A Missing Word: Does It Obscure Shared-Church Prayer?

Although Webster estimates English includes a million words, our language still lacks one. Might that missing term make it more difficult for us to see the need for and to practice shared-church prayer?

A Word Gone AWOL

Roman Phalanx.jpg

That question came to mind during a study on prayer with our adult Sunday school class. Our text: Eph. 6:11-18, the well-known verses that urge us to put on the full armor of God and to pray. As I was exploring the passage on my own, I noticed a consistent pattern. In the NIV, each you (four times) and your (three times) translates the corresponding Greek plural—which disappears in today’s English. We use the same word, you or your, whether speaking to one person or a hundred. The mostly southern you-all is the closest we can come in English to a second-person-plural word. Otherwise, the plural you takes multiple words, as in all of you.

It's true, of course, that we should take this Ephesians passage to heart as individuals. The body of Christ is made up of individual members. But Paul’s repeated use of the plural you suggests that he means not only solo but also corporate action—armoring up and praying together. It seems, though, that individualism has gained the upper hand not only in our culture but also in our churches.

Individualism vs. Shared-Church Prayer

Something right may go wrong if it becomes an “-ism.” Watch out when community becomes communism. Everyone needs a mom, but not momism—unhealthy attachment to mother. You can learn much from the teachings of Calvin or Arminius, but stiff commitment to Calvin­ism or Arminianism can divide. Scripture guards our places as individuals, but it does not endorse individualism.

Individualism works against our learning to pray. How did you, as an individual, learn how to talk? Not all alone. You probably did so as one member of a family. As you listened to and interacted with others, your own spoken vocabulary developed. How do we, as individuals, learn how to pray? Again—not all by ourselves, but as members of the corporate body of Christ. Hearing other Christians pray helps us to develop our own ability to pray. But the missing English word, the plural you, can make that hard to see.

Some Christians, on the basis of what Jesus said about praying in our closets, insist that shared praying—praying together—is wrong. But there Jesus was surely speaking against praying to show off, against putting our prayers on parade. If he had forbidden them to pray with others, why did his disciples do so? “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers” (Acts 1:14).

Prayer in Phalanx Formation

Eph. 6:11-18, full of the plural Greek words for you, links wearing God’s armor with prayer. A complete set of that protective gear includes the shield of faith. Jesus called for faith to accompany effective prayer: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer" (Matt. 21:22). And James speaks of the “prayer offered in faith” (5:15).

How does the plural you relate to the shield of faith and prayer? As one who spent a fair amount of time around Roman soldiers, Paul probably had the scutum in mind. This door-sized shield allowed the soldier to protect his entire body. He could wield it individually. But he could also use it when fighting alongside fellow soldiers as a group. In “phalanx” formation, he and others would align their shields side-by-side to form a virtual wall against the enemy. By lifting their shields overhead, they created a roof over themselves when flaming arrows rained down from above.

When we—together—pray with our united faith-shield, we present a more formidable spiritual “wall” or “roof” to the forces hell-bent on destroying us. Can we practice this united faith-praying during our Sunday meetings? In my book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include this account from the Peniel Wesleyan Tabernacle in Greater Georgetown, Guyana.

Shared-Church Prayer on Sunday

The time set aside for praying for one another in this church . . . began when in 2011 it struck, Michael Suffrienin, the pastor, that he could not be there to pray for everyone. He knew the church body included many struggling and immature believers. But he also knew of many stronger Christians who could influence and help them. So one Sunday, during the worship service, he simply asked for a pause in which he shared a brief Bible passage relating to prayer. Then, after identifying a particular issue the church was facing at that time, he asked people to find a partner and join together in prayer for that concern.

When the church had grown accustomed to partnering in prayer during their main weekly gathering, he expanded the scope of prayer subjects by asking anyone with a need for prayer to share that with someone else and then pray for each other. These sessions of one-another prayer have included such concerns as family challenges, financial worries, loss of loved ones, and recovery after theft or flood damage. Although this prayer time is not a part of every meeting, when included it typically takes 10 to 15 minutes.

I have just returned from a three-day men’s retreat. On the final day, we noticed that one of the guys began receiving a flurry of texts on his phone. Soon we learned that his father, thousands of miles away, had only hours to live. We circled around him and formed a phalanx of faith-based prayer. His tears flowed freely as each of us, in turn, prayed for him and his family.

Shared-church prayer should take place no matter what the size of our gathering. We can pray together in twos (Matt. 18:19-20), in our small groups (Acts 13:3), and in our larger gatherings (Acts 1:14-15). Even without knowing Greek, we can practice the plural you of shared church.

One-Anothering in Shared-Church Prayer

“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.