Darryl Hart, “Private Prayer, Corporate Worship”

Darryl Hart has a stimulating article questioning the appropriateness of silent prayer in a church service, and most specifically, during a planned break in the pastoral prayer (although the applications of his points are certainly broader).  The link to the article was broken when I tried it, but may work for you at such time as you choose to click!  In any case, I’m reproducing the article below as it appeared in my blog reader.  Comments?

Maybe the lack of a prayer book is the reason, but Presbyterians do not always practice prayer well. Small group prayer has its own problems, previously discussed in the NTJ. But a similar phenomenon is now at work in the public worship of Reformed Protestants. In several churches during the last few years I have seen worship services carve out a time for private, silent prayer during the corporate prayer led by the minister.

Like so many aspects of Presbyterians at prayer, silent corporate prayer still has many kinks to work out. Why doesn’t it occur to those who adopt this practice that the one engaged in prayer may actually still be praying when the pastor resumes his prayer? And when that happens, do the proponents of silent corporate prayer worry that the worshipers who pray silently, will be uneasy in praying, the way they may also be anxious when eating at a rest stop before the tour bus pulls away? This is only to say that because worshipers do not know how long the period of silence will be, and because they have no clock that counts down the seconds (and even if they did, keeping an eye on the clock would defeat the time set aside for prayer), they can not pray fully or unhurriedly. At least the contestants on Jeopardy know that two times through the theme song and then they need to produce their question for the Final Round. And in worship a similar rhythm is at work for the meditation in which worshipers engage while holding the elements of the Lord’s Supper: you know that when you hear the marching elders process back to the Table you need to wrap up your prayer or introspection and prepare to drink or eat. But no such cues exist with the period set aside for silent corporate prayer.

This practical problem may be enough to stop the practice, but theological concerns may help. Although I am not confident about this, it does seem that the nature of public prayer is to be corporate, where one person prays on behalf of and for all those assembled. My sense is also that such prayers should be generic in reference to the needs and blessings of Christians; otherwise, some people get left out, thus suggesting they are not a high enough priority for prayer; and when everyone is included in the corporate prayer, the time for prayer is longer than the sermon – in which case we say more to God than he says to us. If public prayers should be corporate in nature, then the shift from the general prayer of the pastor to the specificity of the individual worshiper’s litany is out of whack. God gave us prayer closets for private prayer. I see no reason why we need to turn the meeting house into a prayer closet for everyone.

Whether these considerations are sufficient to say that silent corporate prayer should be stopped, they do suggest sufficient deficiencies in the practice to suspend silent prayers until either the mechanics and or the rationale achieve a higher level of plausibility. Or, just bring in the prayer books. After all, we already have hymnals. Has anyone ever heard of stopping after the second stanza of “A Mighty Fortress” to let each worshiper sing his own tune to the Lord?

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One Response to Darryl Hart, “Private Prayer, Corporate Worship”

  1. I’m enjoying your new blog, Chuck. Thanks for this post.

    We ourselves do this. Each Sunday morning, we have a moment of private confession in the middle of the first corporate prayer, and in the communion service we have similar moments for prayers of adoration. The practical issue of timing may indeed be a problem, but I’m not yet convinced that it is. I have never been troubled by it myself.

    Something Tozer wrote in The Pursuit of God has stuck with me when considering these private prayers in corporate worship. He wrote, “Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other?” Now, Tozer was not discussing private prayers — he was discussing private religion. The metaphor seems to fit, though. When we pray silently in corporate worship, we don’t necessarily stop worshiping corporately.

    This gentleman refers to the “prayer book” as an alternative to liturgies that include this kind of prayer, but he may not be aware that at least one prayer book actually encourages this kind of prayer. On p. 123 of the Book of Alternative Services, you will find, “The leader should add particular intentions to each bidding. In the course of the silence after each bidding, the people offer their own prayers, either silently or aloud.

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