Worship as Prayer

27 10 2014

The first “contemporary” worship service I attended was at Willow Creek in the early 1990’s. I was in college and, in fact, attendance was part of a class assignment for a course on church growth. And even in those days when I possessed extensive ignorance in the areas of ecclesiology and liturgy, I noticed the distinct lack of prayer in the service. When discussing this in the classroom, it was argued this was intentional because it was a “seeker” service. The more intensive “praying” took place in small groups throughout the week. There were just too many non-Christians in the Sunday services to warrant the use of the very Christian act of prayer.

 

Setting aside, for now, the pros and cons of using Sunday “worship” services as the main evangelistic tool of the church, it must be pointed out that churches like Willow Creek influenced the way thousands of churches conducted their worship services in North America (and now, the world). Which means this lack of prayer in the main service has now become common-place in “contemporary” worship services in country, small town, suburban and urban congregations. When I sit through these sort of services (and sitting is about all that the “audience” gets to do, except standing to sing) I increasingly feel like I have been to some kind of a show that may be distantly related to Christian worship, but does not quite pull-off the real deal.

 

The truth is painful (and controversial) but it must be said and repeated: most of our Evangelical “contemporary” worship services would be unrecognizable to believers from Justin Martyr to John Wesley. The lack of a distinct and unified prayer of the people of God is an immense contributor to this very lamentable reality.

 

This lack of prayer in our “worship” services has, I believe, been a major impetus for the many prayer movements that have experienced dynamic growth in the last 20 years (The International House of Prayer, IHOP, comes immediately to mind– and while, on the one hand, IHOP takes “contemporary” worship forms to a new extreme with 24/7 worship music lead by a band; on the other hand, IHOP conceives of every facet of their services as prayer which is much closer to Biblical and historic perspectives of worship).

 

My concern and anger are piqued because most of Evangelicalism’s fastest growing churches are training Christians that prayer is either a minor component of Christian practice or it is something best left to the paid professionals. There may be a prayer here and there, and the pastor may pray, but when do God’s people learn how to pray as individuals, much less as a cohesive whole?

 

Hence my preference for ancient liturgies, East and West, and the emphasis on the worship service as the unified prayer of God’s people– a service that is prayer from start to finish. But Evangelicals, by and large, dismiss these prayers as wrote and unreal because they are not prayed from the heart. How can they be since they are just printed words mouthed in unison? But my rebuttal is based on the didactic importance of prayer: how can the heart, or mind, pray well when it has never been invited into the Church’s prayer life that has been going on for 3,000 plus years (going back to the Psalms)? Old and New Testament followers of God prayed written prayers as one. And so did Christians for the vast majority of Church history. How is it that some of us now know better or have graduated to a higher level than the giants of the faith who have gone before us?

 

I’m afraid we place too much emphasis on “heart-felt” emotional prayers and not enough on serious corporate prayer that forms and shapes those who join their voices to it into Christ-like, living sculptures. In fact, if our extemporaneous, “heart-felt” prayers too often seem inane, shallow and self-focused, we need not look far for one of the main culprits. Written, corporate prayers are not meant to replace other forms of prayer, but to breath life, vibrancy and depth into them. Our own time tends to pit written and extemporaneous forms prayer against one another– making them mutually exclusive. But they are meant, and have been used as such down through the millennia, to be the right and left lungs of the prayer life of God’s people. We dare not keep the Holy Spirit on a short leash by using only one prayer form to the utter neglect of the other.


Please take these following paragraphs from the late Robert Webber with the weight and seriousness they deserve. If we are no longer praying God’s story for the sake of the world, we are no longer Christ’s body or bride. We’re just another association with faded semblances to a vibrant Christian heritage. (What follows is from his final book: Ancient-Future Worship)

 

The first crisis of public prayer is its neglect. By neglect I do not mean to suggest that congregational worship has no prayer within it. Indeed, most if not all churches will do prayers. They may begin and end with prayer. A prayer may be said before a sermon or at its ending; intercessory prayers may be made for the sick, for shutins, for the needs of the congregation, local city, country, and even for the world (however, many contemporary churches do not have a place for intercessory prayer). What I speak of here as the neglect of prayer is the failure to conduct all of worship as the prayer of the church for the life of the world.

This failure to grasp all of worship as a cosmic prayer has several underlying causes. The first and, I believe, most fundamental reason why worship is not seen as prayer is the failure to grasp that corporate prayer arises from the story of God. We think of corporate prayers as arising within ourselves. Yet the story of God . . .is the story of the world and of human existence. Worship prays this story. But this thought and the application of this thought for the content and structure of worship is neglected simply because it is unheard of by many.

A second reason why worship is not seen as the prayer of God’s people for the world is because worship has been turned into a program. Worship, influenced by broadcast communication theories of the media revolution, has become an entertaining presentation. The commitment to worship “programming” has been intensified by the contemporary Christian music industry. Because people are drawn by entertainment, showmanship, and celebrity, many local churches have turned to a presentational worship to attract the masses.

Consequently, the nature of worship has shifted from corporate prayer to platform presentational performance. Worship, instead of being a rehearsal of God’s saving actions in the world and for the world, is exchanged for making people feel comfortable, happy, and affirmed. Worship, no longer the public prayer of God’s people, becomes a private and individual experience. Beneath the privatization of worship is the ever-present individualism of our culture. This focus on the self results in prayers that are concerned with my life, my needs, my desires–prayers that seem indifferent to the needs of the poor and the problem of violence and war that devours nations and societies and ignore the works of God in Christ to bring to an end all evil, death, and sin. . . .

Worship as public prayer may be described as follows: “Public prayer lifts up all creation to the Father through Jesus Christ by the Spirit in praise and thanksgiving for the work of the Son, who has reconciled creatures and creation to God.” Because this is what the public prayer of the church does, the story of God is the substance of the inner content that shapes the outer form of public prayer. Worship prays God’s story.

 

 

Paul instructs the churches in Philippi, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The “your” here is second person plural. This is a corporate activity flowing from and resting on the accomplished work of Christ Jesus. The prayers we pray when we gather for worship need to more intentionally unite us into the true story of Jesus. Written, responsorial, and Eucharistic prayers are indispensible for this task.

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