Prayerless worship & worship that leads to praying

As I’ve spent time with different churches, I’ve become aware of how prayerless evangelical worship has become. By stripping away liturgical elements, many of our gatherings have ended up without much depth in prayer at all.

There may or may not be an introductory prayer and then a prayer before the sermon. Rarely is there a sending prayer. So, at most, there are usually two prayers and both of them are rushed and are simply glorified transitions between the two elements of evangelical worship: the songs and the sermon.

We like to feel God in our singing, but we don’t like to talk with him.

To enrich the praying within our worship and to train our congregations how to pray, I suggest intentionally soaking our gatherings in prayer by including each of these following prayers.

A gathering prayer — We don’t waltz into worship, we are gathered in by God.

Our lives are a topsy-turvy mess. And what we need is to bring them together, hold them out before us, and offer them to God. Rather than jumping right into a song that’s supposed to get us revved up spiritually, we should pause and pray.

Here we are, Lord, your people. We have gathered here today to seek you who have sought us in Jesus, to reconnect with you and your people after a week of wandering and wavering faith, to recommit to the covenant you established with us in Jesus. Take us and remake us as your Body that we might be renewed in love for you and one another and this world. In Christ our Lord, amen.

A psalm — We don’t know how to pray, so the psalmists teach us.

In his wisdom, God gave us 150 psalms of various lengths and themes. And they even got plopped right in the middle of our Bibles so they’d be easy to find. These ancient prayers can be awkward to our modern sensibilities. But that’s part of their beauty. They jolt us out of what we think of as good and proper prayers and into an earthy, gutsy form of praying that almost none of us would engage in otherwise.

Some are obviously worshipful. But others are surly and bitter. But so are we, and we all need to learn how to pray our pain and anger and depression and loneliness and grief. And though I may not be feeling the emotion that the psalm expresses at a given worship gathering, my praying heart is being formed by them as I pray alongside them. This is why I always recommend praying entire psalms and not just the favorite parts.

If a psalm is long or particularly gnarly, I let the congregation know what’s coming. That way they can settle into the longer ones and be prepared to pray the gnarly ones.

A prayer of confession — Our souls are not prepared for worship, so we come clean before God.

We’re a messed up people. All the time. We sin. We stray. We cross lines we shouldn’t cross. We avoid doing the just and good things we ought to do. We speak badly. We muddle along. We create chaos in our relationships.

Our souls get kicked around and muddied up each week and we need time to heal up and come clean. We need to keep short accounts with our Lord not because he’s mad at us, but because we so often end up hiding from him like Adam and Eve.

Here are two very different prayers of confession.

Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

Mighty God, none compares with you in power. And yet, in your strength, you don’t just pass by the weak and the poor. But we do. Far too often, we see need and feel compassion and yet fail to do anything. We close our eyes, close our hearts, close our wallets, and walk the other way. Forgive us for neglecting the vulnerable and poor you have given to us. Strengthen our hearts that we might strengthen their hands. Send us to the world you love, in the Name of Jesus. Amen.

A prayer of pardon — Having confessed, we need to hear the voice of our Lord in prayer, speaking his assuring words of pardon.

Prayer is a two-way street. God speaks to us. We speak to God. And so goes the conversation.

The Scriptures provide the primary voice of God to us. In the Scriptures, we read not just words God spoke so many years ago, but we hear anew words God is speaking to us right now at this very moment. And so, not presuming to speak for God, we let the Scriptures shape our prayerful interaction as we hear God’s assurance of pardon for our sins.

Hear the Word of the Lord from 1 John 1:8-9 — “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”  Having confessed your sins, you are fully forgiven by our Lord.

Thank you, Lord. May your grace define our lives.

Hear the Word of the Lord from Psalm 103 — “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”

Thank you, Lord, for your great compassion and grace offered to us in Jesus.

A prayer of offering — We offer every part of who we are to God, from our bodies to our budgets and everything in between.

For some reason, we’ve become ashamed of passing the plate in many churches. And when we do it, we use it as a time for special music instead of prayer.

But prayers before and during offerings can be hugely significant and we want to make sure that giving to God, who has given all good things to use, is tied to worship. If we give him nothing, we have just stated how much we value him.

But we don’t just give God our money. We do that, but we also give him our bodies, our very selves. So, prayers here shouldn’t just be a signal that it’s time to drop some money in a basket. Rather, they should be prayers of personal dedication to God which also include our money.

Since money is one of our greatest idols, giving away our money is one of our greatest ways of freeing ourselves from this idol. And so we pray this freedom on ourselves.

A prayer of illumination — We hear God’s Word spoken to us in worship, so we want prayerful hearts prepared to hear him speak.

I’m not so good at hearing God speak. I need to stop and remember what’s going on.

Instead of jumping right into a sermon or right into the reading of Scripture, we pause and pray and consider the goodness of God to be speaking to us at all. We haven’t deserved his attention. We haven’t required anything from God at all. And yet he stops and speaks to us. And so we want to have hearts attentive to what he has to say.

Here’s my favorite prayer of illumination, of casting light on God’s Word and on our hearts as we listen:

God of mercy,
Your faithfulness to your covenant
Frees us to live together
In the security of your powerful love.
Amid all the changing words of our generation,
Speak your eternal Word that does not change.
Then may we respond to your gracious promises
By living in faith and obedience;
Through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen (Book of Common Worship)

A prayer of dedication — We have heard from God, so we respond to him.

Following the sermon, which should be simply a restating of God’s Word in a way that is understandable to our modern ears and lives, we pause again. God has spoken to us and now we speak to him. It’s a conversation. This entire worship time is a back-and-forth between God and us.

God has spoken gospel to us and now we speak obedience to him. We say, “Yes, Lord. Where you lead, we will follow. What you ask, we will do.” This isn’t time to in moralistic faux-prayer that merely restates the preachers application. This is servants saying, “Yes,” to their Master; children saying, “Yes,” to their Father.

A prayer of communion — We have heard the gospel, so we respond by eating and drinking of Jesus.

Not many celebrate the Lord’s Table on a weekly basis. I find that a shame. It starves us of the “meal” we need in order to survive. It starves us of the intimacy with God we were created for and long for.

I always prefer to go straight from the sermon prayer into communion, tying God’s Word to us to his sacrifice for us. And while I like a prewritten prayer of confession, I have always found that this is a prayer I want to pray spontaneously.

A sending prayer — God has gathered us and now he sends us into his world.

The God who speaks to us, sends us. And the God who sends us, goes with us. As Jesus said, “For I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Lord Jesus Christ,
send us out with confidence in your word,
to tell the world of your saving acts,
and bring glory to your name. Amen. (A Prayer Book for Australia)

That’s nine prayers spread out over one worship gathering. I’ve often included personal prayers and the Lord’s Prayer as well. Is it too much? Lord, no! It’s prayer coming from nine different angles as we encounter the Living God and engage in a multi-faceted relationship with him. Would we want anything less? This is worship we’re talking about, not a lecture or a concert. Prayer should be at the center of it all. If more prayer means shorter sermons, then let’s shorten the sermons. As important as the proclamation of God’s Word is for us, actual engagement with God in prayer is much more important.

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