Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Not a Prayer

Regarding prayer:  the important question is not about how it was removed from public schools, but rather why it has largely disappeared from the church.

In recent months, as I have visited some of the largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, one striking thing that I have noticed has been the lack of time engaged in prayer during those church services. In at least one of the churches, the only prayer offered at all was a sort of tag on the end of a song, and it was not clear until the leader was nearly finished that we were supposed to be praying. The churches that I have visited have been Baptist, charismatic, and a church with a reputation as being reformed and Baptist.  What they all had in common was that, in church, they did not pray. The fact that this was not changed by the varying traditions is an indication that it is syptomatic of our times and not related to a small subset of American evangelicalism.

Of course, we should not assume that these churches therefore do not believe in prayer.  To the contrary, I would assume that they all do, and I would not be surprised to learn that their ministers and many of their leaders make commitments to spend considerable time praying privately or in small gatherings.  Some of these churches urge people to gather for prayer prior to the service. 

Yet, during the time of worship, they rarely pray. Why? Clearly, prayer is an important part of worship in the Bible.  Acts 2 says that the early Christians devoted themselves to prayers.  Many of the epistles contain multiple prayers, and it is helpful to remember that those epistles were read in the churches.  When the Apostle Paul wrote a prayer, that prayer was read to the congregation.

Why don't churches pray corporately?

In answering this, it should be noted that the declension of corporate prayer is not a recent trend, even if it has accelerated as the result of recent innovations in worship.  In fact, for the most part, corporate prayer has declined in terms of both quantity and quality for a couple of centuries.  My theory is that prayer has declined because church leaders don't know what to do with it in a public context.  We understand quiet, closeted prayer as an expression of personal piety, but what is the point of our public praying, other than in the anguished prayers of a person experiencing deep conviction during a special service?

More controversially, I would suggest that the enemy of meaningful prayer, that has caused its decline over many generations, has been the evangelical emphasis on spontaneity. In many churches, there is an emphasis on the spontaneous moving of the Spirit, and along with that comes an assumption that prepared prayers are not spiritual prayers.  Of course, there is no reason to think that is the case.  What possibly could be wrong with planning what you are going to say to God before a crowd?  What is wrong with planning the language that we will use to express adoration?  Surely, a planned prayer is no less valuable than a planned song or a planned sermon; yet, in many churches over the course of generations, if a person walked to the front and pulled out a piece of paper with his prayer written on it, there would be some in the congregation that would groan, certain that the Spirit was being quenched by that piece of paper.

In fact, something approaching the opposite is true. I suspect that the lack of emphasis on prayer in today's contemporary churches is a reaction against the trite and repetitive prayers offered in past generations week after week.  That is, if whoever is called upon just prays whatever comes into his mind, and no advance thought is going into it, then the invocation, the offertory, and the misnamed benediction all start sounding the same every week. While prayer need not be eloquent, it should be thought out, and the kinds of public prayer that many of us grew up with in normal church services was not conducive to worship or piety.

Not only did these churches become repetitive in the individual prayers, but they also tended to fail to note the various forms that prayer could take in the course of a worship service. In the invocation, we express adoration and ask God that He be present during our worship.  In a prayer of confession, we acknowledge our sinfulness before a holy God and receive his assurance of pardon.  In a congregational prayer (or the pastoral prayer, as seen from a different perspective) the pastor or an elder of the church brings before God various needs of the congregation. There are other sorts of prayers that could be mentioned, but the point here is that in worship we have a tapestry of prayer that both takes our petitions to God and expects to receive from him his gifts.

These elements are missing in many churches today, both traditional and contemporary.  Their rediscovery would help us learn again what it means to worship our Savior in Spirit and in truth.

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