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.