One Sunday afternoon in London, five college students went to the Tabernacle to hear the famed Charles Spurgeon preach. They waited outside the locked doors of the church, and a man asked if they wanted a tour. “Gentlemen, let me show you around. Would you like to see the heating plant of this church?” It wasn’t a terrible inviting proposition, it was a hot July day. Intrigued, they consented. They were led inside, and down a stairway. “This is our heating plant.” As the door opened, their eyes fell on some 700 people in prayer, seeking God for a blessing on the service that would soon begin in the sanctuary above. The ‘tour guide’ softly closed the door, and introduced himself – as Charles Spurgeon.
Prayer is prayer, but not all prayer is the same. Thanksgiving and praise, communion with petition and intercession, are the fundamental components of prayer (1 Timothy 2:1). All of these are appropriate in either a private or a corporate setting; however, the context changes the dynamic. There is a difference between personal, private, devotional prayer and public, corporate prayer. This is true whether or not there is a formal liturgy and its symbols, as in the case of most evangelical, non-liturgical churches. Further, being in the same room praying does not itself constitute corporate prayer. A dozen or a hundred, a thousand, can be together, praying – all separately, all independently, all in isolated individualism, privatizing their relationship with God. A hundred different methods of prayer are boiled down to these two essential categories – liturgical prayer, the public prayer of the church, and private or devotional prayer.
John R. Mott argued, “If added power attends the united prayer of two or three, what mighty triumphs there will be when hundreds of thousands of consistent members of the Church are with one accord day by day making intercession for the extension of Christ’s Kingdom.” J. B. Johnston in his classic work, The Prayer Meeting and Its History, believed, “God has appointed prayer as His way of dispensing, and our way of obtaining all promised good” and by that, he meant specifically, the prayer meeting, corporate prayer. “History confirms the truth that wherever evangelical and vital religion flourish, there lives the earnest gatherings for social prayer.”
“Liturgical, public prayer might more aptly be called priestly prayer, while private and devotional prayer might better be termed affective prayer.” That does not deny a personal, private priestly element to prayer. Rather, it differentiates. The church-corporate is more appropriately representative as standing before God as a body, not as one member. It is the bride, a corporate entity, joining the bridegroom Christ in prayer. It is out of and in the spirit of His priestly prayer, John 17, that we be one and fulfill His mission. It is our praying with Him as a kingdom of priests, for the world. Affective prayer is our prayer; private prayer, done by ourselves or with others, within which we ask God from the depth of our own private faith to bless others and ourselves. Again, this does not mean that affective prayer is excluded from the corporate, but that it takes place most effectively, when the individual is alone with God.
Corporate prayer is the church gathered, in some form, whole or part, to meet with God. Chrysostom would assert, “What we cannot obtain by solitary prayer we may by social… because where our individual strength fails, there union and concord are effectual.” Johnston declared, “The prayer meeting is the rallying point where the power of faith in the church concentrates, and takes hold on the arm that moves the world.”
The church, by its very nature and constitution, is instrumental, priestly. It is the agency of God for kingdom purposes. It does not, it must not, exist for itself – though in the current western world, it often does. If its prayer energy and focus is self-serving, it is narcissistic, sick with disease of the world. That renders it dysfunctional and ineffective, perhaps sterile and lifeless. The goal of corporate prayer is that the Church, the bride of Christ, will join Christ in prayer, the two praying together, in order that the bride is both informed and empowered to complete her mission in behalf of Christ. In prayer, the church gathered, steps into the purposes of God. The great prayer is the one prayed, not by us, but by Christ. “It is the prayer of Christ through the church for the world. Our Christian belief is that Christ is still gathering us together around His Word and is still offering an eternal act of love for the world.” We join Christ in prayer. We become the fulfillment, the answer, to His prayer. In such a moment, we have corporately stepped into the ‘Office of the Church’ and we tap the authority of His name, His kingdom. The priestly prayer of the church gathered, out of the ‘Office of the Church’ is not for itself, except in relationship to its mission. It is prayer for the world!
Personal prayer is different. We cannot pray from the Office of the Church. We can join Christ in prayer as an individual, privately, personally. Our focus is personal communion and out of that, edification, direction for our personal lives. Here, meditation is championed. Here, we linger over an open Bible, allowing God to speak to us personally about choices and matters that affect our personal lives. Here, our goal is the cultivation of deeper communion with God. When such people come together collectively, the strength of these Christians, who privately wait before God daily, has an impact on the depth of corporate prayer as well as the reach of the Church itself and its mission. A tree does not dare spread out its branches unless its roots go deep.
Never ask corporate prayer to do what only private moments of prayer will do; and never expect private prayer to compensate or substitute for the power and authority of a corporate prayer gathering. These two – personal, daily, to-be-like-Jesus praying, and the church gathered are the two big cogs that drive the prayer process. Nothing is bigger than these two. Neither can replace the other. A gathering of sincere intercessors, a small group, is not the same as the congregation gathered with the pastor to seek God. Those from more liturgical traditions emphasize corporate prayer – priestly prayer. Those from evangelical-Pentecostal backgrounds emphasize personal prayer, private prayer. Among evangelicals and Pentecostals, even in the context of the church gathered, the idea of ‘praying together,’ of ‘praying the same prayer,’ of praying out of the Office and Authority of the Church is not often understood or embraced. The individual is considered to have as much power as the corporate Church and we site a long list of Biblical references, all without realizing, that we are jaded by the hyper-individualism of a culture that privatizes and individuates everything. The church must come to God on its knees – and do so together.
This blog is part of The Praying Church Handbook – Volume III – Pastor and the Congregation which can be purchased at alivepublications.org>
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 Charles Spurgeon. Source: www.prayermeetings.org/Quotes_on_Corporate_Prayer.html.
 Rolheiser, Ronald (2014-03-11). Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity (p. 176). The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 John R. Mott. Source: www.prayermeetings.org/Quotes_on_Corporate_Prayer.html.
 J. B. Johnston, The Prayer Meeting and Its History. Source: www.prayermeetings.org/Quotes_on_Corporate_Prayer.html.
 Rolheiser, Sacred Fire, 176. Kindle Edition.
 Ibid, 177.
 Chrysostom. Source: www.prayermeetings.org/Quotes_on_Corporate_Prayer.html.
 J. B. Johnston, The Prayer Meeting and Its History, Source: www.prayermeetings.org/Quotes_on_Corporate_Prayer.html.
 Ronald Rolheiser, Our One Great Act of Fidelity (New York: Doubleday Religion, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, 2011), 88.