What are you supposed to do when the pastor starts praying in the worship service at your church? You know you’re supposed to bow your head. You know you probably shouldn’t start thinking about what’s for lunch or what errands you have to run or what game is on that afternoon. You know prayer matters, and you feel bad for checking out sometimes, but how can you participate more effectively?
Paul gives us a way. In 1 Timothy 2:8 he says, I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands.
Now, some of you are thinking, “Uh oh… are you going to tell me to raise my hands? I barely lift my hand in the singing. Now I have to lift them when I pray?” You might do that, but the lifting of hands in this verse has more to do with the posture of your heart than the actions of your body. The lifting of hands in prayer is all over the Bible (check out Psalm 28:2, 63:4, and 141:2). It often describes a posture of acknowledged dependance on the Lord, which is the right way to pray. So, here’s the first thing to do when you come to the pastoral prayer…
1. Prepare your heart
A woman once asked Augustine for council on prayer. He told her, first “you must account yourself ‘desolate’ in this world, however great the prosperity of your lot may be.”1 That’s helpful advice. We Americans live in one of the wealthiest nations in history. I recently heard that if you have more than $2,220 in total assets you have more than half of the world? We live in staggering prosperity.
Yet, when we come before God we come with nothing other than what he has given us. When we come before God we come with nothing that can earn his favor other than the free gift he has given to us in Christ Jesus. We are desolate without him. We owe everything we have to him. Remembering this each time we pray, and fostering this spirit of dependance in our hearts will prepare us to praise him, confess to him, thank him, and ask him for all we need.
Before you pray, or before you listen to another praying on your behalf, prepare your heart. Remember how desperately you need God.
2. Engage your mind
When Paul talks about everyone lifting holy hands in prayer he is talking about everyone’s personal engagement with the prayer. The pastor’s prayer in worship is not his one-on-one time with the Lord. He is praying on behalf of the whole congregation, and therefore the whole congregation should be praying with him.
I have a friend who speaks in a light whisper when others are praying. When I first heard him do this, I didn’t know what was happening. I thought maybe he was trying to speak in tongues. But then I realized that he was intentionally repeating the prayers of others so that he could make their prayers his own. And that’s what everyone should do when the pastor prayers in a worship service. You don’t have to actually speak words out loud, but during the pastoral prayer, focus your attention on the words, repeat them in your heart, and make that prayer your own.
Refuse to check out. Refuse to take a mental break. Engage your mind and participate in the prayer the pastor is speaking.
3. Use your voice
The word “amen” is not simply a signal that the person praying is done. Saying “amen” means that you affirm whatever has been said. Therefore, it’s great if the pastor says “amen” at the end of his prayer, but does anyone else agree with him?
The “amen” is your way of saying, “Yes, that’s my prayer too! Lord, let it be so!” So, here’s my simple encouragement to you: Anytime someone else prays, if you can affirm what they have said, then make that clear with a strong “amen” at the end of the prayer.
From spectator to participant
A worship service is a gathering of the people of God to praise God in the presence of God. God’s in the room, and we want to talk to him! So we come before our Father in Heaven, through the access Christ has opened for us, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and pray. The pastor’s job is to lead the church in this time of talking to God. Yet while he does, remember, you are not simply a spectator of that prayer, you are a participant along with him! The pastor may be the one speaking to God out loud, but the whole church should be praying together. So join in with heartfelt dependence, praying along with your pastor in your heart, and when the prayer is done speak your “amen.”
- Quoted in Tim Keller, Prayer. New York: Penguin Books, 2014. 84. ↩