Corporate Worship: Pastoral Prayer

Dear Church Family,

In the corporate worship of the church, the pastoral prayer (called “the long prayer” in some traditions) has fallen on hard times. If there are any prayers publicly offered in worship services today, they are often limited to opening and closing prayers for the service and the sermon. Thus, whether intentional or not, prayer can come to be seen as a merely perfunctory transitional element in the worship service. Yet, the prayers of God’s people, along with the administration of the sacraments (and in concert with the Word) are the ordinary means which God uses to increase and strengthen the faith of His people (WCF 14:1).

In the Apostle John’s vision of the heavenly throne room, the prayers of the saints are “golden bowls full of incense” (Revelation 5:8). These prayers are sanctified with the fire of the heavenly altar, and then thrown down to earth (Revelation 8:5). God works – in blessings and judgments – through the prayers of His people. Therefore, though we may not fully comprehend the mystery and the power of the prayers of God’s people, it is an important and powerful gift which God has given to His church.

Public Prayer

During my seminary studies, I had one of my first opportunities to lead in worship. After the service, I asked a good friend and fellow seminarian for feedback with regard to the pastoral prayer. He responded, “As a general rule, I never critique people’s prayers.” At the time, I thought that to be a good and pious response. We need to guard ourselves from becoming overly critical; however, since then I have come to think differently about what my friend said.

Certainly, we do want to guard ourselves from becoming critical of the different ways in which people express themselves. And we certainly have much freedom in our personal and family prayer life. Yet, when a minister or elder leads the congregation in prayer, he does so as their representative voice. And, there are certain criteria that mark public prayers as different from prayers which we offer up privately or among our family and friends. The leading of public prayer is different in at least two ways.

1. Studied Prayer

Public prayers – particularly the pastoral prayer – are best when the one who leads has made preparations for leading in prayer. This idea of preparing or studying in preparation to pray has been called “studied prayer.” As far as I have been able to ascertain, “studied prayers” is a phrase that was coined by one of the members of the Westminster Assembly by the name of Philip Nye. As the Westminster divines discussed and debated whether written or extemporary prayers were more proper in worship, Philip Nye said, “I plead for neither [set forms or extemporary prayers], but for studied prayers.” (quoted in the paper The Westminster Directory of Public Worship (1645) by Alan Clifford, WRS Journal 7/2, August 2000).

In his book Leading in Prayer, Hughes Oliphant Old writes:

“For many generations American Protestants have prized spontaneity in public prayer. I hope it will always be so. One has to admit, however, that the spontaneous prayer one often hears in public worship is an embarrassment to the tradition. It all too often lacks content. It may be sincere, but sometimes it is not profound. One notices sometimes that the approach that these prayers reveal is immature, if not simply misleading. Spontaneity needs to be balanced by careful preparation and forethought.”

In studying or preparing for prayer, there are really three ‘books’ to which the minister or elder may turn in preparations. First, the Scriptures – God’s Word teaches us how we ought to pray, it equips the man of God for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16). We use the language and categories which God has given us as we speak to Him in prayer. Second, knowing and studying the people of the congregation helps the one who leads in prayer to focus on their particular needs and concerns. Third, the private prayer life of the one who leads in prayer, as he depends upon the strengthening of the Holy Spirit for guidance, helps him to lead in prayer according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).

2. Formal Prayer

In many people’s minds, informality is often equated with sincerity. In this way of thinking, adjusting one’s form or manner of speech to fit a certain context can be seen as insincere or even hypocritical. As a teen-ager, there was an elder in our church who was very congenial and friendly in his speech with others in the church; he was easy to talk to. Yet, when he prayed, he addressed God in the old King James language of “Thee’s” and “Thou’s.” Some would see that (and did) as a mark of false piety or insincerity: “He doesn’t talk like that normally, so why does he change his form of address when he prays?”

Imagine if you were granted an audience with a king or a president of a nation. If you were granted this audience for yourself as an individual, with the privilege of having personal one-on-one time with the ruler of the state, you would most likely still be respectful, but there would be a bit more informality that marked the occasion. The head of state might even ask you into his private study and hear your personal concerns over coffee.

Yet, if you were granted an audience with that same king or president of a nation as the representative of a group of his constituents (at which they also would be present), it would be a very different thing. You would, no doubt, prepare and study to make sure that you represented the people appropriately. You might even write out what you were going to say. And, because of the larger gathering of people, and more formal occasion, you would use more formal language and terms of address.

“Thee’s” and “Thou’s” may not be necessary when leading in corporate prayer as the representative voice of the congregation before the throne of God, but leading God’ people in prayer is most certainly a different context that requires a bit more formal manner of speech. Even if you were a close friend of the king, when addressing him, in the presence of others as their representative, you would not (or at least, should not!) begin with, “Hey, buddy!”


What should be included in the pastoral prayer? Well, even as there is no set form, the Scriptures do give us topics of things that we ought to prayer for: e.g., all men and governing authorities (1 Timothy:1-4), the church and all the saints (Ephesians 6:18; Philippians 1:1-11); evangelism and missions (Matthew 9:37-38; 2 Thessalonians 3:1-2); ministers of the gospel (Ephesians 6:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:25); forgiveness (Acts 8:22); sanctification (Hebrews 13:18); healing and good health (James 5:13-16; 3 John 1:2). Surely, there is more, but these seem to be the main things for which the Lord commends us to pray.

In listing the topics of “a full and comprehensive prayer,” the Presbyterian Church in American’s Book of Church Order lists six general topics (BCO 52:2). In summary, they are: (1) Adoring the glory and perfections of God as they are made known in creation, providence, and his written words; (2) Giving thanks for all His mercies of every kind, general and particular, spiritual and temporal, common and special; (3) Making humble confession of sin with a deep sense of the evil of all sin; (4) Making earnest supplications for the pardon of sin, and peace with God, through the blood of the atonement and for the Spirit of sanctification; (5) Pleading from every principle warranted in Scripture; (6) Intercession and petition for others, including the whole world for mankind, for the salvation of all, the growth of the Church of God, ministers and missionaries, those in need, for civil rulers, and for whatever else may seem to be necessary or suitable to the occasion.

Our bulletin lists prayer concerns which are intended to help our congregation to pray, individually and corporately. The “specific” are those personal needs and prayer requests that are made known by individuals in the congregation. The list of the “general” prayers is a simple summary of the topics mentioned in “The Directory for the Publick Worship of God” (specifically, the section entitled, “Of Publick Prayer before the Sermon”): personal growth in holiness; propagation of the gospel locally and abroad; the health of the local and universal church; conversion of unbelievers; government authorities and the preservation of peace.

The Lord’s Prayer

At Hill Country Church (PCA), we conclude the pastoral prayer each week by reciting together “The Lord’s Prayer.” Our own Westminster Standards teach us that “the whole word of God is of use to direct us in prayer, but the special rule of direction is that form of prayer which Christ taught his disciples, commonly called the Lord’s prayer” (WSC 99). This is the prayer which the Lord Jesus taught His disciples (Matthew 6; Luke 11).

It is a set form of prayer which the Lord has instructed to use. Yet, it is good to understand the meaning and not just say the words. The Reformed catechisms help us in this regard by giving a thorough explanation of the meaning of this prayer: Westminster Larger Catechism 186-196; Westminster Shorter Catechism 99-107; Heidelberg Catechism 119-129.

As with other elements of the corporate worship service that are repeated week in and week out, continual recitation aids the people of God to learn and memorize parts of the service that stays with them for life. I once visited a retired church elder in the hospital as he was dying. He was unresponsive and his family was gathered around his bed. It was apparent that he would not be with us on this earth much longer. He took no notice as I led the family in prayer, but his countenance changed when we all began to recite the Lord’s prayer together in his hearing. He immediately began to speak and mouth the words that he had said all his life. The weekly worship of God had prepared this man to die well.

May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!