As I have joined in corporate prayer in various contexts in the past few months (by which I mean a setting where one person leads a gathered congregation in prayer, as opposed to a prayer meeting), I have encountered three emerging (or at least, new to me) trends in prayer that concern me. I wanted to make a few brief observations about this, and invite the thoughts of the reader in response.
First, I have observed an increasing number of people lead corporate prayer by simply saying things like, ‘Lord, we pray for Syria and for Iraq,’ or, ‘We pray for our diocese.’ Although I did not recognise it initially, it later struck me that this sort of prayer lacks a petition. I sometimes find myself wanting to interrupt and say, ‘…And? What do we pray for them?’ I’m sure that people who pray this way have genuine petitions in their heart; in the case of Syria and Iraq, for instance, I am sure the unspoken petition is a prayer for peace. But in the context of leading corporate prayer, those petitions need to be vocalised.
Second, I have also heard someone repeatedly use the phrase, ‘We pray to God for ____’, and list the various points of intercession for the day. I was particularly troubled by this, because in addition to not offering a particular petition, we were not actually addressing God at all. This person was informing us of what to pray for, but we never actually prayed.
Finally, I have noticed the emergence of a pattern of including large portions of silence into prayer. Whilst I do not think silence is necessarily a bad thing, I do find it interesting that this happens in the context of corporate prayer. Usually in these silent periods, those who are gathered to pray are invited to pray in their hearts in response to a short bidding. The problem with this is that it then ceases to be corporate prayer. There is something unique about gathering together to pray and collectively bringing the prayers of the people together before God. That is lost when when the corporate prayer primarily becomes a time of silent, individual reflection.
The main reason these trends concern me is because, as William Willimon argues in his book, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, the ‘[leader] teaches the congregation about prayer in [their] leadership of the…prayers’ (83, emphasis mine). The person leading the prayers is not just praying on behalf of those who are gathered to pray, presenting before God the prayers of the people, but they also model prayer, and have as their ‘goal the enabling of the congregation to speak and to listen to God’ (83). In his composition of the Book of Common Prayer, this was part of Thomas Cranmer’s aim as well. Recognising that he was working in context of reforming a Church where few people knew how to pray, he gave them the BCP as a means of teaching them how to pray.
Leading a congregation in prayer is both a privilege and a great responsibility. Embracing that responsibility means taking seriously the call to give voice to the prayers of the people, and being intentional about modelling prayer in a way that teaches, equips, and encourages others to take hold of the blessing they have of calling upon God as Father and to commune with him. For that reason, we need to be attentive to how we pray when we lead others in prayer.
Again, these are just a few brief observations, and I welcome any thoughts the reader might have on how we ought to approach and carry out corporate prayer.