The power of public pastoral prayer in worship

October 12th, 2021

We sit firmly in an era marked by the decline of religious practice in America. More and more people are disaffiliating with organized religion. From 2009-2019 the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as Christian fell from 77 percent to 65 percent. Even more pertinent is how often Americans found themselves sitting in a church service, including participation in a pastoral prayer. “Over the last decade, the share of Americans who say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month dropped by 7 percentage points, while the share who say they attend religious services less often (if at all) has risen by the same degree.” So 54 percent of Americans say they attend a religious service ‘a few times a year or less’.[1]

This Pew data preceded the COVID pandemic, and thus it forms a picture of what "normal" (declining worship participation) looked like before sanctuaries suspended in-person worship in 2020-2021, granted there was some preservation of habits through streaming worship. 

We have fewer and fewer opportunities throughout the year to make an impression with folks who might be on the fence about church engagement in coming months. One means to reverse this trend could be leveraging the power of the pastoral prayer to increase engagement.  

As I think about future generations, I fervently want my children to have thoughtful, engaging church services available to them. We don't fully know what participation might look like in the new era we've entered. But, whether it’s in person or online, we are acutely aware of the need to experience something in church that feels so helpful and so needed that they can’t get it anywhere else.

Christian worship offers several habit-forming ways for a participant to engage with God's work and purpose for our lives. Worship is indeed one of the most compelling and widely experiuenced means of grace. Some are drawn into relationships with God (and others) through music. Some are listening for God's voice in the sermon. Many are reformed through the acts of worship (including confession) that occur during corporate public prayer. The entire worship experience is often described as corporate prayer, but there is a particular moment, which typically follows proclamation, when a worship leader centers our hearts and minds all at once in a public conversation with God.

So think about the people within reach of your congregation, including the children, who wake each Sunday morning to decide whether they want to attend a worship service or not. Some might recall a memory from the last time they were in church (physically or virtually) when a pastoral prayer stirred their heart and brought them a sense of peace amid the storms of life. Some will recall a phrase said in a prayer that made them feel understood? Especially during times of deprivation and isolation, some will long for a weekend worship service all through the week because something offered in the prayer time enabled them to acknowledge doubts or fears or laments without stigma? Some will know that a time of silent confession is exactly what they need to begin the week with a clean slate, to reset their devotion for following Christ? 

I'm convinced that pastoral prayer is one mark of revitalization for any congregation. This prayer is part of nearly every service of worship in our church, and yet we so often miss the chance it offers to connect, to teach, to inspire. When the pastoral prayer misses the mark, espeically after the sermon, people disengage. The prayer response can, for many, seem like a waste of time.  

 

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How can we make a time of pastoral prayer irresistible? Most Americans still seek connection with God even in their disaffiliation with organized religion. Pew's striking research shows 54 percent of  “Religious Resisters” talk to God.[2] This ‘talking to God’ is common ground to build upon, an opportunity to connect through prayer. It is an opportunity to be the church in the best possible way, filled with grace and mercy rather than the shame and guilt that is often associated with religion. 

In my experience at a vibrant urban Methodist church in Kansas City, Missouri, people return to church when they see there is a place where their questions are welcomed, unconditional love is not only preached but also lived out, and participants are invited to join a journey of growing together rather than expected to blindly follow. They are attracted to faith that is more nuanced than "either/or," and where Christian discipleship is more about submitting our lives to God than about rules and right answers. Many of our church members would have recently called themselves “religious resisters” or religiously unaffiliated, not because they didn’t want to have a relationship with God but because the church as a whole or Christians in particular had caused harm. They heard the message that they aren’t good enough, not holy enough, and God’s love isn’t for them (at least not until they change into something different). Shame and guilt drove their experience of organized religion. In the face of all this, we have seen how the pastoral prayer can be extraordinarily powerful. These moments in worship can actually shift a person’s experience of religion. When people experience a time of prayer led with the right words, the right tone, and the right intention, they sense the warm embrace of a loving God who accepts them fully and unconditionally. 

Let’s zoom out for a moment and acknowledge that non-religious Americans set foot in churches at other times, namely for weddings and funerals. These events are some of a church’s best evangelism opportunities. We see folks enter the doors of a church who otherwise would not. Who knows what they expect to find! In the case of a memorial service, acquaintances of the deceased approach the doors of the sanctuary looking for a service that honors the life of their friend or neighbor or colleague. In the case of the closest family members of the deceased, they often enter broken open, overwhelmed by grief, and in need of solace. In the case of a wedding, it’s a joyful, celebratory occasion where the service of worship is sometimes given very little thought when compared to the party that will follow.

Regardless of what attendees expect, we have a say in what they find. Imagine if they walk away surprised! Imagine if there is something spoken in the quiet moments of a prayer that stops them in their tracks, something powerful, life-giving, cup-filling. Imagine if there was something uttered that made them feel understood on a spiritual level, filling a void they didn’t even know was there. What if it was relatable? What if theological concepts were communicated in a way that made them approachable and memorable? What if there was something about those moments of prayer in these common services that prompted people to think, “What was the name of that church again? … I wonder when their weekend services are…” Could a reconceived pastoral prayer begin to move the needle for the future of your church?  


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