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Reflecting on Corporate Prayer

The following is revised from a previous version and presented for reconsideration.

Prayer is a pretty important thing in the Bible. The word "pray" (and prays, prayed, prayer, etc.) appears 322 times in your English Bible. Beyond its frequency in the Scriptures, it is theologically central to the Christian life. But when we think about prayer, we likely think first and mostly about individual prayer, like Daniel praying boldly alone. Corporate prayer, however, is secondary, and that’s in part because we simply don’t do it very often, either on Sundays or any other day of the week. In light of this imbalance between individual and corporate prayer, this reflection is geared toward raising the honor and frequency of corporate prayer in our lives.

To begin, it’s worth thinking through what the Bible says about it. When we look at the rhythms of the church in Acts, we are struck by the frequency of corporate prayer. When the disciples were gathered together in Jerusalem after Christ's ascension but before Pentecost, they "with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer" (Acts 1:14). After narrating Peter's Pentecost sermon, Luke notes that the believers were devoting themselves to four things, "the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (2:42). When Peter was arrested and imprisoned during an outbreak of persecution, "earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church" (12:5). The church's prayer habits came from the synagogue, but the church made it even more central. This is because we have an advocate with the Father, the risen Christ. And Christ promised as much in his own teaching. He said, "Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it" (John 14:13-14). Jesus said this after teaching the disciples that they would do greater works than he himself had done. These greater works are the Great Commission, i.e. the spread of the gospel and the salvation of souls. These greater works are accomplished in part by the fervent prayer of believers.[1] So it is no surprise that the church frequently prayed. As members of the church, we should be encouraged to do the same.

With that in mind, I'd like to offer some thoughts on why we need to increase our honor and frequency of corporate prayer. First, we should recognize that prayer, in general, is set among other corporate ordinary means of grace in the life of the church, i.e. Word and sacrament. While the reading of the Word is often an individual pursuit, the Westminster Assembly also had in mind the corporate reading of Scripture (cf. WSC Q&A 90). This is why we publicly read Scripture on the Lord's Day in corporate worship. Additionally, we know that the sacraments are only celebrated within the gathered body of Christ. So, because there is a corporate aspect to Word and sacrament, there should be the same in prayer.

Second, because our tendency in America is toward individualism, corporate prayer requires special attention. We swim in a culture that devalues doing things together, and that devaluation then gets reinforced by what we choose to do. And so, we might even scroll through social media while surrounded by other people, because the individual is greater than the corporate. For this reason, we need to give greater honor to corporate prayer that we might better balance the one with the many.

Finally, corporate prayer is a practical way to develop spiritual disciplines in ourselves and our covenant children. By praying corporately, we become more proficient in expressing praise, thanks, and needs to God. It might feel awkward at first, but we learn how to pray by listening to each other. More than that, we model for the children of our church just how important prayer is. Carving out time for corporate prayer will make a difference in family life.

What then shall we do? The Session is committed to setting aside the last Sunday evening of every month for either a hymn sing and potluck or prayer meeting. My plea is that, if you attend no other evening devotional time, you commit one Sunday evening a month to join with the saints in corporate prayer, whether through song or spoken word. Will it be complicated and potentially difficult? For some of you, especially those with young children, it certainly will. But my hope and prayer is that you will do more than just file this reflection away, that you will see value even in spite of the challenges. Join the saints in corporate prayer and see how God might change you.

[1] Ryan M. McGraw, “A Theology of Corporate Prayer: Preaching, Prayer Meetings, and You,” Puritan Reformed Journal 4.2 (2012): 175–76.

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