This is the second in a series of articles dealing with downward trends in contemporary worship services. In this article we will consider the decline in corporate prayer.
In order to understand how we are to worship God in a way that is pleasing to him, we must look at what the Scripture teaches about how God is to be worshipped. In the New Testament the following elements of worship are found: Divine greetings, prayers of confession, thanksgiving and intercession, reading and preaching of the word, communion, and the benediction. Many of these elements of worship are contained in Acts 2:42, which states, “They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” True devotion to Christ, wrote John Owen, involves “keeping his institutions and his worship according to his appointment.”
In the Directory of Public Worship (a document produced in 1643-1644 which arose from 70 sessions dealing with the issue of how God is to be worshipped), matters such as dress, buildings and music do not even get a mention!This was because the leaders in the Reformation were determined to return to a biblical standard of worship.
This led to a flourishing era in the history of the Church where prayer played a central role in worship. It was not unusual for prayers to last an hour or more in Puritan worship services. Yet one does not read of complaints. Baillie writes in beautiful old English, “This day was one of the sweetest I have seen in England . . . After Dr Twisse had begun with a briefe prayer, Mr Marshall prayed large two houres, most divinelie, confessing the sins of the members of the Assemblie in a wonderful pathetick, and prudent way. After, Mr Arrowsmith preached one houre, then a psalm; thereafter, Mr Vines prayed near two houres ”.
The congregation was drawn into the presence of God through earnest prayer. Sufficient thought and meditation were given to the content and arrangement of prayers. It was believed that the prayers of the minister were an essential component of New Testament worship and demanded preparation. He prayed in such a way that the whole assembly joined as one with him in prayer, with members of the congregation carefully listening and praying themselves in their hearts. Prayers were offered with deep humility and holy reverence. They were comprehensive and included “adoration of God’s perfections, thanksgiving for his mercies, confession of sins, supplication for the pardon of sins through the blood of the atonement and for renewal by the Holy Spirit, intercession for the poor, the sick, the dying, the mourning, the persecuted, the erring, the rising generation, the aged, the churches of the denomination, Christian missions at home and abroad, Christian education and other Christian activities, the church universal, the civil rulers, the community, human society in general, or whatever causes may be particularly worthy” (Directory of Public Worship).
What if an early New Testament believer or a devout Puritan were transported through time into a contemporary church service? Wouldn’t it seem almost inconceivable to him that something called worship could take place without any significant time being given to prayer? Yet, this is now what is routinely happening in many churches, including those that call themselves “evangelical.” Wouldn’t he enquire, “Why, when prayer is a means of receiving an outpouring of God’s grace, is not the church giving itself ‘continually to prayer’” (Acts 6:4)?
If this guest visited our churches over a longer period of time, would he not be distressed by derogatory comments about “long winded prayers,” and arguments that prayers need to be shortened for the benefit of unbelievers attending our services?Wouldn’t he suggest that exactly the wrong course of action was being adopted, and that rather than abbreviating the time given to prayer, the church should be spending more time on her knees? Would he not suggest that the lack of prayer in many churches suggests a lack of faith in prayer—a belief that prayer is inconsequential—a belief that God neither hears nor answers—a belief that we can make it on our own?
Surely, more time needs to be given over to prayer in most contemporary services. Sufficient time needs to be taken to praise God for who he is (adoration), what he has done (thanksgiving), our own need for cleansing (confession), and for a presentation of our congregations needs and the needs of others (intercession).
If we are a people who truly believe in prayer, we should not permit our actions in worship to visibly undercut this belief.