O COME, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker. For he is our God" (Ps. 95:6, 7). Prayer is the high point of the church service. At this time the congregation is in direct communion with the Eternal. The reading of Scripture, the singing of hymns, and the preaching of the sermon must be secondary as these functions only speak about God; but when we pray, we are in direct conversation with the Almighty.
Prayer is a science and as such demands careful study and understanding. We are told, "There should be an intelligent knowledge of how to come to God in reverence and godly fear with devotional love. There is a growing lack of reverence for our Maker, a growing disregard of His greatness and His majesty." Selected Messages, book 2, p. 315.
It is distressing to admit that few of our ministers have had any training either on the college level or in seminary in the discipline, dynamics, and techniques of effective prayer. Inspiration states, "Educate and train the mind that you may in simplicity tell the Lord what you need. . . . The Lord desires us to improve in prayer and to offer our spiritual sacrifices with increased faith and power." In Heavenly Places, p. 78. Are we growing in an intelligence of prayer or are we praying in the same way that we have been doing for the past five, ten, or fifteen years?
There are several prayers offered in the course of a worship service. When the ministers enter the pulpit, it should be with dignity and solemn mien as they commit themselves to God. Then there is the invocation invoking God's blessing upon the service, and the benediction bringing the worship to a close. These are all vital; but the chief concern of this article is with the pastoral prayer or the main prayer. Let us notice some musts for the minister and the congregation to observe when this important prayer is offered.
As to the proper posture in prayer, both congregation and minister should kneel. "And when you assemble to worship God, be sure and bow your knees before Him. Let this act testify that the whole soul, body, and spirit are in subjection to the Spirit of truth." Selected Messages, book 2, p. 314. How thankful we should be that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has not followed the example of popular Protestantism where the worshipers no longer kneel but sit or stand during prayer! There is a blessing in kneeling before the eternal God.
However, we must not become legalistic and rigid in this matter, for there may be times where the ideal is not possible. At some of our convocations, such as in campmeeting pavilions and public auditoriums, kneeling is almost impossible. Thus, we must do the best we can in view of the circumstances; but the preferred posture of prayer is to kneel. How impressive it is to see a congregation reverently kneeling as they worship their Creator!
The Bible says several times, "He lifted up his voice." When public prayer is offered, it should be said in a clear voice so all present can hear every word. No one can be edified spiritually if the one addressing God cannot be understood. We are counseled, "Let those who pray and those who speak pronounce their words properly, and speak in clear, distinct, even tones. Prayer, if properly offered, is a power for good. It is one of the means used by the Lord to communicate to the people the precious treasures of truth. But prayer is not what it should be, because of the defective voices of those who utter it. Satan rejoices when the prayers offered to God are almost in audible." Gospel Workers, p. 88.
A prayer uttered hurriedly with excessive speed shows an inner tension on the part of the one in supplication. This attitude is contagious and will affect the entire congregation. Some important instruction is given by the servant of the Lord, "Do not fall into the habit of praying so indistinctly and in such a low tone that your prayers need an interpreter. Pray simply, but clearly and distinctly. To let the voice sink so low that it cannot be heard is no evidence of humility. ... A prayer uttered so hurriedly that the words are jumbled together is no honor to God and does the hearers no good. Let ministers and all who offer public prayer learn to pray in such a way that God will be glorified and the hearers will be blessed. Let them speak slowly and distinctly and in tones loud enough to be heard by all so that the people may unite in saying, Amen." Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 383.
The one offering the pastoral prayer must remember he is speaking for all gathered in worship not just for himself! All personal references such as "I," "my," and "me" should be omitted. In their place, "Our," "us," and "we" will be used. Ministers sometimes close their prayers by saying, "I ask in the name of Jesus." This is proper in private communion, but when public prayer is offered, the entire congregation should be included in "we . . ."
Long prayers in congregational worship are an abomination to the Lord and a trial to God's children. How often ministers err in this. Some very pointed admonition is given, "The long prayers made by some ministers have been a great failure. Praying to great length, as some do, is all out of place. ... A few minutes' time is enough to bring your case before God and tell Him what you want; and you can take the people with you and not weary them out and lessen their interest in devotion and prayer. They may be refreshed and strengthened, instead of exhausted." Ibid., vol. 2, p. 617.
It is said that when a person neglects his private communion with God, he tends to pray longer in public to compensate for his personal failure in piety. "Christ impressed upon His disciples the idea that their prayers should be short, expressing just what they wanted, and no more. . . . One or two minutes is long enough for any ordinary prayer." Ibid., p. 581. In private prayer, one can pray as long as he desires.
Often, the one selected to offer the main prayer is called upon just before the service. This allows little time for thought and contemplation. The person in charge says, "Brother So-and-so, will you give the prayer?" Ten or fifteen minutes later this brother offers to God a sincere but slipshod jumble of a prayer that can reduce the spirit of the divine service to irreverence. It has been written, "When public prayer is undisciplined, corporate public worship decays."
It is the custom in many Seventh-day Adventist churches (who knows from whence it originated?) for the minister or speaker to give the invocation at the beginning of the worship service while some well-meaning lay elder is asked to take the pastoral prayer with a few minutes' notice. Therefore, the highest part of the worship is often given in an ill-prepared manner. Reason suggests the order be reversed. Who better knows the needs of the congregation and the emphasis of the Sabbath day than the minister? True, there are dedicated lay men who can give a most acceptable prayer; but should not the minister give the main prayer more often as the worship and needs of the congregation are presented to God?
The public prayer should meet the needs of the worshipers in assembly. Who would know the struggles and desires of the people better than the minister? It was Joseph Fort Newton who said, "The minister must live with the people if he is to know their problems, and he must live close to God if he is to solve them." The pastor would do well to spend some time each week planning for the main prayer of the worship service. Not that he would read it on Sabbath morning, for such is not our tradition; but he should be prepared to pray to the eternal God of heaven in the best possible manner. This is the time when the congregation is in direct communion with their God. "O thou that hearest prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come" (Ps. 65:2).
(To be continued)