As a church, we recently made some changes to the format of our Sunday evening service with the view of emphasising corporate prayer as a church family. There have been some teething issues, and a good amount of reflection as to whether this was a good move. But having vacillated on this, having worked through some theological and ecclesiological issues, and having listened to many church members, I am more persuaded than ever that this is a move in the right direction.
The purpose of this particular study is to examine the biblical case for such corporate prayer. I trust that it will serve in some ways to strengthen the case for corporate prayer and, at least four our church, to encourage more and more participation. Perhaps it would have been a good thing to study this subject before commencing with the aforementioned changes. Nonetheless, it is never too late to consider what the Bible teaches on this matter.
This is actually a message that I should have given before we commenced this new approach. My apologies. Any future reformations, I will be more conscientious.
The Acts Record
Acts 2 records the gathering of the first new covenant local church (vv. 31–41). Peter and the other apostles have preached the gospel and the Spirit has worked powerfully to regenerate some three thousand people who had gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover feast. It was this group of new believers who “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” They stayed together (“continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship”), renewed their covenant together (“the breaking of bread”—i.e. the Communion meal), and prayed together (“prayers”). All of this was motivated by the gospel.
As the record of Acts unfolds, we see Christians at prayer no fewer than 27 times—often together with other Christians, a few times with the whole assembly, rarely alone. Earlier the church prayed together (1:14, 24). In our text, the church prayed together (2:42). In 3:1, the believers are found praying together at the temple. They are seen praying together in 4:24–31. The apostle overtly prioritised prayer in 6:4 and then prayed together with the church in 6:6 when the first deacons were appointed. Stephen cried out in prayer in 7:60 and some of the apostles prayed for the pouring out of the Spirit in the lives of Samaritan converts in 8:15.
Paul is found praying shortly after his conversion in 9:11, and later in the same chapter, Peter is seen praying for the healing of Dorcas (9:40). Peter’s apparent regular time of prayer is referenced in 10:9. Some in the church were at prayer together in 12:5, 12 and the church, led by its elders, prayed together in 13:3. Missionaries, presumably with the church, prayed together upon the ordination of elders in 14:23 and Paul and Silas were commissioned as missionaries with prayer (15:40).
Missionaries Paul and Silas went to a place of prayer on the old covenant Sabbath in 16:13 and again in 16:16 on the heels of conversions and planting of a church. They are seen together again in prayer in 16:25. Paul prayed with the Ephesians elders in 20:36, perhaps with others in the Ephesian church. Many believers gathered at Tyre and prayed with Paul upon his departure in 21:5.
Paul recounts his early testimony of praying in the temple in 22:17. He and Luke, perhaps with others, gathered to pray in the midst of shipwreck in 27:29. Paul prayed again when he and those on the ship ate food in 27:35. He prayed for a sick man on Miletus in 28:8 and with Roman Christians who travelled to meet him in 28:15.
The New Testament
Under the old covenant, prayers were often corporate, particularly when the need was great and national. The New Testament is filled with imperatives for the body of Christ to pray. Keeping in mind that the early church never received the Scriptures individualistically as we so often do, when they heart the command to pray, they heard it as a corporate assignment. Consider just a few of the New Testament exhortations for churches to pray.
Romans 12:12–Rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer.
2 Corinthians 1:11—You also helping together in prayer for us, that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the gift granted to us through many.
Ephesians 6:18—praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints.
Philippians 4:6—Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.
Colossians 4:2-4—Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving; meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains, 4 that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak.
1 Thessalonians 5:16–18—Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
1 Thessalonians 5:25—Brethren, pray for us.
2 Thessalonians 3:1—Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run swiftly and be glorified, just as it is with you.
1 Timothy 2:1–3—Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour.
Hebrews 13:18–19—Pray for us; for we are confident that we have a good conscience, in all things desiring to live honourably. But I especially urge you to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner.
James 5:13–16—Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.
Jude 20–21—But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones summarised it well: “Prayers is the very essence and the life of the church.”
Some Applicatory Thoughts
There is little doubt that the New Testament emphasises the need for the church to pray together. The specifics will look different in different contexts, but the practice should be universal. With that said, let me speak specifically to the situation at BBC and try to apply some of the biblical principles.
First, we as a church are emphasising corporate prayer because we are a body. Megan Hill has written a wonderful book on prayer titled Praying Together. Of the body dynamic as it relates to prayer, she writes,
In order to embrace the practice of praying together, we first have to understand that Christians are, in fact, together. The church in Scripture is called a plant (John 15:1–17), a building (Eph. 2:18–22), and a body (Rom. 12:4–5; 1 Cor. 12:12–27; Eph. 4:15–16). These three images emphasize our connectedness to one another through our essential relationship to Christ our Savior.
There was a time, in eighteenth-century America, where the church prayer meeting was known as “the social meeting.” When believers gathered together, it was assumed that they would gather together in prayer. As Hill says, “The Christian never prays alone…. Prayer is an activity of relationship.”
We approach the throne not as an assortment of individuals, but as a united people, a single nation, an interconnected and interdependent body. As we pray in corporate worship, we speak to our God with one voice. That is why Luke can write of a corporate church prayer meeting that “they raised their voice to God with one accord” (see Acts 4:24–30).
Second, we are emphasising corporate prayer because we want to guard against an ever-present temptation towards individualism. To quote Hill again, “There are many who are quick to ask for prayer from people in the church and who will even pray for others in return, but who will not commit themselves to pray with these same brothers and sisters.” Text messaging and social media platforms make it increasingly easy to ask people to pray for us while conveniently distancing us from any obligation to pray with them.
Praying together requires selflessness. In corporate prayer we surrender our personal priorities—holding our own checklist of prayer requests loosely while committing ourselves to pray for the needs of other individuals and of the group as a whole. Also, we surrender our own comfort—showing up to a certain place at a particular time among real people.
For years, the prayer meetings at BBC were a time when we would gather, take requests, and then break into small groups to pray. While that is certainly one manifestation of corporate prayer, and there is certainly a place for such gatherings, there is the danger in such settings to gather only with those who are similar: those who share your language, ethnicity, gender, age, season of life, disposition, and personality, etc. This is not helpful for the body.
It is perfectly understandable that there are private matters that one may want to pray about with specific people, but we do need to be concerned with wider needs as well. Church members are welcome and encouraged to gather with smaller, more intimate groups at other times of the week, but the Lord’s Day prayer meeting is a body activity. We are convinced that the best manifestation of this is for the church to gather corporately and to be led in prayer by church members who will pray aloud.
There are kingdom needs and body needs that all of us need to be aware of and all need to be praying about. Doing so together is good for us. This approach can help us to get to know one another better. This approach, in a mysterious way, can foster intimacy as it brings the family closer. Hill writes again,
Praying together begets love. By humility and hard work, by joining in a common cause, by investing ourselves in the joys and sorrows of others, we grow in love for one another. But we also find in Scripture that love begets praying together. Hear Paul’s prayer for the church: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5–6).
Third, the approach we have taken (i.e. the church gathered corporately and led by members who pray publicly) gives us practice at public praying. This is more than pragmatic. The church has a long history of such praying. Some of the greatest revivals and some of the most powerful missions movements have arisen from corporate prayer. There are many who are understandably nervous about praying in front of others, and we would never force someone to do so who finds the task to daunting, but perhaps as some nervously volunteer to do so, they will find themselves growing in the ability to pray before others. This is a good thing for a church.
It may be helpful at this point to mention some very practical matters. These are challenges that we have given to our own church, and I think they are things that will prove helpful in any given public prayer setting.
First, there is wisdom in keeping public prayers brief. In fact, an examination of the prayers of Jesus will show that, when he prayed publicly, he prayed briefly. Brief prayers aid concentration and focus. Praying briefly helps to keep the flow of a prayer meeting and avoid unnecessary drag.
Second, and related to the above, we should work to be clear and concise. Stay focused on the matters for which you have been asked to pray, and don’t wander off into other areas.
Third, it will help to be more transparent with needs and to share requests. As observed above, there may be needs that would be more appropriately prayed for privately or within a much smaller group. But many needs will benefit from the body-wide prayers of the church.
Fourth, we would do well to work on actually praying together with the person leading in prayer. To do so, we must engage our hearts and minds. We must listen carefully to what is being prayed. A verbal amen as we are led in prayer can be helpful.
Fourth, in a corporate setting, we should allow for some spontaneity. At BBC, we would not want to put people on the spot by asking them to pray without preparing them beforehand. At the same time, there is some wisdom in spontaneously adding a request or two to the prepared list, and asking for volunteers on the spot to pray for those things.
Fifth, we must learn to take the prayers home with us and keep them before the throne of grace. We do not want to quickly forget about what we have prayed about on Sunday. At BBC, an intern gathers the Sunday requests and emails them to the congregation on Monday morning so that everyone with email has a copy of the requests.
Sixth, it can only be helpful for the congregation to share answers to prayer. It is a wonderful thing when we can encourage each other with God’s answers to our prayers. We must be willing to do so.
Of course, all of the above is predicated on membership showing up consistently for public prayer. We must be present to pray! At BBC, the elders have committed to keep the Sunday evening sermon to around twenty minutes in order to facilitate the priority of corporate prayer. As Don Carson once said, God forbid that we should be better at preaching than at praying. We must be willing to publicly pray.
As I draw this brief exhortation to a close, I will allow Megan Hill to have the final word:
Brothers and sisters, your most feeble prayer may unite the hearts of the church before God. By the help of the Spirit, you may remind them of forgotten truth, stir them to renewed desire, or move them to greater love. At the very least, your prayer will cause them to pray together. And that is just what they need.