(This article was originally published in Worship Leader’s Jan/Feb 2016 issue. Subscribe today for more great articles like this one.)
I once served a congregation that held a mid-week prayer meeting. Each Wednesday night, a couple dozen church members gathered for a time of prayer led by the pastor. During my tenure, the prayer meeting was seldom well attended. That fact didn’t please the unofficial leaders of the congregation who measured the congregation’s spiritual maturity, not by how many came to Sunday morning service, or by how many attended the Sunday evening service, but by how many came to the mid-week prayer meeting. In response to the weak attendance, the faithful attendees encouraged me to offer a Sunday sermon on the importance of attending the mid-week prayer meeting, but I couldn’t find a text to go with that sermon. I admit, however, I didn’t exert much energy in the search.
Truth now be told, I wasn’t a big fan of the mid-week prayer meeting. I had a couple reasons for my lack of enthusiasm. First, if prayer broadly considered is communication with God—communication understood “as meaningful, interactive self–disclosure” (Evan B. Howard, Introduction to Christian Spirituality)—we didn’t pray much during our prayer meetings. The weekly mid-week service lasted sixty minutes. That time was filled with a couple of songs, a thirty-minute lesson from Scripture, audible prayer requests for those suffering from any number of medical conditions, and a few minutes of “popcorn” prayer.
Second, and more important for this conversation, it seemed to me then—and now—that the prayer meeting of the congregation takes place on Sunday morning. Like the First Church in Jerusalem, we gather weekly for teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. As a gathered community, we employ several different types of prayer, including adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication (hence, the acronym ACTS). We offer those prayers in a variety of modes: spoken, sung, or silently; individually and corporately; personally and by proxy. When we add up the time given to prayer each Sunday morning, I think it safe to conclude that the Sunday service is, indeed, a prayer meeting.
Prayer Made Easy
The good news for worship leaders is that our congregations love singing their prayers, especially their prayers of praise and thanksgiving, and, furthermore, we have the privilege of planning and preparing those songs. With our prayers of thanks, we highlight the many blessings God has poured into our lives, but love for the Lord will not let us stop there. We must also offer our prayers of praise to the Lord; it is an ontological necessity. After having received God’s manifold gifts of mercy and grace, we long to praise the giver of the gifts, our Beloved Triune God. While tempted, we don’t want to be so enthralled with the gifts that we forget to praise the giver of every good and perfect gift (Jas 1:17).
Leading Sung Prayer
The question remains: how does approaching our Sunday morning service as a prayer meeting impact our preparation for and planning of the service?
First, it surely minimizes the temptation to perform for the congregation rather than lead the congregation in prayer. While difficult to describe the distinction between the two, as worship leaders we know when we sing a song to impress and when we sing a song as a prayer to our Triune God.
Second, it encourages us to recognize that our Sunday services are saturated with prayer, to frame our singing prayers as such, and to seamlessly lead the congregation in both spoken and sung prayer.
Third, it encourages us to prepare ourselves for communal conversation with the Lord. I don’t know about you, but I can’t just flick a switch into corporate prayer mode. For me, and perhaps for you, leading authentic and sincere corporate prayer overflows from the practice of personal, private prayer. Without the latter, the former devolves into insincere strings of religious-sounding words that pass as prayers.
Finally, it encourages us to answer this question: how can we prepare those gathered for a service saturated with prayer so that the prayers they offer flow from sincere and humble hearts?
Sam Hamstra is Affiliate Professor of Worship at Northern Seminary and Director of the Master of Arts in Worship program.