Every congregation needs three essential gatherings – one for worship, one for teaching and training (discipleship), and one in which the congregation meets God in corporate prayer. These are not exclusive one of the other. As the church gathers for prayer, there should be at the heart of the meeting, a worshipful disposition. The corporate worship experience should be structured to include significant congregational prayer moments. Yet neither, the church gathered to worship and hear the Word nor the church gathered to pray the Word, can replace the other. The act of praying together is itself a form of discipleship. We learn to pray by praying.
The discipleship-training-teaching effort of the church should include a prayer training component, in which, a deeper understating of prayer is cultivated, and again, neither can replace the other. The central spiritual discipline that enlightens us is prayer – over an open Bible. Without prayer, discipleship fails. Since, without the discipline of daily time with God, as well as regular moments in which the congregation pauses to meet with God corporately, we testify to independence and self-sufficiency, the opposite of the spirit of one under discipline.
A fundamental characteristic of healthy worship is its vertical orientation. It is not the singing or preaching that inspires us, not the horizontal. Rather, it is edification (horizontal), insistently, in the context of glorifying God (vertical). Our chorus and syrupy brotherly love moments, our best inspiration praise music and positive preaching, will not sustain us. What is demanded is an encounter with the Presence, with God. That necessitates corporate interaction with God, our talking to God, doing it together, and that is corporate prayer.
Sadly, too little prayer occurs in our corporate worship. Even when we sing prayer songs, we recite the lyrics, but do not pray them. We are in church, unconscious of God’s Presence. Essentially ignoring Him – with Him in the room. Talking to one another about Him – but not to Him.
The element of prayer in worship has almost been lost – prayer is a quick opening to say to the people, “We are beginning the service!” And it is a closing exercise, a moment in which many race for the door to be the first out of the parking lot, and in which the pastor positions himself at the door for congratulatory handshakes about the morning message. The benediction, which should be the high point in worship, that moment in which God’s blessing is pronounced on the people, is disappearing.
In smaller congregations, where prayer request times have survived, a collage of needs are cast heavenward with such casualness that the experience testifies to our waning faith in prayer. That too, is the time when staging shifts occur. Prayer is ancillary to worship, almost irrelevant, certainly the stepchild of corporate worship. If prayer is not practiced when the people of God gather for worship, by that omission, we declare its value as insignificant. We assume God’s grace. We transform worship into clubs of sincere people gathered to inspire one another – and that is less than true worship. The congregation needs to hear the pastor, not only talking to them, but also talking to God in their behalf, modeling Biblical prayer, functioning in his primary role as shepherd-watchman-intercessor. And the congregation needs to be led in corporate prayer.
It is estimated that 90 percent of the people attending some religious events, even church services, are passive observers. The church has been a spectator event. We are sung to, prayed for, and preached at. The church is thought to exist for the inspiration it offers, the services it provides, the bang for the buck – not so. The church does not exist for itself, for its members, but for the Lord, and because of His loving nature, for the world around us. Contrary to popular thought, worship is not ‘for what we receive from the experience’ but for what God receives. Narcissistic self-interested worship is a form of idolatry; it is self-worship, thinly disguised. And it is self-deception. The new reformation, someone has said, is ‘do whatever works.’ Pragmatism. In our attempt to be contemporary, and to reach a post-Christian culture, we are in danger of becoming ourselves post-Christian. Of losing the faith. To make it all about the person, the sinner, whose major problem is self-centered life, only reinforces the sin. It is the radical opposite that is needed – repentance, a cross, humility, the death of sin and self.
This blog is part of The Praying Church Handbook – Volume III – Pastor and the Congregation which can be purchased at alivepublications.org>
P. Douglas Small is founder and president of Alive Ministries: PROJECT PRAY and he serves in conjunction with a number of other organizations. He is also the creator of the Praying Church Movement and the Prayer Trainer’s Network. However, all views expressed are his own and not the official position of any organization.
 Mike Erre, Death by Church (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2009), 39.