January 16, 2012

Pastoral Prayer

Part 4 in a series on the church’s “liturgy

One of the great lessons I learned in college came to me in quite an unusual way. I learned it, not in the classroom, but from the Sunday morning worship service. Nor was it taught me in the church which I myself attended … but by the pastor under whose ministry Tobey sat week in and week out. Even more out of the ordinary was that I never heard this man preach, nor attended a service in his church! And yet I learned something from him that, to me, has become vitally important.

After we were married, Tobey and I were talking one day about how much she had enjoyed her time at College Hill Presbyterian Church, pastored by Alan Cochet (that’s CO-shay in Mississippi, y’all!). The thing that she seemed to remember and appreciate the most were the pastor’s prayers for his congregation – his pastoral prayers, as we call them at PRBC. Having never experienced such prayers myself (that I can remember), I was keenly interested in what she meant by – and what Rev. Cochet did during – the pastoral prayer. In essence, he did not simply sprinkle in brief, cliché filled prayers to serve as tokens and fillers in the worship service. Rather, each Lord’s Day morning, he carefully and thoughtfully worked his way through a whole host of praises and requests on behalf of his congregation, the community, and so on.

Rev. Cochet, in his weekly pastoral prayer, gave his people a small taste, it would seem, of the careful and thoughtful way he must surely have prayed for them in the privacy of his closet or study. And at least one college student, rather than being put off by prayers that necessitated several minutes of closed eyes, was actually enthused by and thankful for such pastoral care for the flock! Having heard her enthusiasm, I have tried to imitate some semblance of what she heard on those formative Sundays. Along the way, I’ve learned that pastors have been praying such pastoral prayers for centuries - imitating the masterful examples laid down by the apostle Paul (see Ephesians 1 and 3) and the Lord Jesus Himself (John 17)!  Allow me to suggest a few reasons why I believe this practice has become so tried and true. Pastoral prayers are:

Actual prayers. Private prayer is not simply comprised of brief sentences sprinkled here and there (I hope). So why should we pray that way in church? Surely if there was ever a time to set aside a few minutes to really pray for all the various concerns of God’s people, it ought to be on Sunday morning during worship!

Instructive prayers. If the pastor never seriously prays in front of his people; if he always offers only brief segue-prayers between various points in the service; if they never hear how the shepherd prays for a variety of people and issues, many people (new Christians especially) may have a difficult time learning how to pray for such things themselves!

Recyclable prayers. When a pastor actually prays for Sam’s job interview, and Suzie’s surgery, and the missionary’s fruitfulness … folks in the congregation (hopefully) say to themselves: ‘Aha! There is something I ought to be praying for, too.'  Thus, they may add their silent ‘amen’ as the pastor goes along … as well as their own personal prayers as the week goes along.

Comforting prayers. The hope is that, like Tobey in her college days, far from feeling overburdened by a 4-5 minute prayer each Sunday morning, Christians will be comforted to know that their shepherd notices and cares about their needs; that he has his eyes on the flock closely enough that he can pray very specifically for them.

Finally, let me point out that my own pastoral prayers are invariably modeled after the ACTS method of prayer. Noticing my method may help you PRBCers to follow along even more fully:

I begin with Adoration – hoping you will join me in praising God for His various attributes (usually selecting traits drawn from the opening song of praise).  Next we engage in Confession – including a silent moment for you to confess your own sins specifically (and for me to confess mine).  Third, we pray prayers of Thanksgiving – for the forgiveness we just requested, and for the various blessings God has recently poured out on His people at PRBC.  And finally, we conclude the prayer with Supplication – requests for various members of our congregation, for churchwide needs or projects, for our missionaries, for various current events, and for the day’s services.

I hope you’ll join with me (or your own pastor), each Sunday morning, as we weave our way through the pastoral prayer. And I hope that this form of shepherding is as helpful to some of you as Alan Cochet’s example was to Tobey (and to me) so many years ago.

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