I grew up in what might be considered a typical Baptist church. While many in the Baptist church might consider liturgy something that “high church” types undertake, even free church models–like Baptist churches–have a liturgy despite the insistence that we will not be put in a box. Prayer during a corporate worship service at this church usually took place as a transition item between components of the liturgy. This might not have been the original intent, but the pragmatic slowly overtook the heart intent behind those scheduled items in the order of worship.
Every element of a worship service is in danger of the same error, even a pastoral prayer. However, a pastoral prayer can help interrupt the routine, allow the congregation to corporately approach God, and equip the saints by teaching them about prayer.
At the church where I serve as an elder, Open Door Church in Raleigh, NC, we have a monthly liturgical item called a pastoral prayer. During this prayer time, one of our pastors leads the congregation through an extended amount of time before God. It is a time when we stop and focus our affections and supplications towards our Heavenly Father. While the music and the sermon are designed to bring glory to God, the pastoral prayer is the time for the congregation to place themselves in quiet submission before the throne of God.
In addition to an important moment of quietness before God, the pastoral prayer is also an important teaching element that provides our congregation an example of how to pray. Teaching others to pray is part of a church leader’s responsibility, as it helps to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:2). Let me advocate for some specific items for which to pray and give a few practical items to incorporate into the pastoral prayer.
Elements of the Pastoral Prayer
Focus first on the praise and admiration of God. This is a pattern seen in prayers throughout Scripture. When Jesus taught us to pray (Matt 6:9-13), he began by focusing on God and his Kingdom. While this brings honor and praise, properly ordered it also teaches the congregation how they can bring praise and admiration to God.
Pray for our government leaders. Paul tells Timothy (1 Tim 2:1-2) to pray for all of those in authority. This is hard when many times those leaders are not believers, do not support the values of God’s people, and might even actively persecute the Church. This can also include praying for significant cultural events that society is facing. Praying for our leaders teaches the congregation that these people are in authority by God’s hand, that we can pray for those with whom we disagree, and that there is a proper boundary between God’s people and the government so that they are not improperly intertwined.
Pray specifically for major struggles and praises people in the congregation are experiencing. Scripture tells us to pray for the sick, the suffering, and the cheerful (James 5:13-14). In addition, Paul says that we are to pray for all the saints (Eph. 6:18). While lifting these praises and requests to God, it teaches the congregation how to pray for their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Pray for other churches. Paul mentions to the church in Corinth how the believers in Jerusalem are praying for them (2 Cor. 9:14). We are praying that the mission of God’s Kingdom marches forth. God has chosen the Bride of Christ–the Church–to carry out that mission. Therefore, we should pray for the faithfulness of our sister churches. Praying for other churches is asking God to do great things among them. It is also teaching your people that we are not “the” church in the area, but one of many that are seeking to see God’s Kingdom expand.
Pray for the sanctification of the congregation. None of us have arrived, not even the godliest of individuals within the church. Paul prayed for the believers in Colossae (Col. 1:9-12) that they would grow in their faithfulness in their walk with Christ. This is also an opportunity to corporately confess sins, realizing that our hearts are many times far from God and we need to deny ourselves daily to properly follow Christ. While we are asking God to do great things among the congregation, we are teaching our people how to confess their sin and pray for their own sanctification.
Pray for those taking the gospel around the world. When Paul reminded the believers in Ephesus to be constantly in prayer, he also asked that they pray for his boldness as he proclaimed the gospel (Eph. 6:19-20). Likewise, he asked the believers in Colossae to pray for him that God would open a door for him to share the gospel (Col. 4:2-3). Christ also exhorted us to pray that even more workers would go out into the harvest (Matt. 9:38). This is an opportunity to ask God to mightily use the men and women taking the gospel around the world. In addition, it teaches the congregation to not allow those who are out of sight to also become out of mind.
Pray for the lost. At the heart of God is the repentance and salvation of sinners (2 Pet. 3:9). Stephen, in the midst of being stoned to death, prayed for the very lost people that were throwing stones at him (Acts 7:59-60). The lost are only converted by the power of a sovereign God, so we are corporately asking God to move among the hearts of the lost. This also teaches the congregation how to keep the lost on their minds and hearts.
Practical Advice on Pastoral Prayer
Determining the frequency, length, and specific format of the pastoral prayer requires wisdom. From a frequency perspective, it is good that the congregation does not consider this an abnormal practice. A good length to consider is 5 to 7 minutes. It is hard to include many of the above topics in less time, and anything longer might cause the congregation to begin to mentally wander. It is also good for the elder/pastor to give great thought to the format of this prayer.
One practical piece of advice is to write out the prayer and read it. Some might think that this divorces the prayer from spontaneity or the leadership of the Holy Spirit. However, spontaneity is not a Biblical requirement for prayers, and we follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit in written lyrics to songs all the time.
Finally, instruct the congregation on what to do during the prayer. Ask them to listen, examine their hearts, and agree as a congregation before the Lord.