A while back, a mentor offered me a game-changing insight. He reminded me that what I was doing as a worship leader every week was nothing short of leading the people of God through one, long prayer session. Before that, I had always thought of prayer being a vital part of worship—one of the necessary elements among many others. However, my mentor’s insight caused me to notice that other Christians of all persuasions across time and space had been boldly preaching all of worship as prayer.
It’s interesting, for instance, that our Anglican brothers and sisters call their primary worship manual, The Book of Common Prayer, which outlines acts we don’t normally think of as prayer—responsive texts, Scripture readings, singing, preaching, baptism, and Communion. Way on the other side of the spectrum, our charismatic friends in Kansas have a huge worship facility they call the International House of Prayer, where many of those same practices take place. In short, Christians through the ages have thought prayer to be synonymous with the whole of worship. And this all makes sense when we remember that Jesus himself labeled the very Temple “a house of prayer” (Mt 21:13, quoting Isaiah). Understanding worship as prayer roots us in a very ancient, biblical idea.
This Changes Everything
As you can imagine, viewing all of corporate worship as prayer initiated some seismic shifts in how I thought of worship, the people of God, and my role. The first domino to fall was seeing myself less as a performer of songs and more as a facilitator of prayer.
In planning and leading worship services, my job wasn’t to “wow” people to look at me but to help woo them to the very feet of the Father, who speaks and listens. I worried less about how polished things were, and I began to care much more that people were engaged in a truly prayerful corporate experience of revelation and response, of God addressing us in his Word, and us speaking and singing back to him in faith. My criteria for song-selection changed, too. I could no longer settle for choosing songs based on sweet grooves and killer hooks.
I needed to know that the songs I put into the mouths of the people of God every week were, in fact, suitable for the rhythms of call-and-response that characterize worship understood as prayer.
Seeing worship as one, long prayer session also began to make me more alert to how worship relates to culture. Prayer, like any other intentional conversation, requires attention, time, devotion, and perseverance. In our distracted age of push notifications and multimedia devices, we’re used to shifting our attention back and forth between screens, phones, signs, speakers, and (most importantly) real, live human beings.
But if worship truly is from start to finish a prayer gathering where the people of God listen and speak, part of our job is to help our people counter-act the frenetic pace and infinite distractibility of the world outside our weekly gathering. In our impatient age, we must be guardians of worship as a place where people can truly listen and “wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning” (Psalm 130:6).
Perhaps all of this will for a time unsettle you as it did me. I could no longer so haphazardly assimilate the latest cultural products and practices into worship without filtering them through the very simple but provocatively pastoral question, “Does this help or hinder my flock’s ability to converse with God together?” And once you start asking those kinds of questions, it’s hard to turn back.
May God make us more and more into the kinds of prayer leaders He wants us to be.