Why do people pray? If you walked through a park near your house and asked the picnickers, what answers do you think you would get? Probably, you’d hear responses similar to a recent survey in which 63% of the participants—regardless of their religiosity or prayer habits—think that prayer “adds something” to their lives.
But particularly when we consider corporate prayer, our resolve often falters. A congregation of worshippers, heads bowed and eyes closed, being led in prayer by a single elder is not particularly impressive. Corporate prayer has no stirring soundtrack, no vivid visuals, and often no noticeable results. It seems unlikely to attract visitors, to reach teens, or to engage doubters. Sometimes even mature believers find it tiresome.
In my recent book, Praying Together, I explore the rich biblical foundations of corporate prayer. The church has a clear duty to pray together, and she can find encouragement from the promises God attaches to it. The church at prayer is doing important spiritual work in the heavenly places. Corporate prayer, then, is not simply important because it “adds something” to my life.
But, by the kindness of the Lord, it does add something.
In a lifetime of Sundays, I have been led in thousands of prayers—what earlier centuries called “the long prayer”—from the pulpit. Some of these prayers I squirmed through as a child. Or slept through as a teenager. Or even half-ignored as an adult. But many, many of them brought me to the very throne of God. And—what may be just as important—the steady week-by-week accumulation of now nearly 4,000 pulpit prayers has radically shaped my spiritual experience.
And in a moment of boredom or distraction in my pew, it is good for me to remember this. Let me suggest just three (of the many!) personal benefits of praying with the church:
(1) When the church prays, I pray.
Like most people, I am inclined to pray most when my perceived needs are the greatest. When I am facing financial insecurity, sudden illness, or physical danger, my prayers are frequent and heart-felt. But when the skies are blue and the sea is calm, I can forget to pray.
The reality, of course, is that I need the help of the Lord at every minute. I am a little child, a wandering sheep, a tender blade of grass. I am vulnerable to sin and Satan; but I am often ignorant of my own precarious frailty.
The regular and comprehensive prayers of the church force me to pray and to pray regularly. When the elder leads us in praying for the glory of God, for daily bread, and for deliverance from sin, I pray those things, too. Sunday after Sunday, I pray whether I think I need it or not.
(2) When the church prays, I am prayed for.
Just as Aaron and Hur held up the sagging arms of Moses (Ex. 17:12), I am upheld by my brothers and sisters when the church prays. Sometimes, I might be mentioned by name from the pulpit—as a particular situation in my life compels particular prayer—but, more often, my concerns are brought to the Throne of God as the common concerns of the whole congregation.
When the elder prays for God’s people to grow in holiness, when he prays for us to love Christ more and put sin to death, when he prays for us to savor the words of Scripture in our families and put them into practice in our lives, then the church is praying for me.
Beyond this, my concerns are included in the concerns of the whole church. When the elder leads the church in praying for the ministry of the church—for the help of the Spirit, for the clear preaching of the Word, for the salvation of sinners and the equipping of the saints—then, too, the church is praying for me.
(3) When the church prays, I learn to pray.
I do not consider myself a great pray-er. But because of my elders, I regularly pray great prayers. Weekly, I pray reverent prayers full of Scriptural language, shaped by Scriptural priorities, based on Scriptural promises. My confession is heart-rending, and my praise is heart-lifting. One by one, I pray tenderly for the concerns of Christ and his church, and I pray these things with astonishing confidence. No, I may not be a great pray-er, but I have had great help. And the things I have learned in corporate prayer have, in turn, shaped my private prayers for the better.
Praying with my church has been one of the greatest privileges of my life. Brothers and sisters, let us pray.