Worship Leader as Prayer Leader

Note: This article originally appeared in Worship Leader Magazine Jan/Feb issue 2017

Psalm 95:6 Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;
Ancient believers understood that worship is prayer. The book of Psalms was not only the hymnbook of our ancient Faith, it was also the prayerbook. The songs and the prayers of the people were one and the same, that is to say, when they were singing, they were praying. There didn’t need to be a prayer chorus to lead into the pastoral prayer time because the song itself was a form of prayer and when the service started the praying had already begun.

There is a wonderful Latin phrase, “lex orandi, lex credendi,” which loosley translated means “the law of praying is the law of believing”. A simpler way of saying it might be, “our worship forms our theology”. Lex orandi, lex credendi was the guiding principle in the ancient church for developing the creeds, the canon of scripture, and other doctrinal matters based on the prayers (liturgy) of the church. Before the church had the Bible, it had it’s worship liturgy. Before we had the New Testament, we had the prayers of the people filling our worship. The close communion with God that the church had in its praying and it’s liturgy is a huge part of what guided us to the canonizing of the Bible.

Worship fueled the imagination of the early church and led it to act upon it’s theology. In Acts chapter 2 we see a church at worship in an upper room in Jerusalem, actively waiting and praying together for the promise of God. We notice in the story that when the Holy Spirit overcame the church in Jerusalem, it didn’t just land at random in people on the street. The Holy Spirit fell first upon those believers who were praying and waiting in worship.

The worship of the early church was not rote and inactive, it was a worship that led them into the streets with a message like no other. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38) Make no mistake about it, this is a literal call to worship. Repentance is the action of turning away from sin and this turning away is rooted in prayer. This turning away is marked in a liturgical action called baptism. To paraphrase William Willimon, our baptism is thethe departure/death from empire to live into a physical Kingdom of God with it’s own logic, language, and culture. Worship is the way that we pass along the Christian faith with its logic, language and culture. Worship is the church at prayer.

Should our view of the congregational liturgy be any different from those early Christians? When we gather together to worship as the body of Christ shouldn’t we be just as engaged in worship as prayer? From gathering to the benediction our worship is prayer. Do we understand this when we are doing service planning?

Rather than increasing our repertoire of music, what if our driving goal as worship leaders and service planners was to increase our congregation’s repertoire for prayer? What if we saw our vocation as a way to helping our people communicate with God? James Hudson Taylor once said, “I have seen many men work without praying, though I have never seen any good come out of it; but I have never seen a man pray without working.” When we study the great revivals of history we can see that prayer has been at the center of them all. While revival may not always be the result of our prayers, we do know that revival has never come without prayer.

If liturgy is in fact the work of the people then shouldn’t prayer be our primary tool in that work? What if we put real effort, advanced effort even, into helping our congregations pray as they worship? What if all words spoken to God in our worship services were intentionally words of prayer? What if our quiet moments in worship were intentionally designed to help our people listen? What would happen if Prayer saturated our services? What if in our service planning we made sure that every service element was one of prayer?

According to the Book of Common Prayer, “Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” We know that the principal kinds of prayer are adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and petition so imagine with me what it might look like if we worked to make every element of our worship a form of prayer?

If prayer is the one essential thing we do in worship, maybe we should examine the structure of our weekly services and ask if the elements at play could be considered prayer. Is the offering a time of true oblation for the people in our congregation or do they simply write out checks and quietly chit chat to each other while the plates are passed and a song is played? Are your announcement times placed in a part of the service that helps or hinders your congregation’s connection with God? Are your greeting times truly moments of passing God’s peace to each other or are they simply short times of shooting the breeze in the middle of the service? Are there opportunities for repentance and confession in each service, preferably near the beginning, where your people can enter into God’s presence with clean hearts?

I’ll close with a few questions to ask after we have examined the structure of our services:

  • Are there are elements of our services that are clearly not forms of prayer?
  • Are we able to do without them and use the time in a more effective, or more holy way?
  • Are the songs that we are singing helping us to prayer?
  • Are there songs that may actually be hindering us from praying?
  • As worship leaders and worship songwriters we are literally putting words into the mouths of worshippers, are those words worthy of the gospel?
  • Are we striving to make every minute of worship Kairos/holy time or are we just simply trying to fill the hour?
  • What does our worship say about where God is calling us?
  • Do our prayer times call our people to actively participate engage in prayer?
  • What does our worship say about God?

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