Community Prayer and Worship

June 27th, 2012

And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. —Acts 2:42

Annie Dillard tells about a church she attended near Puget Sound. The minister was kneeling at the altar one week, leading the congregation in prayer. Suddenly he stopped, looked up toward the ceiling, and cried out, "Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week." Then the service proceeded. Dillard wrote, "Because of this, I like him very much."

Perhaps the most crucial school of prayer is our weekly worship. We say the same prayers every week. Soren Kierkegaard helped us understand worship: while a service looks like performers (the minister, the choir) on stage before an audience (the congregation), the fact is that we all are the performers (minister, choir, congregation), and God is the audience. All worship is a prayer made profound and meaningful because we do it with others. We are not alone.

In worship we declare what is worthy of our praise, another countercultural act in a world where everything from soap to cars is praised. In worship we offer ourselves and what we have to God. In worship we are even transformed into people we would never be had we not come.

We are stretched to pray together what we probably would not pray alone. The Church bears this weighty burden in worship to talk of life and death, to remind people of what they would prefer to forget. The Church in worship calls us out of our narrow world of self-interest and forces us to pray for people we do not know or have never seen. The Church in worship speaks of evil, sin—unpleasant subjects, yet essential to the fullness of life with God.

Hymns teach us to pray. Martin Luther used pointed words to praise hymn singing:

"Music is a fair and lovely gift of God which has often wakened and moved me to . . . joy. . . . I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like. . . . This precious gift has been bestowed on men . . . to remind them that they are created to praise and magnify the Lord. But when natural music is sharpened and polished by art, then one begins to see with amazement the great and perfect wisdom of God in his wonderful work of music, where one voice takes a simple part and around it sing three, four, or five other voices, leaping, springing round about, marvelously gracing the simple part, like a square dance in heaven with friendly bows, embracings, and hearty swinging of the partners. He who does not find this an inexpressible miracle of the Lord is truly a clod."

We are clods if we want a solo relationship with God. We were made to pray together. Community prayer is the norm, the basis, for all our private prayers, not vice versa.

All acts of worship are prayers. St. Augustine said baptism is a "visible prayer," as in every baptism we do not marvel at how cute the baby is, but we marvel that God loves all of us as children; not only do these parents or the one being baptized offer themselves to God, but we too offer our lives up to God once more. Catholics, on entering a church, will dip a finger into the baptismal font, touch the water to the forehead, and say, "I am baptized"—and Luther argued there can be no greater comfort in this life. Similarly with the Lord's Supper, we give thanks to God, remember in prayer our salvation, and devour a tangible reminder of the Crucifixion of our Lord.

And so let us pray together:

O Lord, we say the same prayers every week, together. Thank you for our life of worship. Forgive us for watching it, like a show. Help us to enter into our common worship, to discover that when we gather together, you are most profoundly there. May we be buoyed by the truth that your community goes with us into all our private places and solitary prayers, so that we truly are never alone. O Lord, teach us to pray. Amen.

This article is adapted from The Beautiful Work of Learning to Pray by James C. Howell, Copyright © 2002 Abingdon Press. The complete digital edition of this title is included in a subscription to Ministry Matters.

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