion; we seldom truly prayed for ourselves, or each other, and, when we did, it was about hangnails and such-like.

    Prayer either invites transparency (forgive us our sin…meet our daily needs…) or camoflauge (forgive them their sin…meet their needs…according to Your good will). And, yes, gossip. Having come from a Catholic background, the litany of generalities (Lord, hear our prayer) moving to the specific (for the repose of her soul…and the grief of her family…) helped to forestall this; although it can become rote and meaningless unless one disciplines oneself to the work of prayer. As Jesus said, “WHEN you pray” not “IF you pray”. Prayer is a pre-requisite in our lives, not an elective.

    I find, in Sunday Morning Worship, the conversational type of prayer to be rather presumptuous: “Daddy God? We’re here to just love on You…” followed by a Christmas List of stuff we want. :sigh: Maybe it’s just me, but as a Presbyterian, even in a young, somewhat immature congregation, shouldn’t there be some awareness of God as transcendent as well as immanent? That whilst we are approaching Him boldly because of Christ, He is still God of the Universe? How to strike the balance between Kingship and Father?

    But I digress…although I wonder if the British Royals have a similar problem at home…

  6. Good post.

    The free-for-all prayer time that you mentioned can indeed take away from the service. Sometimes it even seems a bit irreverent. And some requests do get too detailed. I’ve been made uncomfortable hearing about so-and-so’s drinking problem, divorce, issues with ______, etc… A lot of that should be kept in the prayer closet.

  7. Don in Phoenix says:

    As an Episcopalian, I find the Prayers of the People can be either meaningful or not, and a lot of it has to do with the personality and skill of the leader. My congregation has one prayer leader that has a tendency to a “heavy handed” reading of the Prayers, emphasizing pronouns, as in “In peace, we pray to YOU, Lord God,” “We pray for the special needs and concerns of THIS congregation,” or “Hear OUR prayer.”

    Currently, we’ve been multitasking, using Form VI in the BCP, which incorporates an abbreviated corporate confession at the end, so the Celebrant’s closing collect pretty much has to be a statement of absolution rather than my personal favorite,

    Almighty God, to whom our needs are known before we ask, help us to ask only what accords with your will; and those good things which we dare not, or in our blindness cannot ask, grant us for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN. (BCP, p. 394)

    In some sense, I prefer the Lutheran way, where the Pastor leads the prayers and can incorporate the specific needs of the congregation AND a response to the sermon, or the lofty pastoral prayers of the Presbyterian and Pentecostal traditions – but the BCP Prayers of the People are intentionally rich in congregational participation, and cover all the scriptural bases of things we’re supposed to pray for, including (in most cases) civil government.

  8. Any of you that have never had any experience with the Indepenant Baptist Fundie practice of prayer meaning that when you pray everybody prays at the same time and each person tries to pray louder and longer than the person next to him have really missed something

    p.s. Imonk, why is my earlier comment in mod? is it b/c of the scripture links or something?

    • Of course that is common practice in charismatic circles, except that there you don’t understand what everyone else is praying. It is also common in (non-charistmatic) Korean churches. In other groups I have been to one person prays and everyone else “Amens” and moans and groans and sighs.

      In non-charismatic evangelical circles here in Austria, only a very subdued version of that last description or complete silence from everyone but the one praying are the only acceptable forms — everything else brands you as one given to unhealthy enthusiasm.

    • I have, and I much prefer the Prayers of the People at my Anglican Church. Members can call the church office with personal prayer requests. Certain ones (people in the hospital, people who died) will be in the Prayers of the People. Other requests go on the church prayer chain, the Daughters of the King prayer list, and the Order of St. Luke prayer list. I’ve NEVER heard any gossiping about prayer requests at our church.

      Everyone who needs prayer, gets prayed for. No one is shanghaied to listen to details they don’t want or need to hear.

  9. Jonathan Hunnicutt says:

    I think that we need to have a good balance between scripted prayers and the more informal prayers for specific needs and specific issues.

    So I’m going to an Anglican church right now, and I love the prayers of the people. I love that we ‘cover all the bases.’ We pray for all kinds of stuff like the environment and mission work, health, those grieving, etc. We brought my wife’s family the other day, and they just lost a grandmother a few months ago. We we prayed for those grieving it struck me how wonderful it is to know that the church was praying with them and for them, even if in a programmatic way. Most of the churches I know don’t often do that.

    Yet, the mostly charismatic church that I was going to before I moved also had a decent tradition of prayer. The pastoral prayer was supposed to address the specific needs of the congregation and also the needs of the world. We always tried to pick out a specific nation to pray for. each week. Or we used the news to pray about specific issues and bring things to light. So during the whole Chris Brown/Rihanna thing, we prayed about domestic violence for several weeks. I thought that was a good thing, and brought up all kinds of issues for us to work through as a community. [I realize that many charismatic churches don’t handle things that well, but my church was pretty special.]

    So I ultimately think we need to find a way to do both. I think we ought to use a more formalized prayer (like the Anglicans) to hit all kinds of issues, with perhaps an abbreviated pastoral prayer for current issues. I think iMonk is close to getting that balance right.

  10. I agree fully that prayer meeting services can VERY easily become gossipy or tedious. But at our church we are feeling a strong desire to start some form of prayer ministry. Does anybody have any suggestions about how to do this (SBC church) while avoiding the gossip and tedium? Any tips from people who have accomplished this successfully will be appreciated.

    A buddy of mine recently visited a PCUSA and brought me back the bulletin. He said he was quite astonished by the order of service item that the bulletin described as “prayers of the people”. He said that at that time in the service, the entire congregation began to pray together, out loud and spontaneously. He said if it hadn’t been in English he’d of thought he was in a pentecostal church. After a few minutes of this it died down and the minister said some closing prayers. Is anybody familiar with this form of the prayers of the people? Is this a uniquely Presbyterian way of doing it?

    • I take it that by “prayer ministry” you mean some kind of prayer gathering or gatherings outside the normally scheduled church services. When it comes to that, there are, of course, lots of different things a church can do, but, personally, I’ve found that very small, very focused prayer groups are the most effective and meaningful. By small, I mean around five or less, and certainly no more than ten per group. I don’t know how big your church is as far as membership or how many rooms you have in your facility — but if prayer groups that small wouldn’t work in your building all at the same time, you might consider cell prayer groups in homes at various times throughout the week. And I think it would be a good idea to make sure that every group includes at least one mature Christian who is experienced in and dedicated to prayer to serve as leader or facilitator — that way the groups can function as a form of discipleship and training in how to pray and how to pray with others. Besides, a group of entirely inmature Christians will likely just make a show of praying and spend most of their time chit-chatting.
      As far as the gossipy thing, I don’t see anything wrong with addressing that upfront and out in the open — and the group leaders can also steer things back on track if they start to get too tedious or gossipy. I think learning to pray according to the elements of the Lord’s Prayer — not reciting it word for word, but following it as a model for good prayer — is an excellent place to start. Some other cool prayer experiements I’ve participated in include corporate prayer focused on praise and thanksgiving, learning to pray thoroughly for each important issue before moving on to something else, prayer sessions that are part listening to what the Spirit might be saying and then praying out loud according to what you think you’re hearing, and what I call the “hot seat”, where people take turns sitting in a chair in the middle of a circle, share something they need prayer for, and then the rest lay hands on and pray for this person regarding this specific issue.
      If you should form prayer groups like I’ve described, I would advise church leadership not to try to micromanage everything that goes on in them — but rather leave some space for each group to take on a life and direction of its own.
      And if what I’ve described here is a little too “out there” for your church, then feel free to disregard it and seek something more conventional.

  11. In the Catholic Church that I attend, after the priest has led the prayer where we pray for the bishop, the Pope, parts of the world in crisis and other things, he asks people to say if they have special requests. People will usually keep it brief, but I don’t usually know who the people are that we are praying for. And sometimes people bring politics into it and I don’t like that. Even though I don’t mind a big general prayer like “Prayers for the people suffering because of the earthquake” it kind of bothers me to hear the specific requests naming someone that I don’t know. I kind of feel like I am not really praying for that person. I am just saying the words. I WANT the person to be well, but I feel I like I need some kind of personal connection to that person to really be praying for that person. They recently did some scientific tests where they had a bunch of people pray for a sick person they did not know and nothing happened. Yet, if they took one spouse and had them even THINK of the other spouse, they were able to measure some kind of reaction in the spouse who was thought about.

    I know that Jesus could heal anyone, anywhere, any time, but he KNEW all those people. I would like to feel that my prayers could help to heal or comfort someone I don’t know in a place I can’t see, but I really wonder if that is the case, at least for me. But I will continue praying. I certainly see no harm in these kinds of prayers or in the prayers for the world at large. At the very least, they can help to form us as caring, concerned human beings, if nothing else.

    • L. Winthrop says:

      “They recently did some scientific tests where they had a bunch of people pray for a sick person they did not know and nothing happened.”

      Prayer Studies show various results (the most recent was negative–prayer is slightly harmful!), which in my opinion are consistent with what we would expect from chance.

      But then, I disagree with the assumptions of the whole project, which sees prayer as something which somehow enables God to do his work (as if he needed to be reminded or empowered). The implications are that God cares more for famous people (who have a lot of people praying for them) than unknowns.

  12. One Lutheran minister at a church I used to attend would sometimes invite the congregation to offer “sentence prayers” during the corporate prayer time. Other times he simply did all the talking, so to speak. It was nice for variety and that gentle reminder about “sentence” prayers did I think make a difference in helping people concentrate their thought or request down into one line.

  13. I find that a large part of me wants to be liturgical but another part of me still doesn’t get it and its the prayer part that I have the most trouble with. I went to a daily mass this morning at an EC church, and while I liked the idea of “the prayers of people”, I found it difficult to actually pray in that formula. I also thought of my wife (raised 4-square) and I don’t think she would want to do the same repetitious prayers week in and week out. Now I recognize that any formula for worship can become stale if the heart is not it, but the prayers of the people just felt way too rote. Everything else about the service I liked, I’m just not sure that it will work for my family or church… and that really bugs me b/c I am desperately looking for something that involves people in worship. ARGH!

    • Breendan, I hear you brother! I find my mind drifting from time to time during repetitive parts of the Holy Liturgy in my Lutheran church.

      I have found however that the structure can be very useful as a tool to help me focus and overcome this problem. I have found often that repetition, such as the Our Father and the creeds can hit me differently depending on the “moveable” parts of the liturgy. For example if that sunday happens to be the sunday where we commemorate the Circumcision of Our Lord, then often parts of the repetitive stuff strike me as though I had never really heard them before.

      I find this strange and interesting to observe in myself because I am 53 years old and have been a Lutheran with the same liturgy heard over and over all my life. you would really not imagine that anything new would be found would one., but it happens. alot. Now I hear the same liturgy in portuguese, and that is a wonderful reminder of the unity in the Holy Sprit, I occasionally am moved to tears at rather ordinary points in the liturgy when certain things hit me in a new way because of how they are justaposed against the lectionary reading or hymns selected that day.

  14. In my Lutheran experience in a typically small congregation of about 110 in attendence we called that prayer the “Intercessory prayer”. We call it that, because we believe that for the world we are all priests and are to come before God as intermediaries on behalf of the world and those who do not know him or believe in him yet.

    The prayer always starts out very broad and systematically narrows to government then local community then our congregation then individuals. Near the end the pastor would pause and people could call out the names of people and perhaps an additional bit , like “peter, my son, fighting in iraq” or “sally my friend diagnosed recently with cancer” or simply “john”.

    If someone told the pastor or parish administrator in advance, then the administrator would send off a note or email informing that person we had prayed for them. The pastor would make a point also of praying for a sister congregation in the LCMS and also one of our missionaries. We would also then let them know that they had been in our prayers that sunday.

    It seemed to be a wonderful practice that was extremely helpful, comforting and organized that chaos of the problems of the world that called us to pray.

  15. L. Winthrop says:

    I saw an “open” prayer format which to some of those described above, though it was not solely intercessory. This was at an Episcopal church with a congregation of 100 or so.

    Anyone who had something to pray about, or give thanks for, could state it briefly, and then the congration would follow either with “The Lord have mercy” (if it was something bad) or “Thanks be to God” (if it was something good).

    Once when a man reported that his daughter had just become a teenager–having passed her thirteenth birthday–the congregation automatically responded with “The Lord have mercy” before the priest corrected them with “Thanks be to God!”

    • That last sentence is very funny, L Winthrop! Thanks for the chuckle.

    • I have been thru a service where they used the “open” prayer format you have described and after the prayer request the congregation would SING “Lord hear our prayers”, I thought it was very beautiful way to present our prayer. i felt like I was in a musical!

  16. During ‘musical interlude,’ those desiring prayers (of any sort) meet with one of 1-3 prayer leaders and sotto voce make their requests. At end of interlude, ea leader leads a prayer incorporating all the individual requests received. Works fairly well – minimizes disruption and levels out the odd ‘too much info’ bits and suchlike.

  17. My wife and I started going to our AMiA church 5 years ago from a free church tradition. Prayers of the People has been a particularly fulfilling part of our experience there. Lay people read that liturgy and invite the congregation to participate either silently or out loud after each section. Sometimes no one prays out loud, and some times many do. We pray for the church, for the world, for our leaders, for those in need, and give the Lord praise. The hardest part of leading prayers is really taking the time to be silent. In our former church time for silent prayer was always accompanied by music and was relatively short. It is a real blessing to share these prayer times with the larger body.

  18. Whenever I have a deacon serving with me, it becomes his role to offer these prayers. My preference at smaller gatherings is to have the people offer their own brief prayers, but in larger gatherings I would prefer the deacon to view them ahead of time and edit them for “TMI” syndrome.

    Most folks I minister to, either in the hospital or in parish settings, are flamiliar with the process, and they are usually very good about it.

    Teaching good, solid, intercessory prayer skills to our youth is also vital.

    Rob+

  19. I just got back from a men’s retreat where we did a really cool exercise in prayer. Present at the retreat were men from several different church fellowships in several different states, so there were a lot of guys that had never met each other before. The exercise involved pairing off with someone you didn’t know and then interviewing each other (in a casual, conversational way) about each others’ lives — starting with basic stuff (What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do for a living?) and then working toward deeper spiritual matters about our personal journeys with God, what God has done in our lives in the past, what’s going on now, what direction do we feel God might be leading us, and what kinds of things do we struggle with the most in our relationship with Christ. After the interviews, we each spent some time praying with and for each other using the information gleaned from the interviews.
    I’m not sure this would work too well in a typical church service — certainly not one of the highly liturgical variety — but in a mixed gathering with a more relaxed format, I thought it was an excellent way to practice meaningful prayer while breaking the ice and getting to know a new friend in Christ.