Corporate Prayer in the Life of the Church and in Worship

Bethel Seminary Workshop

The assigned topic is corporate prayer in the church and in worship. The outline is really simple. First, I’m going to try to define corporate prayer as I’m going to use it. Second, I’m going to ask the question: Why should we pray corporately? Then finally, I’m going to ask the question: What stirs up vital corporate prayer in the church?

Whenever I pose a question for the New Testament, there’s something about my mind that always answers the opposite. So the first text that came to my mind when I thought of corporate prayer was Jesus saying, “ But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).

I think that’s good that happens to your mind so that you’re always balancing one text with another text and asking, “What’s the root here” Why do we pray out loud together when Jesus says to pray in secret?

Corporate Prayer in Scripture

I’m going to pose that question and try to answer it, but before that, what I noticed when I looked it up and read it in context was the very next paragraph. Jesus says that when you pray say “Our.” Even when you’re in the closet, say, “Our.” The implication is that you’re at least thinking corporately when you’re in the closet. Our daily bread. So it’s not either private or corporate.

“God gets corporate glory when there’s corporate asking.”

When you read the Old Testament, you have these great gatherings of the people of God and Jehoshaphat, Solomon, and David praying. Ezra prays these long, wonderful prayers while the people listen and no doubt say, “Yes, yes, yes,” about the history of Israel, the power of God, and the future of God’s word.

Then you move right on through the book of Acts and they’re praying corporately again and again. A number of times in Scripture the people prayer corporately. Corporate prayer is ordained of God.

Togetherness, Agreement, and Affirmation

Let me give you a definition as to the way I’m going to use it. Corporate praying is praying or prayers offered to God in the hearing of other believers who agree with and affirm the prayers. Prayers made in the hearing of other believers who then agree with those prayers and affirm them in some way.

I don’t know how you feel about prayers, but oh how I wish I could loosen the vocal cords of my people when I am praying so that they grunt more, or say, “Hmm,” or “yes,” or “Amen.” Are you there? Is anybody there? Do you hear what I am praying? Do you agree?

You must signal your agreement in some way to me. Otherwise, you might as well not be there while I’m praying. I know the kinds of people who will respond to me that way, and I like to pray with them a lot because when they say, “Mm-hmm,” “Yes,” “Hmm,” I know that they agree and they’re listening. They’re with me before the throne.

If they don’t do that, I wonder: Are they asleep? What’s going on here? So I’m looking for in corporate praying a togetherness that manifests itself in some way of communicating togetherness, agreement, and affirmation. Those would be the operative words in that definition. Togetherness, agreement, and affirmation.

Examples of Corporate Prayer

Let me give you some examples of what I mean. Monday and Friday morning prayer meetings at Bethlehem. We have eight people on the staff and we pray for an hour together every Monday afternoon. One hour of solid prayer as well as the staff meeting that goes for another three hours.

I have in mind the whole range of prayers during your services as well. Not only the pastoral prayer, but also prayers of praise, benedictions, invocations, quiet moments, and what you do at the end of the service. All of that I mean by corporate prayer.

Wednesday night we’ve tried all kinds of different things. We sandwich a Wednesday night prayer time between a supper and a teaching time for 40 minutes. We pray for 40 minutes. We get maybe twenty to 30 people. We have a thousand people at my church. So I’m not talking about any great success story here. I’m not worrying about that as much as I used to because of how many different ways our people are praying all through the church. I have small groups in mind and other places as well. Those are just some of the kinds of corporate praying that we’re doing during the week.

Reasons for Corporate Prayer

Now, the reasons for corporate prayer. I’ve really given a lot of thought to whether there’s any value in this. Where does the value factor cut off? Is two better than one? Three better than two? Four better than three? When does it stop being significant that you’re together with more people? See the kinds of questions you’re forced to ask when you’re in a prayer movement. So here’s my effort to try to define why it’s good to gather as a group for corporate prayer.

1. Corporate Prayer Displays and Spreads God’s Glory

Let me illustrate from 2 Corinthians 1:11. Paul says, “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” Many will give thanks because many prayers were made. There is a correlation between the many-ness of the praying and the many-ness of the thanksgiving. God is after thanksgiving. God is after his glory.

For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. (2 Corinthians 4:15)
So what’s God’s purpose in the world? God’s purpose in the world is to magnify his glory. And then you say, “Well, how do you do that?” One answer is that you get a lot of people to ask him for a lot of things so that when he answers a lot of people are saying thanks to his glory. There’s a dynamic of togetherness in that so that God gets corporate glory, which is what he’s after in the end. He gets corporate glory when there’s corporate asking.

The heart of that kind of glory is shown in Psalm 50:15. This is Robinson Crusoe’s text. Spurgeon preached a great sermon called Robinson Crusoe’s Text, and it’s Psalm 50:15:

And call upon me in the day of trouble;
   I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.

This simply means that God gets glory when he’s given the opportunity to answer prayers. “Call on me in the day of trouble. I’ll do the delivering, and then you will respond and glorify me, which is what I’m after in the world. So if you all do that together, how much more will my glory redound?”

One last text on this point. In Matthew 6:9, the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer is “hallowed be thy name,” which means sanctified. To be sanctified is to be set apart as infinitely worthy and glorious. Your number one burden in prayer should be that God gets glory. Isn’t that what that means?

“Get glory for yourself in the world today, God. Get glory in this conference. Hallowed be your name. Let all these people in this room right now hallow your name.” It’s an imperative. “Hallowed be thy name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.” You’re instructing God with third person imperatives. “Get it for yourself.

2. Corporate Prayer Brings Unity and Releases Power

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:23–26)

Now it’s much easier to fulfill that when you’re already together before the altar. It’s much harder to hold a grudge against someone who is near you than who is far away. It’s very hard to pray with earnestness with a person you’re angry at next to you.

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (1 Peter 3:7)

This simply means that if there’s disunity, disharmony, dishonoring, or belittling of any kind that doesn’t correspond to this status as fellow heirs, then prayers are going to be hindered. This means that when a husband and wife kneel, like Nöel and I do every night by the bed, if there’s something wrong, you know it right then because you don’t pray right. There have been nights when Nöel and I have knelt and after about three minutes of total silence one of us gets up the nerve to say, “I can’t.” And the other one says, “I can’t either.”

“Your number one burden in prayer should be that God gets glory.”

It works that way in a marriage; it works that way in a church. If you force yourself together, you can’t play games anymore. You can let that go on for days if you don’t kneel together and then you need to deal with it. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26–27).

If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. (Matthew 18:19)

Corporate prayer removes obstacles to unity and releases power.

3. Corporate Prayer Allows for Confession and Healing

Corporate settings allow for obedience to James 5:16: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” I take those two together, not separate. Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed. You cannot confess your sins to one another if you’re not together or at least on the phone together. Yet that should be a part, now and then, of corporate praying.

A Father’s Loving Rebuke

I just made an awful blunder with my son Benjamin the other night while helping with algebra. He wanted me to help him with these new graphs, turning a graph into an equation. I didn’t understand this. It looked vaguely familiar. I said, “Have you read the chapter?” “No.” “You haven’t read the chapter yet? How do you expect me to help you? You haven’t even read the chapter.” “I can’t understand the chapter.” “Well read it, and then I’ll help you.”

I was so tired. I went upstairs and I’ve never been slapped across the face so clearly by the Lord Jesus. I lost an entire 50,000-byte file in the next five minutes. I just wept. Three months of journaling gone off my computer. I said, “That’s Hebrews 12, isn’t it Lord? That’s a rebuke. That’s a father’s loving whipping.”

The Healing in Confession

I went downstairs and I helped him. The next morning — I hadn’t even gotten up the moral courage to apologize — as he was ready to leave for school, I said, “Benjamin, come here. Let’s sit down. I really feel bad. I’m sorry about my impatience last night. Will you forgive me?” He said, “Sure, thanks for helping me.” “Good. We’re clean now.”

You must confess those kinds of things. If you’ve ever spoken wrong, and you go to prayer with somebody, how healing and powerful to just say something like, “Oh I feel so bad about the way I talked the other day” That must happen.

Another thing on this point: pray for one another that you may be healed. Does it ever strike you as strange that Jesus didn’t usually heal over distance? He could say a word and a person would be healed from a distance. He seldom did that. He usually touched. He usually looked right in their eyes. He spit and touched. There’s something about this close touching business. This also happens in corporate prayer.

4. Corporate Prayer Intensifies Camaraderie in Spiritual Warfare

All praying in my mind is spiritual warfare, even just simple domestic family things or other “insignificant” issues.

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. (John 15:16)

The logic of that is very striking. I have appointed you to bear fruit so that whatever you ask, you’ll get. You get it? It means prayer is designed for fruit bearing. Prayer is a wartime walkie-talkie, not a domestic intercom. I have given you a strategy in my warfare so that your walkie-talkie will work because it doesn’t work when you’re AWOL. It doesn’t work when you’re out of commission.

One of the reasons prayer aborts in its significance for people’s lives is that they try to turn a wartime walkie-talkie into a domestic intercom. They want to ring up the butler to bring another cushion to the den when it’s designed for war. Prayer is designed for ministry, calling in firepower and air cover. It’s not designed to make my boat start this afternoon.

5. Corporate Prayer Enlarges Our Vision

Corporate praying enlarges the vision of what we’re praying toward. I got that phrase from David Brian, and I love it.

There must be an Elisha in every prayer meeting to open the eyes of the servants who see nothing but the Assyrians. Do you remember the chariots, the fire, and the horses? How many times have we been praying together in little groups at Bethlehem, and somebody is praying for this little thing or that little thing and there doesn’t seem to be any strategic urgency about the prayer meeting.

Then suddenly God comes and somebody says, “O God, grant I pray, that our missionaries in Liberia would be protected. Grant that this unprincipled leader would be brought down. Grant, O Lord, that there’d be no bloodshed, but that you would release integrity and honesty in that government and that there wouldn’t have to be a bloody revolution. Grant that those who are standing for justice would triumph, and that the cause of Christ would stand.”

The whole atmosphere changes because we’ve been lifted, and the vision has been enlarged. Then somebody prays for Albania, Mongolia, and North Korea. We’re enlarged. We pray about the city or we pray about abortion. If you’re at home all alone, you might be inspired to pray that way, but it’s so helpful to hear people who are the Elishas among us break us out of our small-mindedness.

6. Corporate Prayer Teaches Us

This is full of dangers and full of prospect. Let me give you three illustrations.

About Prayer

It teaches young Christians how to pray. I love as a pastor finding new phrases to pray and then hearing them weeks and months later turning up in my people’s prayers. At one point I began to use the phrase from 1 Samuel where Samuel says that the word of the Lord stood forth for him (1 Samuel 3:10).

“You communicate theology in your praying.”

I began to use that phrase, “Lord, don’t let us just read your word mechanically. Would you stand forth in the reading of your word? Would you stand forth in our congregation? Would you stand forth in our small groups?” I just wove it in again and again. Then it started to pop up here and there, because we learn to pray by listening to people pray. Our children learn to pray, our people learn to pray, by hearing us pray.

About God

Lead me in the path of your commandments,
   for I delight in it.
Incline my heart to your testimonies,
   and not to selfish gain! (Psalm 119:35–36)

After reading this at the breakfast table, I asked my boys, “Do you believe God does that? Do you believe he causes people to walk in his statutes? Does he have the right to do that?” That’s a prayer. Do you believe God does that? Does God have the right to intrude upon my will and incline it for me? You bet he does. It’s the heart of my theology. You communicate theology in your praying.

God has the right to incline the will. God has the right to cause his people to walk in paths of righteousness. If you want to get across a theology, then make sure that theology is woven into your prayers. You can tell a person’s theology by the way they pray.

About Life

How do you handle the offertory moment on Sunday morning? I read somewhere that you are absolutely asinine as a pastor if you don’t preach on giving twice a year. I think I’ve preached on giving three times in ten years, but I preach every Sunday on giving at the offertory — 30 seconds or one minute in the way that I pray about money.

My people squirm under the way I pray about money. “Lord God, grant that our people would understand that those who desire to be rich are headed for hell.” See, it’s right there in 1 Timothy 6:9: “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”

You just weave your vision for a lifestyle into your praying and they’ll hear it loud and clear. “Grant that our people would not love money. Grant that they wouldn’t need two cars. Grant that they wouldn’t need houses by the lakes. Grant, O God, that on vacation they would minister and not just lollygag.” You just fill your prayers with truth about lifestyle as you live it out. It’s a great teaching tool.

I say that this is dangerous because if teaching through prayer becomes your main purpose, then that will show real quick. Preaching prayers get nowhere. You have to really be calling upon the Lord. You have to really want God to do what you’re asking him to do, not just use prayer as a cloak to get somebody’s goat.

7. Passion for Corporate Prayer Is Contagious

Passion is contagious and our people must have passion in their praying.

You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)

What if your people aren’t seeking him with all their heart? What do you do? One of the things you do is you seek him with all your heart in front of them. Spurgeon used to say, “My people come to watch me burn.” And I believe they come to Bethlehem to watch me burn. I really believe that my role at Bethlehem Baptist Church is to be a fire on Sunday morning where people can light their torches.

It’s a tremendous burden to bear, but you must bear it if you’re a pastor. Who will light their fires? Where are they going to light their little torches that are flickering all week long if you don’t burn for God in the pulpit on Sunday morning? I believe that’s our calling.

I’ll never forget a prayer meeting the chairman of the deacons, Tom, a few years ago. Tom had a real tough background with his dad. The word father means a lot to Tom. I remember one night we divide up as prayer teams in the deacon council and we prayed. The way he said, “O Father,” I still remember it to this day. “O Father.” “O Father.” That’s all I remember, but I remember it three years later. “O Father.”

Passion is contagious. As soon as he said that, I melted with love for my Father. I just melted with love for my Father because I heard passion. I heard affection. I heard brokenness. That’s the value of corporate praying. God will always grant that somebody in the prayer meeting can say, “O Father,” so that the whole mood is changed.

What Stirs Up Corporate Prayer

Now we move to our last question. What stirs up vital corporate prayer? That last point is really the first answer. What stirs up vital corporate praying?

1. Passion Begets Passion

Let me mention three things from the Lord’s prayer about things you as leaders should be passionate for. “Hallowed be thy name.” For that prayer to sound real, you must be passionate. Passion for God’s name. Second, “thy kingdom come.” You must be passionate for the kingdom. Third, “Thy will be done on earth the way the angels do it in heaven.” Do you agree with that paraphrase? I don’t know who else would be doing the will of God in heaven. How do the angels do the will of God? Perfectly, purely, energetically, with fervor and zeal.

Passion Is Not a Personality

So I would say pastors should have passion for God, passion for the Kingdom, and passion for purity or obedience. I think you simply must be passionate when you’re praying. When I go to churches on vacation and I don’t hear passion, I weep for the church.

“A pastor without passion is a tragedy for the church.”

A pastor without passion is a tragedy for the church. Now I don’t mean that you have to have a personality like mine. Jonathan Edwards, my hero, they said, preached like this: He put his elbow on a cushion, held his book, and never gestured. He read his sermons and people fell off their pews sometimes. He was incredibly passionate and intense.

It doesn’t have so much to do with the tone of voice as it does with that undefinable something. If you build a flaming fire you will have one that’s going crackle, crackle, bang, bang. You could have a fire that’s been doing that for twelve hours, and you only see a huge pile of red hot coals in there. You don’t get close to the thing even though it’s not making any noise anymore.

Stoking the Fires of Passion

Passion begets passion. You’ll ask, “If my people are to light their fires at my fire, where do I light my fire?” I’ve got nobody to go to. I meet with pastors, but they don’t generally light my fires. They talk about money, buildings, programs, retirement, vacations, and McDonald’s fatted hamburgers.

So I go to the Puritans. I go to Jonathan Edwards and read his sermon, “The Most High: A Prayer-Hearing God.” And then Wesley Duewel. I’m a Calvinist through and through, but here’s an Arminian that stokes my fire:

Missionary stories also stoke my fires:

Revival histories also stoke my fires:

You can also stoke your fires with books on prayer: Helsby and Maclntyre and Bounds and this unknown author.

And then biography: I couldn’t live without the biographies of George Mueller, Nettleton, and Hyde, and the Saint Andrews Seven, the story of the church in Mozambique, and Hudson Taylor, and so on.

You’ve got to find a way to stoke your engines. However you do it, you must do it. It is top priority. So that’s number one. Passion begets passion.

2. God Is Glorified When He Works for Us

No eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. (Isaiah 64:4)

The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him. (2 Chronicles 16:9)

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. (Acts 17:24–25)

This is the theology that drives my church and our prayer ministry. You can’t serve God. He will not give you the glory of being a resource to him. He will preserve the glory of being the all-sufficient fountain spilling out upon you. He means to be the glorious servant in your life.

When your people get thrilled with knowing that he’s bent on doing two things, glorifying his name and doing that by working for helpless people who ask him to, they are set free. “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24–25).

You must teach theology if you want your people to pray. If you try to just talk relationally and make everybody feel good and avoid tough doctrines, there will be some touchy-feely moments, but they’ll come back to theology.

“Come to worship on the lookout for God, leave on the lookout for people.”

There are churches in this city where people leave and go from Bethlehem because I drive such a bargain, and they come back. It breaks my heart when they tell me they’re leaving because I’m not soft enough, or tender enough, or caring enough, or warm enough, and they leave. Three of them in the past two weeks came back and said, “It just got so thin. All this grace, grace, grace, as though grace were a thin thing.”

I mean I live by grace — sovereign, massive grace. But to me grace is not tolerance. It’s a power to change people’s lives. I demand change because God demands change. There is a holiness without which we will not see the Lord. I preach it again and again and it makes people feel uneasy and they try to leave, and then they come back. Many come back.

3. A Holy Dissatisfaction

You must stir up a holy dissatisfaction with our present level of joy and faith and power. You must stir up holy dissatisfaction. Cry to God for your own improvement in front of your people. Confess your faults and your sins before your people and cry to God for more of him. Give me more, more, more on Sunday morning. You let them hear that week in and week out, that you want more of God.

Ephesians 3:18–19 has not yet been fulfilled, where Paul prays that we “may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Do you have all the fullness of God in you? I don’t, which means I’m always dissatisfied. I’m always dissatisfied. My people read it. “He’s hungry this morning. He’s on the lookout for God.”

I tell the people, come to worship on the lookout for God, leave on the lookout for people. When you walk into our church on Sunday morning it’s quiet. Nobody’s talking to anybody and it first feels unfriendly to people, but as we tutor them and school them, they’re on the lookout for God. They’re on their faces because we need God.

I wrote this star article — this is our little newsletter that goes out each week — and I entitled it back in prayer week “More, More, More, More, More, More,” and I just listed eighteen texts where the Bible says go for more. I try to cultivate a constant dissatisfaction spiritually.

I think George Verwer is right. What’s killing America, what’s killing the Christian cause in many places, is that Christians don’t care if they get any more of anything but houses, lands, pleasures, and luxuries. How many of our people are weeping for more of God, weeping for more power, weeping for more purity, weeping for more fruit? More. More. More.

I cannot resonate with people who do not tell our people that that’s the way they ought to be and that if they’re not that way, they’re not right. Not to be hungry for God is not to be right. Strive for the holiness without which you will not see the Lord.