Sunday, July 24, 2011

Prayer, Preaching and the People

If you stop to think a moment or two about the integrity of worship, then you won’t be surprised to find seemingly different parts having important connections.

The present subject under consideration is what the “prayers of the people,” also known as the “pastoral prayer,” has to do with the preacher’s sermon, and why this might be important.

There is one obvious difference, of course: the prayer of the people is addressed to God, while the sermon is delivered to the people. Therefore they have very different functions in the service, the sermon as an extension of the proclamation of the Word, and the people’s prayers as part of the response to the Word. Each has its appropriate time and each has a unique sound.

Nevertheless, the two acts of worship are related intimately.

First of all, both will be conscious of language (grammar, syntax, vocabulary) that will be appropriate to the worshipping congregation.

The prayers of the people, in order to be truly the people’s prayers, will be crafted in language that fits more or less comfortably in their thoughts and speaking. Such usable prayer-language will be straightforward and direct rather than resorting to forced elegance or strained eloquence. The speech of prayer, especially if it is to be said by worshippers aloud, must approach something they might actually say, and not sound like the voice of a stranger.

This is equally true of the preacher’s language. If the sermon is to be a conversation or dialogue in any sense, those listening must also be formulating their responses mentally. Language from the pulpit that sounds foreign will suffer diminishing impact on the listeners in the pew.

A second consideration has to do with structure: both the people’s prayers and the preacher’s sermon have structure, it is to be hoped.

Yes, of course, there are times for adlib prayers, even within the context of the prayers of the people. But for public worship, in order to be sure to cover the necessary ground, some outline is necessary. Rambling prayers most often disintegrate into repetition, and from thence into boredom.

Similarly, in terms of the sermon, an adlib emphasis or enlargement can be exciting. But for the thoughtful preparation and presentation of a sermon, there needs to be some evidence of structure revealing a beginning, middle and end, at the very least. The progression of logic will reveal a theological growth from start to finish which the hearers can follow. Without some such skeleton, the sermon will likely become a mere blob of belief of minimal concern to any who might still be listening at the end.

The third matter that links the prayers of the people to the sermon is the prayer life of the preacher.

Prayer is an art that is learned by life-long practice. Going to seminary or ordination guarantee nothing at all when it comes to being adept at prayer. But practicing prayer consistently helps continual spiritual growth.

Now, part of that preacher’s prayer life is going to be praying for the congregation, their real and spiritual needs, and the world within which they live. The lives of the worshippers, as best the preacher can know them, will set the agenda both for the prayers of the people and the sermon.

Even though the prayers of the people usually follow the sermon in the service, the preacher might do well to prepare them first. Prayerful and thoughtful consideration of what’s going on in the hearts and minds of the people, and how to put it in words for them, is not a bad thing to do to get ready to draft a sermon that the same people will hear.

The “prayers of the people” used to be called the “pastoral prayer,” which in many instances was spoken entirely by the pastor. It was considered “pastoral” because folks understood that the pastor was one who would be sensitive to human needs worthy of articulation in prayer to the Almighty. That pastoral sense is important to retain in our worship, not just in the prayers, but in the preaching as well.

In seminary, we were regularly reminded that we should spend as much time in preparation for Sunday in finding the right words for the prayers as we would in writing a sermon. Based on the experience of my years of ministry, I’m convinced that’s a good idea.

Who prepares the “prayers of the people” at your church? Do they come word for word from a book? Are they printed for all to see in the worship order? Would you say them differently? Would you include different petitions?

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