What part of the worship-hour service is the most important? Prob ably most Seventh-day Adventist pastors would agree that the sermon is most important. Surely, however, the pastoral prayer must rank second only to the sermon.
As a pastor you spend time all week preparing your sermon so that it will feed your flock, but how much time do you spend preparing for the pastoral prayer? Do you, the pastor, even offer the pastoral prayer? In many Adventist churches, if not most, the pastor takes the invocation and assigns the pastoral prayer to the elder. And yet, if it is indeed a pastoral prayer, why shouldn't the pastor do the praying? What a blessing and encouragement it could be to the flock to see and hear their pastor in earnest prayer to God for them!
Contrary to custom, the practice of the minister's offering the invocation and a layman the pastoral prayer has not always been so, nor is it a sacred Adventist tradition. I suspect it began as an attempt to introduce more solemnity and dignity into the service as with a dignified flourish the pastor set the tone for worship with the invocation. Yet when ministers began to appropriate the invocation to themselves and as signed laymen to offer the pastoral prayer, it seems to me, they re versed roles and put more emphasis on the importance of the invocation than on praying for the people.
In my ministry I have found real benefit in assigning the invocation to an elder and offering the pastoral prayer myself. As a consequence, thoughtful worshipers have told me that they were helped as much by the prayer as they were by the sermon, and sometimes more.
When well planned, the pastoral prayer can be the most effective part of the public worship service for many in your congregation. But this will never be as long as we view the pastoral prayer as a mere formality that is done simply because it must be done. Through careful preparation and thought the pastoral prayer can have a freshness and vitality, an earnestness and relevancy that will form a new link between hearts in your congregation and their God.
The only way to avoid having this important prayer degenerate into a mere ritual is to give unusual thought to the preparation we make for it. This prayer ought to be altogether different from either the invocation or the benediction. The invocation simply invokes, or invites, the presence of God in the service. And yet many pastoral prayers are only elongated invocations following exactly the pattern and content of the previous invocation. In fact, some times the one offering the pastoral prayer seems to assume that the worship service has not yet even started! Others, while praying, seem to anticipate all the blessings of the forthcoming sermon, when really it is the blessings of the present moment of prayer that one should focus on.
Public prayer may appropriately include many phases of worship, but I would like to draw your attention to five—praise, confession, requests, intercession, and thanksgiving. For brevity, plan only two or three sentences for each of these five sections. The Lord's Prayer deals with six distinct phases, but each one is summed up in a fairly short phrase. It is possible to make each prayer entirely different by focusing on specifics rather than trying to cover everything in generalities. You may even want to select ahead of time the specific thing you wish to pray about in each of the five sections. Such a course would certainly disarm some of those who complain of the worship service as routine and dull if each time they attended church the pastoral prayer sounded different from any they had heard before. This can legitimately be done, and can only be done legitimately, by focusing the prayer on specifics rather than generalities. Avoid cliches and continually heard phrases, and pray for something current and typical of the concerns and needs of your congregation. Let's consider each of the five suggested elements in the pastoral prayer, in turn.
When we read what the Bible says about the way the angels worship God, and see the way that He is honored in the book of the Psalms, we must surely be impressed with the importance of praise. We keep our prayers on a very low level when all we do is ask for things. The more we know about God and the better we know and love Him, the more we shall be inclined to praise Him. Note I said praise Him. I did not say thank Him. The line separating praise and thanksgiving may be a thin one that allows some overlapping, but there is a line. We thank God for what He has done, but we praise Him for what He is. And really, our worship of God is based on who and what He is, not on what He has done.
What is praiseworthy about God? The Bible says He is merciful and gracious; He is full of kindness; His character is love; His love is past finding out; He is the source of joy, our source of life itself; to know Him is to know life eternal; in His presence is fullness of joy. Reading the Psalms for only a little while should inspire you to find words with which to praise God. If you will break the habit of beginning your public prayer with thanksgiving and change to beginning your public prayer with praise you will find yourself thinking through your prayer as you never have before. And the people who worship with you will find themselves praying with you as they never have before. This feature alone will be a fresh approach to many people.
After praising God we may turn to an acknowledgment concerning ourselves. How can we ask anything of God until we first of all confess to Him? Confession may be of two kinds. First we confess that we are sinners. We may confess specific faults and sins of ourselves and of our congregation. Second, we should confess Christ as our Saviour. It is pleasing to God for us to confess that we are His children. With what words can we confess that He is our Shepherd and we are His sheep? With careful thought you can do this in a few sentences, with out mere meaningless words and repetition.
Having praised Him and con fessed before Him, we may now ask God to supply our needs. We should not make a long list of things, but rather ask Him for the thing that is most important for today. It might be quite different from the thing we prayed for the previous Sabbath, but it should be something that is important to us every day of our lives. This request could be something suggested by the sermon topic of the morning or some widely felt need on the part of the congregation on that particular day. It could be a request for a blessing upon our children, a keener sense of duty, a greater willingness to respond to the call of the world around us, the needs of others, to solve a problem, to meet the needs of the coming week. But whatever our request, it should be specific and timely.
This part of the prayer is distinct from intercession. Our requests of God ought to be for some blessing for the people right there in the congregation. Each church has its particular needs, and it is proper to pray for ourselves and our needs. Re member, though, you can't cover everything!
While our prayers should include our own needs we should go beyond these immediate concerns to pray for others. To intercede is to pray for someone else, and so in this part of the prayer we look outward to the needs of the world, the community around us, or anyone for whom we may have a burden. We may inter cede for the sick, for those who have lost their way, for the leaders of the nations of the world, or for the leaders of our own church. We may intercede in behalf of innumerable concerns, but don't forget to be specific and selective.
How appropriate to close such a prayer by thanking God for specific blessings we have received. If you want to thank God for the "beautiful Sabbath day," do it now rather than at the beginning! Having asked for so much, it is good now to thank Him for what we have received. And there are millions of things to thank Him for—our school, our homes, our children, our teachers, our prosperity, our freedom, the healing of someone who has been sick, the restoration of those who have wandered away, the great reports of the progress of the gospel in other lands, the evidences of His mercy in spite of our mistakes and weaknesses—the list is bounded only by our limited imagination! There is so much to thank Him for! We may especially thank Him for Jesus, and for the gospel story of salvation. In your thanksgiving focus on tangible items that are familiar to your congregation.
These suggestions are intended only as a guideline, not as a source of embarrassment. No one should feel that his prayers are being analyzed and judged. We must remain spontaneous and free and pray from the heart, remembering that any prayer that truly comes from the heart will be acceptable to God. But should we not put forth effort to pray effectively and intelligently?
Must such an organized prayer be written out? Some people feel the need of doing this in order to pray a presentable prayer in public. We should not criticize this, but neither should we see it as really necessary. What is necessary is to think your prayer through ahead of time and pray about it in advance. People often recognize when a prayer is being read, and some are almost certain to feel that the written prayer is a mere formality.
My own plan is to outline my pastoral prayer on a three-by-five index card, making brief notes to remind myself of the items I want to mention. I mentally identify each of the five sections with a finger. My hands may be clasped together behind my back or in front of me, and as I move from one part of the prayer to an other, I press one finger against my other hand and my fingering reminds me of where I am.
Ministers who enjoy a close relationship with God in private prayer and find it a source of power and peace in their daily lives, will be an important link between their people and God during the time of prayer in the worship service. When prayer is entered into as worship something happens, unconscious to the pastor and indescribable to the people, that brings power and blessing.