Corporate Worship: The Lord’s House of Prayer

When you go to corporate worship, do you have the sense that you are talking to God in a more personal and vibrant way than in your individual devotions each day?

When you think of corporate worship, do you think of it more as “calling on the name of the Lord” or going to “hear from God”?

Strikingly, the most common nomenclature for worship in Scripture is that of prayer and calling on God. The first corporate worship is mentioned in Genesis 4:26 with Seth and Enosh: “At that time people began to call upon the name of the LORD.”

We rightly celebrate the recovery of preaching in the Reformation. But, if we have erred in recent centuries in reformed circles, it is probably in over-emphasizing God’s house as a place of preaching (which it is, e.g. Isaiah 2:3) while under-emphasizing God’s declaration that his house is a house of prayer for all nations (Isaiah 56:7 and Mark 11:17).

Sometimes, looking at examples of worship practices in past ages can give us ideas of ways to pray that would better engage worshipers.

A fourth century text from Egypt provides such an example. It is recorded for us by S. Sarapion (c. A.D. 340).  In the order of worship he describes, the Lord’s Supper and a time of extended prayer were held at the end of the service after unbelievers were dismissed.  The worship leader (bishop, deacon, or officiant) would invite the congregation to stand for prayer.  He would then offer a topic for prayer after which he would allow a time for the whole congregation to pray silently while kneeling. Topics included repentance & forgiveness, loved ones, the sick and infirmed, unbelievers, missions, civil leaders, economic and vocational success, and much more. After a time of silent prayer, the leader (sometimes a different person than the person announcing the topic for prayer to begin) would bid the people arise and conclude that time with a collect, or a prayer gathering together the prayers of the people on that topic into one. Then, the leaders would offer another topic for prayer, the people would kneel in silent prayer, and the process would be repeated as they took various topics of concern to the Lord.[1]  In this way, the whole congregation offered personal, silent prayer to God. It also seems that the physical movement and changes in posture would have also kept supplicants from drowsiness and distraction.

Gregory Dix, an Anglican historian, reflected on this practice and the changes in the practice of prayer over time in his book The Shape of the Liturgy:

…in the early fourth century it is not only the position of the intercessions in the Shape of the Liturgy and the main points of their contents which are the same in East and West; that might have been expected. But all christendom [sic] was then still at one on the way in which the public intercession should be offered—by a corporate act involving the whole church, in which nevertheless each order—laity, deacon and officiant (bishop or presbyter)—must actively discharge its own separate and distinctive function within the fulfilment of the ‘priestly’ activity of the whole Body of Christ. It offers to God not only itself in its organic unity, but all the world with its sorrows and its busy God-given natural life and its needs. There is here a very revealing contrast with our own practice in this matter of liturgical intercession—the long monologue by the celebrant in the ‘Prayer for the Church Militant’ and the rapid fire of collects at the end of Morning and Evening Prayer. With us the deacon’s part has completely disappeared, and the people’s prayer and biddings—originally only led and directed—has been reduced to a single word, ‘Amen.’ If the truth be told, many of the more devout of our laity have come to suppose that intercession is a function of prayer better discharged in private than by liturgical prayer of any kind, so unsatisfying is the share which our practice allows them. The notion of the priestly prayer of the whole church, as the prayer of Christ the world’s Mediator through His Body, being ‘that which makes the world stand,’ in the phrase of an early Christian writer, has been banished from the understanding of our laity. Their stifled instinct that they, too, have a more effective part to play in intercession than listening to someone else praying, drives them to substitute private and solitary intercession for the prayer of the church as the really effective way of prayer, instead of regarding their private prayer as deriving its effectiveness from their membership of the church. So their hold on the corporate life is weakened and their own prayers are deprived of that inspiration and guidance which come from participating in really devout corporate prayer. The old method derives from the profoundly organic conception of the church which possessed the minds of the pre-Nicene christians [sic]. Our own is the product of that excessive clericalism of the later middle ages, whose conceptions of public worship were riveted upon the Anglican devotional tradition by the mistakes of the sixteenth century, and which we now take for granted. Then and now its result upon the devout laity is to provoke an excessively individualistic conception of personal prayer. By the middle of the fourth century the universal use of this pre-Nicene method of corporate intercession was beginning to disappear…[2]

We do not need to agree with Dix at every point to recognize that we probably do need to grow in our effort to leave corporate worship with the profound sense that we have spoken to God and that he has heard our pleas.

How can we grow in these ways? First, worshipers can give themselves more conscientiously to prayer in worship, even if only one person is praying aloud and no time is afforded for silent or individual prayer. Actively engage with your Lord as your congregation goes together to the throne of grace.

Second, leaders can think biblically and creatively about ways to more actively engage worshipers who come to the house of prayer. In the great dialogue that is corporate worship, those who come should leave with the sense that they have heard from their Lord and that their Lord has heard them. Worship leaders should labor towards that end.

[1] Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark), 43.

[2] Ibid, 46.