Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, church services used to include a time of congregational prayer. No, not a 10 second prayer in between the songs but a solid 5 to 10 minutes of concentrated communal prayer. Youth are often stunned when I explain that less than 10 to 20 years ago church services, in most denominations, included a time of praying together as a church family. However, today prayer is often not part of a Sunday service but outsourced, much like an Airtasker app outsources domestic chores.
On the menu
For 1000’s of years church services had a fixed menu of items including songs of praise (e.g. Psalm 150, sung in the Temple), an offering taken up for the poor or for the church/synagogue ministries, a Bible reading and unpacking how it points to Jesus (e.g. Luke chapter 4 verses 16-18), the Lord’s Supper/Passover (e.g. 1 Corinthians chapter 11) and prayer (e.g. Luke chapter 11). Much theological discussion lay behind the order of these items, however, the menu remained founded upon this Biblical template and its “regulatory principle” for worship services.
For example, some would structure it around ‘we speak – God speaks.’ That is, we sing, tithe and pray then read the Bible and hear the sermon. Others had a hymn sandwich of ‘song – item – song’ to keep returning to praise after each item. The point is different theology always drives the different order, however the menu was the same. So what is the theology behind removing prayer from Sunday services?
Off the menu
Compare today: Many churches have dropped items off the menu. While I have never seen the offering deleted, prayer is the one that is often removed, seen as “too boring” or not fitting in with contemporary music. Some will argue it is not “removed” but just moved to a separate time. It has been outsourced to the prayer meeting, usually hosted by half-a-dozen faithful saints separate from the service. This “air tasking” of prayer reflects the theology of the church. Many would argue it is really giving prayer its own special time of intense value. This is true. However, it is also true that it shows the deflated value of prayer in a congregation. And there are many reasons for this.
Firstly, if one of the aims of church services is to equip the saints towards love and good deeds, air tasking prayer produces a generation of saints that may never have prayer modelled to them. The removal of prayer from a church service means a member could go their whole life without praying with his/her whole church family. They have no opportunity to learn and participate in the prayers of God’s people. As an example, look at the impact Hannah’s prayer had on Mary, (Luke chapter 1 verses 46-55; 1 Samuel chapter 2 verses 1-10) and consider the way Mary’s prayer has been used in worship and to build the church today. Congregations should be equipping their members to pray through worship services.
This concept of teaching people to pray is important. Prayer has moved from an A.C.T.S. acronym concept to a 10 second, “God, it is great to be here today, bless us, Amen.” This depth from Biblical prayers is not taught nor caught if prayer is deleted. For example, when we don’t learn together David’s technique for prayers in the Psalms we lose the power of laments and therefore lose a theology of suffering well (Psalm chapter 13). When we don’t learn together Jesus’ own instructions to His disciples in the Lord’s Prayer we lose the heart of the disciples question to “Teach us to pray” (Matthew chapter 6 verse 9-13). When we don’t learn together from Paul’s numerous prayers we lose the ability to grow in our relationship with God, and seek His Kingdom come.
Secondly, we also lose a Kingdom focus of God’s rule on earth as in heaven. Church planter David Jones emphasises “kingdom-centred” congregational prayer. He talks about specific prayers focused on advancing God’s kingdom in the world and growing the universal Church. He explains, “It is so easy for us to slip away from that and become preoccupied with our own personal needs and struggles. Of course God cares about that and we should bear one another’s burdens in prayer, but … this message of the kingdom must be taken to every ethnic group and people from every tribe and language brought in. That’s what should drive our praying.” https://www.eternitynews.com.au/australia/the-power-of-praying-together/
Jesus said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer” (Matthew chapter 21 verse 13). Praying as a church body helps keep this broader focus on His Kingdom.
Thirdly, if the heart of God is relationship then talking to God is foundational. We do this privately and in small groups, such as our prayer meetings and Connect groups. However, it has been a foundation for the church over the past 2000 years to pray as a whole family. To come together and talk to God is part of bringing Him adoration, confessing our sins, giving thanks for His blessings and asking for His help/supplication (A.C.T.S). As Corrie Ten Boom explained, “Prayer should be the steering wheel, not the spare tyre.”
Prayer is essential. Few in the church today would argue with this. However, the centrality of prayer in our Sunday worship services has been deleted by air-taskering it out of the service. Outsourcing congregational prayer robs the saints of learning how to pray and learning about the God that invites prayer.
Jeremy Dover is a former sports scientist and Pastor
Jeremy Dover's previous articles may be viewed at https://www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-dover1.html