“Pray for each other,” James 5:16,
Just recently my wife and I sat in a church meeting in which the congregation honored its high school and college graduates. Three of them told stories of their faith-journeys and described their next steps. Afterward, the youth leader called all eight or so to the front, where they introduced themselves and suggested how the church could pray for them. After this, the youth leader asked them to station themselves at various places in the aisles. Then we, the congregation, were invited to huddle around each one and pray for him or her. In our cluster, several prayed aloud. This could be called “shared-church prayer.”
Some time ago, we had also been present in the Sunday meeting of another church. A short-term mission team of three would soon leave for a South American country to serve, as I recall, in an orphanage. On the Sunday before their departure, the pastor called the trio to the front. Wonderful, I thought. They will tell us what they will be doing during their ten-day venture. That, however, did not happen. Instead, the pastor himself told about the kind of projects they would undertake. Then, instead of asking members of their small group to surround and pray for them, he offered the prayer himself. This might be called ”pastor-centric prayer.”
The Pastoral Prayer: Biblical?
Pastor-centric prayer in a church meeting means the pastor does most if not all the praying. In shared-church prayer, members of the body participate in the prayer ministry. Tradition has handed down to us what we have come to call the “pastoral prayer.” Now, of course, the New Testament says God has given pastors (as well as other equippers) to the church. And pastors—shepherds—ought to pray publicly, just as others in the church should. But nowhere does Scripture describe anything as a “pastoral prayer” or set it apart from a “non-pastoral prayer.”
Sian and Stuart Murray Williams, in The Power of All: Building a Multivoiced Church, write that “church leaders have too often . . . usurped responsibilities that belong to the whole community. This creates unhealthy dependency in the congregation. . . . We are still living with the consequences of the Christendom shift, which silenced and disinherited the laity and centralized power and ministry in the hands of the clergy.”
I have had decades of experience in small groups of Christians. My observation:? Very few—even among veteran church attenders—will pray with each other aloud. Might part of the reason be that almost all the praying they hear in congregational meetings is “polished,” offered by church professionals? Might another part of the reason be that they do not see/hear participatory public prayer modeled by their peers?
Churches Practicing Shared-Church Prayer
Nothing in Scripture requires us to preserve this non-participative prayer pattern. In fact, many churches are learning how to restore shared prayer to the people of God. In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include an account by Ollie Malone. In it, he recalls how, as a seminary student, he had attended The Church on the Way shortly after Jack Hayford had retired from his role as pastor. In his words:
“I was surprised when Pastor Jack (who, although retired, was leading the service that morning, but not preaching) asked the congregation to form in groups of four or so members, introduce ourselves, and identify any specific prayer needs we might have. I ended up in a group with three other men who were alone at the time. Quickly we shared names and prayer needs, then took to the task of prayer.
“To this day (more than ten years later), I recall the prayer needs shared with me: one young Indian father shared the challenges that he and his wife were having with a four-year-old daughter, another young brother asked for prayer for his mother who did not know Christ, the third asked for prayer for a mother who was ill. I needed to have my house in Houston sold, since I had moved away and it had not been sold. We prayed for each other’s needs and returned to our seats.
In each of the services that I attended, the practice was reinforced. I prayed for and got to know several individuals during the course of my days there. Throughout the days that followed, I would continue to attend services that would occur during the week. Frequently, I would see one of the three men with whom I had prayed on that first Sunday morning. We would ask for updates on the prayer needs. ‘How are things going with your daughter?’ I recall asking my Indian brother. I was blessed to hear, ‘So much better.’
“I have often thought how simple the request was at The Church on the Way, yet how powerful and transformative it was in my life and, I suspect, in the lives of others who still believe in praying for one another, as the Scripture exhorts.”
Another example in Chapter Six of Curing Sunday Spectatoritis came from Martin Schlomer, who pastors the Elim Evangelical Free Church in Puyallup, WA. He incorporates participatory prayer into church meetings by asking something like, “How many of you are dealing with cares this morning?” As people respond with raised hands, he then invites others to move beside them and to ask, “May I pray for you?” Anyone not involved in this way is encouraged to pray silently. Schlomer says he has never had any objections from people who have been prayed for. However, he admits that these prayer times are uncomfortable for some, so it is always presented as a completely voluntary ministry.
Shared Prayer Takes Self-Sacrifice
Keyword: ministry. Even when gathered, we can serve each other in prayer. The one-anothering in Jesus’s new command calls us to love each other as he has loved us—in other words, self-sacrificially. Indeed, praying for each other aloud does require laying down our lives for one another. It means forgetting about ourselves, moving out of our privatized safe zones, and putting the interests of others ahead of our own.