Iíve enjoyed the privilege of preaching nine times over the last three weeks in wonderfully diverse congregational settings – churches large and small, suburban, urban, and rural. Each of these congregations offers worship that is alive, engaging, challenging and passionate. The services spanned the continuum of styles and expressions. For instance, one service led with an extraordinarily gifted chancel choir accompanied by a 12-piece orchestra and two harps! (I think thatís a record for meÖ.Iíve never preached at a two-harp service before!) Another service took place on a stage with a praise band, and another in a sanctuary with a blending of formal, informal, traditional and praise music led by adults, youth, and children. Even the clergy garb spanned the spectrum – robes and stoles for a few services, suits and ties at a couple, and open-collar shirts at another. At one church, I changed in and out of various outfits three times during the morning!
Even with such diverse expressions of liturgy, pace, volume, and style, these congregations all seemed to offer worship that was compelling, inviting, appealing, authentic, passionate, and true to the purpose of worship and to the mission of the church. Thatís not always the case with many of our churches. While itís hard to describe the difference between churches with passionate worship and those who are simply going through the routine or providing entertainment, we intuitively know authentic worship pretty well when we see it. Itís worship where people are eager to gather and enjoy one anotherís presence, and you can tell it, and where the pastor and musicians and leaders are offering their best, and it shows. Itís worship where one senses the presence of the spirit, and where you feel that a crowd is becoming the body of Christ. Itís worship that deepens the interior life, helps us see the world through Godís eyes, and that changes us and forms us and strengthens us. Itís worship through which God shapes hearts and minds.
One element of these diverse services that stood out was the quality, depth, and efficacy of the pastoral prayers. One pastor knelt at the chancel rail, and guided the congregation through heartfelt petitions, expressing the hopes, sufferings, desires, and longings of the community. I felt distractions of my mind pushed to the side, and a certain settling of my own spirit as my heart was led by her words. She used the power of silence to unify the people before God. At another church, a prayer team surrounded anyone who came forward at the end of the service desiring special prayer. A younger couple came forward – I do not know what they carried in their hearts, but I watched them ìsurrounded by steadfast loveî(as our old liturgy says,) and I have no doubt the time and tears and touch that the prayer team shared helped ease the burden and assure them that they were not alone. Another church had everyone hold hands with others around them for prayer. Some pastoral prayers began with opportunities for members of the congregation to speak a sentence of petition or thanksgiving, and one church invited people to write any prayer requests on a card and put them in the offering plate, or to put the card in an envelop if they had a concern they only wanted to pastor to know about.
There are so many elements that make worship engaging, authentic, alive, and passionate. But one absolutely essential element is prayerÖ.prayer that is honest, deep, real, connecting, personal.
Early in my ministry, one of my mentors (who has now been deceased by more than twenty years) shared a quote that Iíve never forgotten (although Iíve also never tried to track down and verify in the books.) He said that the great preacher of the 1930ís, 40í, and 50ís, Harry Emerson Fosdick, once said, ìIf for some awful reason you only have time to prepare one thing well for Sunday worship, work on the pastoral prayer.î My mentor and friend told me this while I was asking for insights on how best to prepare for preaching! A deeply considered pastoral prayer expresses the heart of the people we serve to God, and expresses the heart of God to the people we serve. It expresses the infinite love God has for each one of us, while also opening ourselves to the needs and sufferings and injustices, not just among those we know, but in our community and world. It pulls us out of ourselves, and provokes us to become part of Godís plan and purpose to reconcile the world through Christ. As the seldom-sung song in our hymnal says, ìPrayer is the soulís sincere desire, uttered or unexpressedÖ.î
I love being a part of worship that is alive and sustaining and life-changing. I canít imagine worship that is alive and sustaining and life-changing that is not shaped by honest, profound, and persistent prayer.
Yours in Christ,
P.S. If you are looking for resources to deepen the prayer-life of your congregation, consider some of Martha Grace Reeseís writings: Unbinding the Gospel, and Unbinding Your Heart, and Unbinding Your Church.