Word, Sacrament, and Discipline: Prayer: A Sine Qua Non of a Healthy Church
One of the basic practices in the Christian life is prayer. It is a spiritual discipline that is instilled in us from our earliest days. It is uttered in private, in family devotions, and in various public settings for numerous occasions, both within the church and outside of it. Moreover, it is one of the gifts that God has given to his people for their growth in holiness and discipleship. Thus, it is not an optional activity only to be used by believers for a temporary jolt of encouragement, or when we have reached the end of our own abilities or wisdom and need assistance. It is a necessary component of the new birth. It is offered when in the pit of despair and when on the summit of joy. Christians are not simply expected to pray; they are commanded to do so because it pleases God (Matt. 6:9-13; Rom. 12:12).
But how often do we consider the importance of prayer within the church? It is easy to impress upon people the value of prayers in the home that pertain most directly to the needs of a particular individual or family. Every Christian knows this is true from his or her own experience. But what is the value of prayer within the setting of the local church as it gathers for worship? Here, of course, certain subjects that take up much time in our private prayers will not be addressed in a public assembly of God’s people. How does prayer of this nature help to contribute to a healthy church?
This question, of course, assumes that an extended prayer is still a component of a church’s order of service. There are other prayers that are offered throughout public worship, including the invocation near the beginning, a confession of sin, and the pastoral prayer immediately following the conclusion of the sermon. But the broader congregational prayer achieves a number of things that are vital. One purpose is to ascribe praise and thanks to God, not only for what he has done for his people, but for his character, which is the reason for those divine actions. This does not mean that congregational prayer is to sound like a mini-systematic recounting of all of God’s attributes. But it is important to remind the worshipers in a thoughtful way of what the Triune God is really like. For most Christians in the pews, the great majority of their week is concerned with the secular affairs of their particular vocation. The congregational prayer is a critical opportunity to direct their minds heavenward to the majesty of the one true God who has both made and redeemed them.
Another purpose of congregational prayer is to publicly remember Christians who are serving the Lord in various ways throughout the world, focusing particularly on missionaries supported by the local church. In addition, it is pleasing to the Lord when we add to this component Christians who are being persecuted, even unto death, for their allegiance to Christ. Along these lines, this prayer provides the opportunity to pray for the salvation of the lost.
A third part of the prayer includes a selection of those within the congregation who are ailing physically, if they desire such public mention. And of course, the size of the congregation affects how many are prayed for, and how much detail will be provided. In addition to this, other smaller gatherings that take place at other times of the week will allow for these and other more private concerns to be shared with others.
This is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list of subjects, but is only to show what kind of material is appropriate for this particular prayer, and for the importance of having a prayer within the worship service that is more comprehensive in its content.
Prayer contributes to a healthy church in at least two ways. The first is that it reminds each Christian within the congregation that they do not live the Christian life in isolation from others. Being united to the Lord Jesus Christ by faith also creates an unbreakable love for and union with other Christians that is ultimately stronger even than family ties, which is so easily seen when Christians who are disowned by unbelieving family members gain a new spiritual family in the church. There is thus mutual support and encouragement that each member is to give to another as they together live as disciples of Christ and experience things that all people do in this fallen world. Prayer is one of the ways such love is shown.
The second reason why prayer contributes to a healthy church is that those unbelievers who visit will witness something that is unknown in any other religion or philosophy. They will learn much of who God really is because they will discover what the Bible teaches about him. And they will also observe and experience the love of Christ, as those who have received the saving truth of that love go on to display it to others.
Michael D. Roberts is the Alliance editor of ThinkandActBiblically.org. He holds a DTh in New Testament from the University of South Africa.