The Power of Public Prayer in the Church

May 16, 2016

by Kent Hughes

Our public prayers in our corporate worship services have a massive impact on the prayer lives of God’s people, in that such prayers teach the church how to approach our transcendent but immanent God. They also bring power to our churches. The immense importance of the corporate prayers of the body of Christ rests on Scripture’s direct accounts of the power wrought by such prayers and the apostolic dependence on the prayers of the church.

The Power of Public Prayer

The book of Acts tells us that it was after a mighty corporate prayer for boldness (Acts 4:24–30) that “the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (v. 31). Acts also recounts how the church’s corporate prayers brought deliverance for the imprisoned apostle Peter. The manacled apostle felt an angel tap him on the side, heard his chains rattle to the ground, and saw the iron prison gate automatically open for him (12:7–10). After Peter collected himself and went to the house of Mary, he found the church praying for him (v. 12).

There is mighty power when the church comes together for focused, corporate prayer. . .when the people are truly engaged and praying in concert, great grace is poured out.

The same thing happened to Pastor Zebedayo Idu, who, having been imprisoned by a Marxist dictator (who had given orders for his immediate execution), suddenly found himself free and on the street due to a “mechanical” malfunction. As he ran back to his village, he glanced into the church, where he saw his congregation united in fervent intercession for him.

The apostle Paul’s intimate knowledge of the power of corporate prayer prompted him to conclude his teaching on spiritual warfare with the ringing challenge for his readers to take “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the spirit, with all prayer and supplication . . . for all the saints” (Eph. 6:17b–18). And then, very significantly, Paul asked for the church’s prayer for himself, adding, “And [pray] also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” (v. 19).

There is mighty power when the church comes together for focused, corporate prayer, because when the prayers are not perfunctory but thought through, and when the people are truly engaged and praying in concert, great grace is poured out on world mission, local evangelism, national leaders, the preaching of the Word, the sanctification of God’s people, and the ill and grieving.

Preparing for Public Prayer

Preparation for public prayer requires preparation of the heart and of the head. Preparation of prayers apart from the heart may result in accuracy and eloquence, but of a frigid sort. Preparation of the heart is indispensable, but apart from some thought, prayers may be pious and vacuous. Pulpit prayer requires a melding of both types of preparation.

Preparing Your Spirit

The public prayers of the pastor must be a reflection of his private prayer; public prayer must flow from our communion and intercession with God in secret. Congregational prayers can be theologically precise and beautiful but hollow if they are not rooted in the heart and practice of the pastor.

The takeaways for those of us who are charged with leading in corporate prayer are significant:

  • We must be pastors who have deep, regular, private communion with God.
  • The emotion that we express in public prayer must be consonant with the feeling that we express in private prayer. We must be real.
  • Apart from personal, family, and confidential matters, the things that we pray for in public must be consistent with the things we have been praying for in private. Our private prayer burdens should inform our public prayer burdens.
  • We must be utterly engaged in our prayers, so that God fills our horizons, not our “audience.”
  • We must ask God to work in our hearts first those things that we would like worked in the hearts of our people.
  • We must go “prayed up” and prepared when we stand before God’s people to lead them in prayer.

We are saying that thought-through public prayers will enrich and elevate public worship and the prayer life of the congregation.

Preparing Your Prayers

When we speak of “preparing prayers,” we are not referring to set prayers that are sometimes used for invocation or confession, but prayers that the pastor may compose for any part of corporate worship, including invocations and confessions.

First, we must understand how not to pray, a negative that must certainly inform the subject of preparation. Significantly, just before Jesus told his disciples how they ought to pray, giving them the example of the Lord’s Prayer, he told them how they ought not to pray: “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matt. 6:7). Jesus warned against two kinds of prayers: those full of empty phrases (today’s pious, vacuous jargon) and lengthy prayers (inflated by such empty jargon). This is not an argument against extemporaneous prayer, but a warning to take care as to the words and content of our prayers. This can best be done by writing out our prayers.

At this point, readers may think that we are down on extemporaneous prayers in public worship. We are not. If we are Spirit-filled Christians, our waking hours are filled with extemporaneous prayer, and not just before meals and meetings. As pastors, we may be called on to offer extemporaneous prayer several times a day. In this sense, extemporaneous prayer is a barometer of spiritual health. It can even be said that at times an extemporaneous prayer is the height of spiritual expression and heartfelt devotion.

We are saying that thought-through public prayers will enrich and elevate public worship and the prayer life of the congregation. In fact, preparation often provides the ground for remarkable extemporaneous prayers. And because of this, we pastors should embrace the discipline of writing out our prayers.

Years ago, in the Princeton days of Miller, it was noted that Rev. John Gillies, a visiting Scottish preacher, prayed with remarkable pastoral grace and depth. When asked why that was, after demurring, he explained that if there was anything in his public prayer different from the prayers of others, it was due, “under God,” to the fact that in the first ten years of his ministry he never wrote a sermon “without writing a prayer, in part or in whole, corresponding with it in its general strain.” This kind of discipline pours grace on the gathered worship of the church.

Having made the case for the discipline of writing out our prayers for public worship, we are not suggesting that those prayers be read verbatim. They can be used as “security blankets” in making sure that we pastors stay on target. They can even be reduced to suggestive outlines or their contours committed to memory. In any case, they must be internalized so that they come from the depths of our hearts with much affection. Likewise, the set prayers and prayers of confession must never be “said,” but prayed with the full engagement of our minds and hearts. Our people can sense the difference.

This piece is adapted from R. Kent Hughes, The Pastor’s Book (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 262–267. Used with permission of the publisher.

Kent Hughes

Dr. Hughes (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is professor of practical theology at WTS.

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