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Rambling thoughts on corporate prayer

Matthew Henry said, “It is taken for granted that all the disciples of Christ pray. As soon as ever Paul was converted, behold he prayeth. You may as soon find a living man that does not breathe, as a living Christian that does not pray.” Luther said, “Prayer . . . is as strictly and solemnly commanded as all other commandments, such as having no other God, not killing, not stealing, etc.”1

Most of us probably consider corporate prayer in public worship as a ‘no-brainer,’ something quite obvious, and expected. To be sure, prayer is a birthmark of the born-again Christian. And if prayer ought to be a characterization of the individual believer, so much the more should serious prayer characterize our corporate gatherings. It is, after all, a principal part of our armor in Ephesians 6. It is not without significance that prayer is mentioned in Acts 2:42 among the four pillar activities of the newly formed church.

I hope that our churches continue to perpetuate time for serious prayer. Yet corporate prayer seems to have fallen on hard times. I would consider my library to have a better than average amount of volumes on worship and then a good handful of books on pastoral theology. Very few have anything to say about corporate prayer. And I’m not even going to bring up the now languishing prayer meeting.

But we ought to give ourselves to prayer in our assemblies, and have a good, meaningful and sincere prayer of substantial but moderate length. I think that this is important. We ought to be people who love our God, and therefore delight in bringing our praise and requests to him in prayer.

Of course, prayers should not be long for their own sake. We should never make prayer into a demonstration or show of our oratory skills or piety. Prayer can never be self-serving, for that turns prayer on its head. Prayer is necessary because we are absolutely needy people. We need God desperately, and God abhors religious phoneys. This is why Jesus warned the Jewish people about the scribes, “who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, 47 who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation” (Luke 20:46-47). I don’t take the problem there to be the length of prayers per se, but insincerity and conceit behind them. So in Matthew 6:7-8, the problem is not the length, as it is the long inane repetition without understanding and conceit in hearing oneself talk. After all, Jesus prayed all night (Luke 6:12), and would have us pray like the widow unceasingly badgering the unrighteous judge (Luke 18). Our prayers should not be long for the sake of their being long, but in accordance with our need.2

That’s why I’m worried about the lack of serious prayer in assemblies. It is not that I want to see people adding words to their liturgy, but I am genuinely concerned about the quality of our piety if we cannot countenance serious prayer.

The thing about corporate prayer is that it cannot be made sexy. You can’t make a serious prayer hip or cool or trendy. It cannot possibly be made tolerable to the unregenerate. You can’t add powerpoint to prayer to make it interesting. The best you can do is to trivialize it with some sentimental background music (a practice we cannot find ourselves recommending), but serious pastoral prayer in its stark simplicity tests the limits and sincerity of our piety. It demands our attention, and that we attend to our God himself. Our interest in prayer cannot be feigned through the external means of manipulation like we have seen applied to our hymns with the vehicles of banal popular culture.

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

  1. Cited in Brian G. Najapfour, “Martin Luther on Prayer and Reformation,” in Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer, eds. Joe R. Beeke and Brian G. Najapfour (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 8. []
  2. Spurgeon famously advised, “Do not let your prayers be long.” He explains, “My friend, Dr. Charles Brown, of Edinburgh, lays it down, as a result of his deliberate judgment, that ten minutes is the limit to which public prayer ought to be prolonged. Our Puritanic forefathers used to pray for three-quarters of an hour, or more, [!] but then you must recollect that they did not know that they would ever have the opportunity of praying again before an assembly, and therefore, took their fill of it; and besides, people were not inclined in those days to quarrel with the length of prayers or of sermons so much as they do nowadays. You cannot pray too long in private. We do not limit you to ten minutes there, or ten hours, or ten weeks if you like. The more you are on your knees along the better. We are now speaking of those public prayers which come before or after the sermon, and for these ten minutes is a better limit than fifteen. Only one in a thousand would complain of you for being too short, while scores will murmur at your being wearisome in length.” Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1962), 60, 61. []