As evangelical churches become increasingly user-friendly in an attempt to reach their world for Christ, one of the aspects of corporate worship that has fallen on hard times is what is customarily known as the pastoral prayer. This longer time of prayer (about five to seven minutes in my church) is a very important part of a local church’s worship, a time during which a pastor leads his flock to God’s throne of grace (Heb. 4:14–16). For the believers, this becomes a singular time of communion with God as they affirm in their hearts, and perhaps discreetly with their voices, the praise, thanksgiving, and supplications that are brought to God’s ears. For the unbelievers, this longer time of prayer may make them feel uncomfortable (visitors have commented as much), but there is no reason to apologize for that. Church is for the church—if we understand the Bible correctly. This does not mean we go out of our way to offend unbelievers, since we ought always to show them the gracious love of Christ. But we certainly must not “design” our worship services with unregenerate desires in mind. To do so is to abandon a biblical ecclesiology.
The ministry of James Montgomery Boice, the late pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, was characterized by an intense love for the corporate worship of the church. Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship is a book written by a number of his friends and ministry peers. In a chapter entitled “Does God Care How We Worship?” Ligon Duncan cites Boice’s concern for the growing absence of substantial prayer in church worship services, particularly the passing away of the “pastoral prayer”:
It is almost inconceivable to me that something called worship can be held without any significant prayer, but that is precisely what is happening. There is usually a short prayer at the beginning of the service, though even that is fading away. It is being replaced with a chummy greeting to make people feel welcome and at ease. Sometimes people are encouraged to turn around and shake hands with those who are next to them in the pews. Another prayer that is generally retained is the prayer for the offering. We can understand that, since we know that it takes the intervention of Almighty God to get self-centered people to give enough money to keep the church running. But longer prayers—pastoral prayers—are vanishing. Whatever happened to the acts acrostic in which a stands for adoration, c for confession of sin, t for thanksgiving, and s for supplication? There is no rehearsal of God’s attributes or confession of sin against the shining, glorious background of God’s holiness….And what happens when Mary Jones is going to have an operation and the people know it and think she should be prayed for? Quite often prayers for people like that are tacked onto the offering prayer, because there is no other spot for them in the service. How can we say we are worshiping when we do not even pray?
In response to this question, every serious pastor needs to take time to study and to meditate on the apostle Paul’s pastoral prayers, such as Colossians 1:9–14; Philippians 1:9–11; or Ephesians 3:14–21. From this study, we quickly conclude that Paul’s shepherding heart moved him to intercede regularly for the needs of his people. A helpful aid in this study is D. A. Carson’s book A Call to Spiritual Reformation.
If you are a pastor/elder, and you already faithfully bring your sheep to the Lord in the name of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, remain steadfast in what is a biblically warranted aspect of public worship. God’s people will learn to pray, at least partially, by listening to you pray for them. If you have not practiced this discipline, please begin this coming Sunday. You, and your people, will be so glad you did.
[This post is an Appendix taken out of the book Pray About Everything.]