The benefit of thoughtfully placed prayers in church services.
A prayerful encounter David Peterson
had the pleasure of attending the consecration of
our new archbishop in St Andrew’s Cathedral on May 28. The service was uplifting and encouraging in every respect, the archbishop’s sermon was challenging and hopeful, the music was excellent. But I was particularly impressed by the fact that prayer was a constant factor throughout. I have been thinking about this recently with reference to our regular Sunday gatherings. All the services in the Book of Common Prayer and contemporary alternatives provide a succession of prayers and praises, linked to Bible readings, sermon and sacrament (when the Lord’s Supper or baptism is involved). But what is your experience of church? Prayer is often confined to the “prayer time”, consisting mostly of intercessions for government and society, church and mission, the sick and the needy. Apart from this, there may be an informal prayer from the leader at the beginning of the service, from the preacher before the sermon, and from the leader again at the end. However, I have experienced services where the first time we talked to God was 30 minutes in, just before the sermon – as well as services where there was no prayer after the sermon helping us respond to the message preached, or where there was no prayer of thanksgiving for what the Lord’s Supper should mean for us. Prayer in the Bible is not simply a series of petitions for others. Believers pray for God’s help and guidance, confess their sins and seek his forgiveness. They give thanks for perceived blessings and praise him for answers to their prayers. They question what he is doing in their lives while still expressing confidence in his goodness towards them. They seek his purifying and transforming presence to live more faithfully in his service. Prayers thoughtfully placed throughout a service help us to focus on God, rather than the participants, and to respond appropriately to everything we hear from him. Songs can help in this process, but they rarely express with 24
such precision and directness what we need to say to God at a particular moment in our meeting with him. At least some of the prayers ought to be expressed corporately to facilitate our involvement in the process. Consider what we can learn from the Prayer Book communion service in this regard. First, we ask God to prepare our hearts, that we may perfectly love him and worthily magnify his holy name. Second, we respond to the reading of the commandments with prayers for mercy and for God to “incline our hearts to keep this law”. Third, the collects of the day highlight key themes in one or all of the Bible readings to follow, mostly focusing on aspects of Christ’s work for us and the implications for Christian living. Fourth, there is a lengthy prayer of intercession for the church and the world. Fifth, there is a corporate prayer of repentance after the sermon and in preparation for communion. Sixth, there is a prayer about worthily receiving the sacrament. Seventh, there is the prayer of thanksgiving for the institution of the Supper and what it signifies. We conclude with the Lord’s Prayer, prayers of thanksgiving and dedication, a hymn of praise and the Grace. Even if we shorten and adapt this pattern, there is much to learn from the sequence and content of this liturgy. We don’t simply come together to be taught, but to respond to what we hear from God in prayer, praise and obedience. We don’t simply come together for mutual encouragement, because “our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3) and this needs to be expressed in the way we relate to him together. Growing in “the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18) requires an earnest response to God’s word and a seeking after his help (2 Peter 1:3-11). Everything we do in church should help us grow in this way.SC The Rev Dr David Peterson is an emeritus faculty member at Moore College and former principal of Oak Hill College London. SouthernCross
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