overhearing prayer

How does a congregation learn to pray? Corporate prayer is learned over time through practices that nurture and feed growth in honest speech before God. When I arrived at University Hill Congregation nearly twenty years ago I met a congregation learning cadences of prayer that I had not heard before in worship.

In the congregations I served previously leadership in public prayer fell mainly to me. It was the minister’s job to lead the prayers. While scripture might regularly be read by a lay lector, the prayers were chosen or written by me, the minister. But this is no longer the case. At University Hill Congregation the prayers have been written and led by a lay worship elder, Sunday by Sunday, season by season, year by year, for nearly three decades.

The practice began when an interim minister took it upon himself to teach the congregation to offer its own prayers. Though initially many felt that they did not have the gift or ability to write and to lead such prayers, over time this has become the norm in our life together. It is now simply assumed that most of the prayers in worship on Sunday morning are offered by one of the congregation’s lay members.

This is how it happens. The worship ministry team has developed a roster of some two dozen folk who have responded to the call to give voice to the people’s prayers of praise and of ache. Over the years training sessions have provided opportunity to learn more about public prayer and to practice crafting prayers on behalf of others. A set of written guidelines for public prayer has been developed and is posted on the congregation’s website for easy access when the worship elder is preparing Sunday’s prayers. Two members of the worship ministry team take responsibility for calling together a worship leadership team for each Sunday, including the worship elder. During the week prior to worship the team shares information about scriptures to be read and hymns to be sung. The worship elder is invited to meditate on these texts as well as on the news – local and global, congregational and international – of the week. Then, on Sunday, the worship elder sits with the presider and preacher, stepping forward to offer leadership three times in the liturgy.

First the worship elder offers the Prayers of Approach and of Confession. We ask the elder to look for the ‘Wow’ that the hymn and scripture texts proclaim about God and to lift up something of this in the Prayer of Approach so that the congregation might move from preoccupation with itself into the holy presence of God. In the Prayer of Confession the worship elder seeks language that is honest about the congregation’s need for God when faced with the truth about itself and the world. Later, in the Prayers of the People the worship elder leads the community in asking for God’s redemptive presence in the church, world, community and individual lives even as it offers its own life to God’s mission of healing and reconciliation. Finally, the worship elder co-missions the people as disciples of Jesus in the world, with words of commissioning that are intended to challenge and to encourage lives of joyful servanthood.

In overhearing the prayers of the congregation as voiced by its worship elders over the years I have been blessed to witness the slow, steady growth of a people learning to pray with daring honesty and humility. Sunday by Sunday, we hear the diversity of faithful witness within the congregation. The voices are old and young, liberal and conservative, in many different accents. Yet there is a common thread which reveals a mutual desire to love the God we meet in Jesus Christ and, therefore, to pray for the neighbour and the stranger, the enemy and the friend God commands us to love.

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