Hughes Oliphant Old passed on to his eternal place in the courts of the Lord on May 24, 2016. As a regular contributor to Worship Leader magazine and personal mentor to our publisher, Chuck Fromm, we share some of his words that were published in the magazine. Along with this article, his contribution to the theology of worship continues to shape the vision and direction of Worship Leader Media today and will for years to come.
Properly Focusing the Heart of Your Church
“The question of what worship really is becomes particular troublesome when we sense that something is not quite right about it.”
– Hughes Oliphant Old
Themes & Variations for a Christian Doxology (Eerdmans, 1992)
Prayer is not the only thing that goes on in our churches today. In fact, one is all too often a bit disappointed to discover that very little prayer occurs inside our sacred buildings. To be sure, there are exceptions, but the overall impression is rather bleak, at least for mainline Protestants.
We all know the story of Jesus driving the moneychangers out of the Temple and then explaining, “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13, NIV; cf. Mark 11:17 and Luke 19:46).
Actually, most churches I know are rather good at keeping the moneychangers at bay. Some are better at it than others. On the other hand, one wonders what might offend Jesus if he were to come to some of our contemporary American churches. Might he be offended that we have made our churches into theaters or arenas? Not too many of them give us the impression that they are houses of prayer.
A friend of mine has a ministry that requires him to attend services in forty or fifty different churches a year over the whole breadth of our land. He tells me that over and over again he notices how little time is devoted to prayer. The service of worship will often give more time to the announcements than to prayer.
And yet, Jesus made it very clear that a church is supposed to be a house of prayer. In biblical times there were regular services of prayer, both morning and evening, every day of the week. They were held both in the Temple at Jerusalem and in synagogues where ever they might have been established. These daily prayer services were different from the regular Sabbath day services with their formal reading and preaching of the Scriptures. They concentrated on prayers of confession and supplication as well as prayers of intercession for the whole community. The Prayer of the Eighteen Benedictions was a comprehensive prayer of petition, supplication, and intercession. It might have taken fifteen or twenty minutes to go through. The singing of the psalms also was an important feature of these services of worship.
In the Acts of the Apostles we read of Peter and John “… going up to the temple at the time of prayer” (Acts 3:1, NIV). They were attending evening prayer as was the custom of devout men and women in ancient Israel. That was what was meant by praying continually, or praying without ceasing. There were women like Anna about whom we read, “She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying” (Luke 2:36, NIV). Anna was one of those who maintained the daily ministry of prayer that took place in the Temple.
That the Temple was a house of prayer goes far back in Scripture. A passage of Scripture which tells us much about the worship of the Temple is Solomon’s prayer of dedication, which was offered by the king soon after the building was completed (1 Kings 8:22-53). The prayer makes the point that the Temple is to be used above all as a house of prayer. Solomon entreats God, “Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place” (1 Kings 8:30, NIV). Solomon goes on at some length, specifying the occasions which might demand prayers in the Temple, such as special days of prayer and fasting called in time of war, drought or plague. A lot of praying was done in that Temple.
During my pastorate in Indiana, this was a major pastoral concern. How could we re-focus our church so that it was clearly a house of prayer? One way our church did this was to start having morning prayers at seven o’clock on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Another way was holding vespers on Sunday evening. True to the tradition of vespers, we made prayer the focus of the service. If I had stayed at that church we would probably have increased our daily prayer services. That, at least, was the way I wanted things to go.
Given the Sunday morning services that the typical American Protestant Church has, how can we realize this ideal of making our church a house of prayer? What should our regular service have in the way of prayer? For the readers of Worship Leader, hymns and songs of praise and thanksgiving would no doubt head the list. This I support wholeheartedly!
But there should also be a prayer of confession and supplication. This should be a prayer that cries out to God for our most intimate concerns and hopes. There should be a time of lamentation in our worship, or, as I have put it elsewhere, a time for singing the blues in church. Such prayers might be emphasized at an evening service or a daily prayer service.
A major feature of the Sunday morning service should certainly be the pastoral prayer, the prayer of intercession for the church and the community in all its need and all its pains. This should be a prayer for the coming of the kingdom, the fruitfulness of our missionary work, and the empowering of our ministers. We should pray as well for civil servants, legislators, judges, and governors. (cf. 1 Timothy 2:1-8). A true pastoral prayer should have great variety.
There should be a time in our service of worship for praying the psalms, perhaps done by singing metrical psalms or psalm paraphrases, but there should also be responsive readings of psalms. However one does it, the praying of the psalms should be a major component of Christian prayer.
The ideal of Jesus, that a church should be a house of prayer, is something the typical American church is far from attaining, and yet, for our day so interested in spirituality, it is an imperative.
Hughes Oliphant Old (April 13, 1933 – May 24, 2016) was an American theologian and academic. Until his retirement in 2014, he was John H. Leith Professor of Reformed Theology and Worship at Erskine Theological Seminary. Before, he taught at Princeton Theological Seminary.