Pastoral prayer—the part of the worship service where a pastor stands before the congregation and leads them in prayer as part of the worship service—seems to have fallen on hard times.
By pastoral prayer, I mean a pastor (someone whom has been ordained, and is being paid by the congregation for pastoral ministry; 1 Tim 5:17) praying a deep prayer over/for/with the congregation on the Lord’s Day.
Terry Johnson—who wrote When Grace Comes Alive and When Grace Comes Home (two books about theological prayers), points out that through church history, pastoral prayers have been a mark of healthy churches, but particularly during the Reformation. They are common today because they remain embodied (if neglected) in most liturgical churches.
By deep I mean that the prayer is profound. That it takes some truth of the Bible, or a pair of truths often in tension, and prays through their application. It causes to the congregational prayer to move past the sick list and the immediate, and instead strengthens our understanding of how we relate to God. Of all places, church is the place where people should be exposed to carefully crafted and deep prayers. It is helpful to know that the pool we are in has a deep end, and that it is ok to swim there.
By over/for/with I mean that the prayer draws in the congregation. It is done on their behalf, with them in mind. It exposes the pastor’s heart in a personal way, but beyond that it exposes the pastor’s care for his people. It gives them a window to the pastor’s prayer life, and to specifically how the pastor prays for them. It is with them, in that it draws them in, and they begin praying the same thoughts as well.
Marks of a good pastoral prayer:
- The prayer is about praying. The public prayer grows out of the private prayer life of the pastor. And that private prayer life is in part seeking guidance for how to pray publicly.
- Each prayer has a main doctrinal focus. One theme, or one antimony. One thrust. This helps focus the congregation on that one truth that will cause them to grow in their worship.
- The prayer uses biblical language, often from the passage of Scripture that was just read. It avoids religious jargon, Christianeese, and the word “just.” (As in “we just come before you, and just want you to be here with us, and just be honored by what do.” Never, ever, ever does it use the word “just” unless it is a prefix for “justification.”) It does use terms that are biblical, even if they are not common in English. It is a picture of how the Scripture forms our speech, not the other way around. Puritan Thomas Murphy wrote:
The prayer of the sanctuary should be thoroughly saturated with scriptural thought and expression. The language of the Bible is that which the Spirit prompted, and which must therefore be most in accordance with the mind of God. For the same reason it must be Bible language which is best calculated to express those devotional feelings which are the work of the Spirit in the heart.
This is the pattern in the Bible. The Lord revealed to Moses that he was compassionate and slow to anger (Ex 34:6-7), and those lines appear in prayers throughout the OT (I can find seven different people praying that at least, from Moses to Jonah). Solomon, Mary, Jesus, and Paul all have prayers recorded that are drawing from passages that would have been read in public worship.
- It carefully represents the needs of the congregation before the Lord. It battles doubt, confesses sin in areas general enough to apply to the congregation, but specific enough to be connected to the passage just read.
- It is prepared–even written down (while allowing for spontaneity). In the book, “Preaching and Leading Worship,” Willimon complains about unwritten prayers: “Many of our pastoral prayers are a maze of poorly thought out, confusing clichés, hackneyed expressions, shallow constructions, and formalized, impersonal ramblings.” As far back as the 1800’s, Shedd saw that pastoral prayers were becoming more and more extemporaneous, and he warned against the trend, writing:
In the recoil from the formalism of written and read prayers, Protestants have not paid sufficient attention to an orderly and symmetrical structure in public supplications. Extemporaneous prayer, like extemporaneous preaching, is too often the product of the single instant, instead of devout reflection and premeditation. It might, at first glance, seem that premeditation and supplication are incongruous conceptions; that prayer must be a gush of feeling, without distinct reflection. This is an error. No man, no creature, can pray well without knowing what he is praying for, and whom he is praying to. Everything in prayer, and especially in public prayer, ought to be well considered and well weighed.
- It reinforces the ministry of the Word. It underlines, underscores, and validates the preaching ministry by showing the connection of the congregations need (prayer) to the congregations output (singing), to the congregations input (preaching flowing from the prayer).
- It reinforces the ministry of music. It makes subsequent songs richer, as they flow out of a heart that has just been in personally involved in contemplation and supplication.
The connection between reading and prayer is one of efficacy. Prayers that conform to God’s character and revelation are more apt to conform to his will, and thus more apt to provoke true worship.
In writing this, I’m not arguing for liturgy, or saying that every service should have a prayer in this vein. But if you are a pastor, let me appeal to you to strive for excellence in the way in which you lead your people in prayer.