Ordained Servant: October 2014
Also in this issue
by Gregory E. Reynolds
by Jeffrey B. Wilson
by Dennis E. Johnson
by David A. Booth
by John Donne (1572–1631)
by Eutychus II
Prayer meetings are vital to the church. However, prayer meetings can be difficult to manage. Most who have led prayer meetings have experienced various difficulties in doing so. When Christians gather together in families or in small groups to pray, ordinarily they go to prayer directly. Yet when the church gathers for corporate prayer, the scene often changes. Instead of focusing primarily on prayer, most of the time is often used in taking requests or conducting Bible studies. The purpose of prayer meetings should be primarily to promote the Father’s glory, through spreading the kingdom of his Son, by doing his will through the Spirit’s power. The following directions point out some common pitfalls to avoid in corporate prayer meetings. Most of these directions respect our relations to fellow believers and how best to utilize our time of corporate prayer and to unite our hearts in it. These are practical suggestions without the force of, “thus saith the Lord.” They include numerous scriptural allusions, but no direct references. The goal is to improve our prayer meetings as effective means of advancing the gospel and of edifying the saints by drawing upon the general principles of Scripture, experience, and sanctified common sense.
The primary purpose of prayer meetings should be to spread the glory of God through the gospel. The coming of the kingdom and the doing of his will are the two primary ways that God does this. Pray for the Father to glorify himself through spreading the gospel of his Son. Pray that the Spirit would spread the kingdom through blessing the preaching of the Word, especially on the Lord’s Day. This does not mean that we should not pray for the needs of the church. It means that we should pray for the needs of the church with the goal of spreading God’s glory through honoring his name, furthering his kingdom, and doing his will.
For example, pray for the sick so that they might know Christ better through their illnesses or come to know him in light of them. Pray that they would get well, but recognize that this is a secondary end of praying for them. This is true especially in corporate prayer, where those present are less abreast of the private details of the lives of friends for whom we pray. Do not give too much detail about those for whom we pray, either by way of requests or in your prayers. The Lord will always bless our prayers for the growth of the saints in the midst of affliction. He will use some of our prayers for the conversion of the lost in their affliction as well. This principle should give focus to your private prayers as well as for your public prayers. In other words, do not simply pray but ask yourself why you are praying and how your prayer glorifies God.
Praying using scriptural language and content is the best way to be assured simultaneously that God will answer our prayers and that we will gain the consent of others in the prayer meeting. Fewer people will disagree with the Scriptures themselves in corporate prayer than will disagree with our opinions about family, politics, news, etc. If people attending the prayer meetings do not consent to the Scriptures, then such people face deeper problems. Praying Scripture is the best means of honoring God and edifying our brethren. This does not mean parroting Scripture citations back to God, but thoughtfully using and applying scriptural language and ideas. This will improve your private prayers as well.
Do not spend too much time on prayer requests. We are gathered to pray at prayer meetings, not to be updated on the latest news. Use prayer chains or smaller groups to share small details and minor requests. Do not give minute-by-minute updates on the state of the sick. Do not enumerate the names of every lost family member and neighbor. The Lord knows our needs. Corporate prayer should prioritize corporate needs and requests. Use the Psalms as a model. The prayers contained in the Psalms transcend time and rarely include specific names or circumstances. When they do, these are usually relegated to the titles of the Psalms. We should not need lengthy requests for corporate prayer. Use other means and occasions for these purposes. This is true with regard to Bible studies as well. A short Bible study can help prepare people to participate in a prayer meeting. Long Bible studies crowd out prayer. Remember that the purpose of the meeting is prayer, not Bible study. Corporate prayer makes Bible study and preaching effective through the power of the Holy Spirit. People need to know that prayer is the main event and that it is vital even if there is no study attached. Anything that detracts from spending most of the time in corporate prayer, whether requests or studies, distorts the nature of the prayer meeting, transforming it into something else.
Everyone in a prayer meeting winces inwardly when someone prays in vivid detail about the latest fight in his or her household—everyone, apparently, except the people who pray such inappropriate prayers. Respect the private details of people’s lives in prayer meetings. Those who are present do not need to know most details. We sometimes act superstitiously by assuming that we need a list of names to pray for that includes every individual who concerns us. This is important in private prayer, but can be distracting in public prayer. The Lord knows their names, and he can hear corporate prayer for lost people and other needs, whether we know their names or not. This does not mean that we should never pray for people by name, but we must be sparing and do so only when it adds to the substance of the prayer meeting and promotes the efficacy of the prayers. Turning prayer into a commentary on the latest events, whether personal or in the public news, transforms prayer meetings into a gossip session. This happens more frequently than most people realize. Giving personal details on people’s lives when it is not necessary to do so does not cease to be gossip because we justify it under the excuse of praying for them. This is like using the phrase “bless your heart” in order to blunt the force of the insults and slander that are likely to follow. Corporate prayer for the kingdom of God should be less specific than private prayers. The general rule should be that the more private your prayers are the more specific they become. The point of corporate prayer is to pray, as much as possible, for corporate concerns.
The Bible expects us to say “amen” in corporate prayer. This is the briefest and perhaps the most ancient confession of faith in Scripture. In our “amen,” we testify our desire and assurance to be heard. We cannot say “amen” unless we both understand and agree with what is prayed. This goes both ways. You should pray in such a way that you expect others to say “amen” to your prayers. Those who pray in corporate prayer meetings are speaking for every Christian present at the meeting during that prayer. In this relation, it is helpful to avoid using “I” in a prayer meeting. If you cannot preface your petition or praise with “we,” then the petition is probably inappropriate for the context. Avoid polemical issues in corporate prayer as much as possible. If you are a Presbyterian who is praying in a Baptist prayer meeting, then do not pray for the Lord’s blessing on household baptisms as a divine ordinance. Polemics are utterly inappropriate in corporate prayer. They are repulsive in this context, even where they are equally necessary in other settings. When we practice household baptisms in a Presbyterian church, then we should pray for the ordinance, whether or not everyone present agrees with it. However, praying for the spread of the kingdom and the glory of God, through Christ, by the Spirit is something that all Christians can and should unite over. We are most ecumenical when we join our hearts in corporate prayer. We should express this both by saying “amen” audibly and praying in a way that enables others to do so with us.
We must pray for rulers and for all who are in authority that they might come to the knowledge of the truth and that they might allow us to lead quiet and peaceable lives in holiness and reverence. We should pray that they would enact just laws, punish the wicked, and reward the upright. However, Christians have differing political views. Not all of us vote the same way. So corporate prayer is not the time to sort out our differences over which president to vote for or to mention bills and referendums by name. Why should we need to? Does not God know better than we do how to direct our governing authorities? Your ideas of just laws and wars may not be the same as his. You may hold your opinions on these things, but exercise a bit of humility, especially in corporate prayer. How many wars have been fought where both sides thought their cause was just? We cannot see things as God sees them. Our perspectives are far too limited. We often think that we can pray more accurately on national and international matters than is actually the case. If everyone in the prayer meeting got what they asked for in relation to politics, then this would likely lead the nation into catastrophic disorder. Leave the specifics to your closet. Pray corporately in a way that is truly corporate. Even if your position is right, corporate prayer is the wrong context in which to press it. Corporate prayer assumes agreement among those who pray; it is neither the place nor the time to procure agreement.
It is useful to regard the prayer meeting as one long prayer, with several parts, offered through many voices, and with unified hearts. Christ’s command to avoid vain repetition in prayer applies with equal force to prayer meetings. It is common in prayer meetings for several people to parrot the same petitions offered by others already. When others pray at prayer meetings, remember that it is your prayer too. If you would not and should not repeat the same thing over and over again in your private prayers, then neither should you repeat what others have prayed in corporate prayer. There are at least two exceptions to this rule. Repeat a petition when you have something new to add that someone else did not include. However, consider this advice in light of the directions above about not being too specific in public prayer unless it is necessary. We can also repeat a petition when it is a peculiar burden on the hearts of those who are present. For example, everyone in the prayer meeting should share a burden for the revival of the church. Neither God nor man is wearied when such concerns dominate the hearts of all who pray. Concern for the spiritual vitality of the church and the spread of the gospel is virtually a litmus test for a good prayer meeting. All of the people in the meeting could, and perhaps should, pray for revival. However, even here, use a variety of heartfelt and genuine expressions combined with texts of Scripture rather than simply repeating the same request ad nauseam. For five or six people to offer the same petition in virtually the same words is as obnoxious to God as it is to us when people speak to us this way in conversation. This rule does not exclude those who come to God with a child-like heart and express their prayers through stumbling and broken expressions. Contrary to the self-image of such people, such prayers ascend like incense to heaven and are music in the ears of the saints who pray with them.
It is better for more people to pray a few petitions each than for a few people to try to pray for all of them, or to pray for some of them with too much detail. If you pray for someone who has cancer, for example, then pray for their spiritual and physical welfare. Those in the prayer meeting do not need to know the results of their current blood tests, etc. This will not affect in the least either the content or the efficacy of the prayer for them. Do not pray more than once unless there is some necessity for it. If the prayer meeting is particularly large, then the leadership may need to designate individuals to pray on behalf of the group. If the group is small, then the widest participation possible is desirable. In either case, petitions should be brief and to the point.
If the prayers fizzle out early, then the prayer meeting ends early. If the Spirit blesses corporate prayer extraordinarily and people are pleading for the spread of the gospel with vigor, then do not close until people have finished. Remember, however, that extraordinary blessings in a prayer meeting must be extraordinary. Otherwise, this term is meaningless, if not self-contradictory. Time will be less of an issue in prayer meetings if almost the entire time is devoted to prayer rather than to prayer requests or Bible study.
In public prayer, you are speaking to God in the presence of men, not to men on behalf of God. This is one of the worst and the most common errors in prayer. If someone prays something like, “Lord, we know that you have told us to keep ourselves from temptation and that there are some people here who walk into tempting situations, and that they know they should stop, but they do not, even though I have tried to confront them repeatedly,” then they are preaching rather than praying. This kind of prayer comes across as very similar to the prayer of the Pharisee, who “prayed to himself” and thanked God that he was not like other men. Your goal in prayer is to express the hearts of men with your voice and not to change the opinions and practices of men through your exhortation. If there are issues that must be resolved between church members, or areas where there are disagreements in doctrine or practice, then address these by way of private admonition. Some faults are liable to church discipline, while you must simply bear with others. You are not informing God or your neighbor in your prayers. You must pray in a way that others can understand and agree with you. Others often view those who preach in their prayers as disingenuous, insincere, and self-aggrandizing. You will not do good to the souls of others or your own if you turn your prayers into veiled exhortations and expositions of Scripture.
Prayer meetings are one of the best opportunities to teach children how to be an active part of the congregation. It is important to bring our children to prayer meetings and to teach them how to pray brief prayers. The prayers of children are one of the greatest encouragements to the congregation, and they are one of the best means to give the children ownership in the task of spreading the gospel. The rules that limit and shape our prayers should never discourage the weakest and least informed among us from praying. As with all other things, we learn as we do. Though this is not the place to settle the controversy, it would appear that the women participated in the prayer meeting in Acts 1.
This is how the Westminster Shorter Catechism appropriately closes. If our prayer meeting is more consumed with petitions than with praises, then we have lost sight of the biblical model for prayer. We should praise the triune God for who he is and for what he has done. All of our petitions should promote his glory and reputation among us and in the world. Prayer is many things, but it is an act of worship above all other things. Use the prayer meeting as an occasion to worship and glorify the Lord and to do so together. It is better to praise God with united hearts and voices than to do so alone—look at the Psalms for numerous examples of this! Praising God and seeking his glory in corporate prayer is one of the best ways to advance Christ’s kingdom and to edify his people. I have never heard a Christian say that there was too much worship and thanksgiving at a prayer meeting. This is what you will be doing when all the saints and angels are gathered in glory and when you see Christ face-to-face as he is. Praise him in your corporate prayers.
Ryan McGraw is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving in First Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Sunnyvale, California. He is an adjunct professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Ordained Servant Online, October 2014.
Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds
Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
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Ordained Servant: October 2014
Also in this issue
by Gregory E. Reynolds
by Jeffrey B. Wilson
by Dennis E. Johnson
by David A. Booth
by John Donne (1572–1631)
by Eutychus II
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