November 28, 2004 Q & A

Pastoral Prayer: How Long?


Does the pastoral prayer during an OPC Sunday morning worship service have to be 15 minutes long? Does there really have to be one? Can it be just one minute long? Can the OPC church have the option of having the pastoral prayer during a midweek prayer meeting and service? Thanks for your help.


In order to explain why we worship the way we do, I'll need to refer to what we believe the Bible teaches, contained in our Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), and how the Bible regulates our worship, contained in our Directory for Public Worship (DPW). You can find both here on the OPC website. Just click on the preceding links.

In the Westminster Confession of Faith, prayer is identified as a distinct part of religious worship:

Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of his Spirit, according to his will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue. WCF XXI.iii)

During the worship service, in the pastoral prayer the pastor offers up prayer to God on the congregation's behalf. (Since he is leading the congregation in prayer and since they also ought to be in prayer, the pastoral prayer is sometimes called the congregational prayer. All are to be in prayer, even if the pastor is the only one who is praying aloud.)

There are any number of occasions during the service when it is appropriate to pray. The Lord's Day "is to be kept holy to the Lord, and is to be employed primarily in the public and private exercises of religion" (DPW I.3), and "it is the sacred duty and high privilege of God's people everywhere to convene for public worship on the Lord's Day," since "God has expressly enjoined [us] in his holy Word not to forsake the assembling of [ourselves] together" (DPW 1.6). Prayer is an essential component of that worship. Here's why:

As a service of public worship is in its essence a meeting of God and his people, the parts of the service are of two kinds: those which are performed on behalf of God, and those which are performed by the congregation. In the former the worshippers are receptive, in the latter they are active. (DPW ii.1)

Although we may also speak to one another, worship is primarily God's speaking to us (through the reading and proclamation of His Word, for example) and our speaking to God (partly through our singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, but primarily through prayer). Thus - while it would certainly be good to supplement the prayers offered up during the Sunday services with a midweek prayer meeting - it should be obvious that such a meeting cannot substitute for them, since prayer is a fundamental part of what is involved with worship on the Lord's Day.

Here is how the DPW describes the pastoral prayer:

... In public prayer the minister is the voice of the congregation. He should pray in such a way that the whole assembly of God's people may pray with him, and the members of the congregation not only are bound to listen as he prays but should themselves pray in their hearts.... At some point ... there shall be a comprehensive prayer comprising adoration of God's perfections, thanksgiving for his mercies, confession of sins, supplication for the pardon of sins through the blood of the atonement and for renewal by the Holy Spirit, intercession for the poor, the sick, the dying, the mourning, the persecuted, the erring, the rising generation, the aged, the churches of the denomination, Christian missions at home and abroad, Christian education and other Christian activities, the church universal, the civil rulers, the community, human society in general, or whatever causes may be particularly worthy. (DPW iii.5)

The length of time needed to pray for these things is, of course, left up to the discretion of the particular pastor and the elders of the congregation, but it is difficult to see how such a prayer could be "just one minute long." Again, if worship is primarily God's speaking to His people and His people's speaking to Him, it would make little sense for one side of the "conversation" to be that brief.

I hope you have found this information helpful. Please let us know if we can be of any further assistance as you study the all-important matter of how God wants his people to worship him. In a sense, that we might worship Him, know Him, and have fellowship with Him is the main reason He saved us from our sins through the Cross of Christ. The price of our being able to approach God in prayer is the shed blood of Christ, so - rather than regarding that privilege lightly - let us treasure it and rejoice in it!



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