The Forgotten Altar - Part 4 - The House of Prayer
Free Worship Evaluation for your church
Worship Profile of the Brooklyn Tabernacle
New Conference - Schedule now for spring 2012
by Lowell Snow
People are changed by God when they experience authentic corporate prayer. So why isn’t prayer at the heart of every worship service? There may be a thousand answers, but we can be sure Satan’s behind most of them. Consider the following reality that seems good at first, but upon closer scrutiny, is revealed as a very successful plot to covertly remove prayer from the sanctuary.
The concept in many evangelical churches is this: bring the people into the presence of God with music – then they’ll be ready to hear from God through the preaching of the Word. I’ve heard many a pastor or worship leader say this through the years and was taught it in college and seminary.
Do you see the problem? This formula doesn’t include prayer. Without a commitment to the centrality of corporate prayer in worship, congregational prayer has been reduced to monologue prayer. From Bible teachers and deacons to pastors and television evangelists, public prayer has become little more than spiritual speeches aimed in the direction of God.
Instead of each individual having a personal encounter with God, the person leading prayer becomes an Old Testament priest of sorts, while the people sit in the pews listening; much like the worshipers of ancient times had to remain out in the courtyard while the priest entered the temple.
Truly, God has ordained praise and the preaching of the Word. There is no substitute. But it’s equally true that God ordained congregational prayer at the heart of worship. There is no substitute. God's people must be guided from praise into a time of communion with the Lord or worship is incomplete.
There’s nothing nearer to the heart of God than His people’s prayers.
There’s nothing more worshipful than God’s people praying.
There’s no better time to unleash the power of prayer than during worship.
Think about services you've experienced where people were truly changed by Holy power. At some point in that service, they had an encounter with God. No matter how powerful the preacher, only God can truly change people. In those services, the preacher might not have led a prayer time in the classic sense, but there had to be a time of communion with God if lives were truly changed.
Invitations are not adequate prayer times.
A great invitation always involves a prayer time, but it can’t substitute for a prayer time at the heart of worship.
If you grew up in an evangelical denomination it’s likely that the only real congregational prayer you were exposed to was during invitations. The preacher would conclude the sermon then ask everyone to bow their heads. What followed would vary from preacher to preacher, but basically he’d ask them to reflect on what God had said to them during the service; pray for them; perhaps guide them in a silent sinners prayer; and then give an altar call.
That’s not a bad template, but if it’s the only corporate prayer during the service; it misses the mark for two reasons: it’s not at the heart of worship and its scope is limited.
From our study of the temple, we’ve learned that a personal encounter with God in prayer is the reason for worship. Therefore, it should be the zenith of the worship time at the very heart of the song service.
The other problem with limiting corporate prayer to the invitation is that the invitation doesn’t involve everyone. The invitation is focused on those who need to make decisions. A prayer time at the heart of worship calls everyone to the throne of God.
Prayer songs are not adequate prayer times.
Some would argue that many of the wonderful choruses we sing today are actually prayers. That’s true and many of the great hymns are as well, but this totally misses the point of prayer. Prayer is personal. A prayer song can't replace a personal encounter with God. Each Christian needs to talk with the Lord individually.
What prayer song or pastoral prayer can express the heart cry of a man who’s fighting the temptation to commit adultery? Or commit suicide? What if a young person is feeling the call to the ministry or considering marriage? What about the elderly church member who doubts their salvation? The list goes on and on.
Every person in the congregation has personal issues that they need to have a private talk with God about. No one else in the world can express that prayer for them.
Praise and thanksgiving bring God's people into His presence, but it’s by prayer that they take the final step of worship and enter into a personal encounter with Him.
The most fearsome war machine of the twentieth century was the nuclear powered attack submarine. The type of nuclear reactor at the heart of these silent predators is perhaps the most efficient power generation system on earth, but it can’t be used for municipal power plants. Why? Because it won’t scale-up. It works great in a relatively small application like a submarine or aircraft carrier, but not a huge power plant that must produce a thousand times more energy.
Prayer is a little like that, very powerful on a small scale, (when two or three are gathered in my name…) but complicated and unwieldy on a large scale. That’s why corporate prayer comes naturally to a house-church, but is difficult in a large congregation. Scaling-up corporate prayer for large groups requires a skilled prayer guide, but it can be done.
Years ago I read the book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, by Jim Cymbala, pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City. I was impressed by his emphasis on prayer. As the years passed, I kept hearing great things about this church, so I decided to visit and do a profile of the worship service. In the Sunday morning service, over 11% of the time was given to prayer. Nearly seven minutes of the two hour and fifteen minute service was congregational prayer. Another thing I noticed was that every segment of congregational music culminated with congregational prayer (prayer at the heart of worship).
If there’s ever to be a revival of congregational prayer, worship leaders, battle weary from decades of the worship wars, are going to have to retrain again, this time in the skills of leading large group prayer.
Everywhere, attempts are being made to make worship more relevant, but most worship remains a prayer wasteland. Christians pray together in Bible classes, meetings, and prayer ministries, but not in their worship centers. How can we be so blind?
I estimate that 98% of group prayer takes place outside the sanctuary. My 2005 study of worship in eight denominations documented that in one of our largest denominations, 90% of their churches no longer practice congregational prayer at all.
There’s a great cry today for God’s people to pray. Talk to just about any pastor, and he has recently or is currently preaching a series on prayer. There are prayer meetings, prayer ministries, and solemn assemblies; but the most logical, Biblical, and spiritually powerful opportunity for prayer is ignored.
We lament the removal of prayer from the public school, but that tragedy was preceded by the removal of meaningful, congregational prayer from the sanctuary.
We often blame the moral decline of Western civilization on sudden ground shifts like the removal of prayer from school or the legalization of abortion. Certainly there were powerful political movements behind these litigations, but they succeeded because the spiritual climate had already changed.
Religion had replaced relationship. People sought friendship with God without the fear of God. The ground shift didn’t start in the courts, but the churches – and ground zero was the absence of authentic congregational prayer.
Great movements of God are preceded and accompanied by great movements of prayer. That being the case; most churches in western culture will never again see a movement of God because prayer is not at the heart of their worship; their administration; or even their mission. Hard work, money, education, and talent are seen as the ingredients for success and success is measured with the world’s ruler. Prayer is still a good thing; even an important thing – it’s just not the main thing.
Filipino college student, Melba Maggay, converted from Marx to Jesus and was one of the many Christians who stood against the tanks in the 1986 ‘People’s Power Revolution’ that resulted in the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. She went on to earn a Ph.D., became a CEO and author, and has served the Lord faithfully in her home country. Reflecting on the continuing cultural issues facing her home land; she writes,
“There is a hardness to evil, a mystery to its persistence, that cannot be fathomed nor remedied by mere politics…While all my professional expertise is useful, it cannot hold a candle to the clean white flame that descends upon us when the Spirit speaks.”*
* Kingdom Without Borders, by Miriam Adeney, Inter Varsity Press, 2009, pg.11
Next month we'll continue our consideration of The Forgotten Altar.
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I’m updating my research on worship in preparation for a new book and need to do as many worship service profiles as possible in the next few months. For churches that will send me an unedited DVD of their Sunday morning service; I'll profile and evaluate their service free of charge. I need all sizes and denominations and there's a limit to how many I can do, so there's a request form to fill out. I normally charge $100 for this service so don't delay. Thanks for your help.
There’s a reference in this month’s article to a worship profile (evaluation) that I did at the Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City. Here are a few details from that profile:
Here are some other observations about worship at the Brooklyn Tabernacle:
If your church hasn't hosted a prayer conference; prayerfully consider hosting Prayer In the Real World. These down to earth sermons and sessions are a perfect starting point for most congregations. Here are just some of the topics from this powerful conference:
I am scheduling now for spring, 2012. Please consider hosting Prayer In the Real World. Every church needs a prayer conference and now’s the time to get it on the calendar.
Some are saying their church can't afford a conference, but I suggest they ask themselves if they can really afford to not have a prayer conference. If your church has voted to suspend extra meetings because of financial concerns, but you feel that God wants you to do something; please contact me. I'll join you in prayer and we'll see what God does.
If you've already hosted the original Journey Into the Presence of God conference , the Prayer In the Real World conference will be a great follow-up. If you're not sure which conference is right for you, contact us and we'll answer your questions.
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