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The Prayers of the People

Dennis Bratcher

Most evangelical traditions practice extemporaneous prayers, and have held written prayers in disdain as somehow less spiritual, too "cold and formal" for authentic worship (we sometimes forget that a large portion of the Old Testament, the Psalms, is a communal prayer book!). However, in many cases extemporaneous prayers are not quite as spontaneous and unscripted as we might hope. Most anything that people repeat on a regular basis begins to take on some form and structure (see Patterns for Life). That is no less true for public prayers. It is easy to slip into familiar phrases and trite expressions that fill time but really do not say much. Also, extemporaneous public prayers often exclude a significant percentage of the congregation who are too intimidated themselves to pray in public, or who simply do not pay much attention while someone else prays.

The result is often a style of public prayer that depends on the performance of a leader or an elite group of pray-ers, or that is rather hit-and-miss in terms of content. Too often it is an exercise in individualism before a group rather than a genuine communal encounter with God. Yet, in worship, more than most any other aspect of Christian life, the emphasis should be on community, on shared experience before God rather than a collection of individual and personal experiences. Prayer in public worship, as so much of the Bible tells us, is a shared activity.

The "Prayers of the People" is a liturgical structure for public prayer in worship. It moves in a well defined sequence and covers specific content. The Prayers of the People are set within the context of the proclaimed Word in the reading of Scripture and the sermon and the acted Word in the celebration of Eucharist (see A Theology of Word and Table). It is this Word which God has spoken in Christ (Heb 1:1-2) that is celebrated in worship and that provides the framework within which petition, thanksgiving, and confession are offered.

There are three major movements of the Prayers of the People: Petition and Thanksgiving, Confession, and Affirmation of Community in "Passing the Peace." The movement of the Prayers of the People is from the world and the universal Church, to local churches and community, to individual and personal needs. While there is a wide variety in actual use, traditionally the elements of the petitions and thanksgiving are:

The Church Universal, its members, and its mission

The welfare of the world (including current events)

The Nation and leaders in authority

The concerns of the local community

Those who suffer, are in any trouble, or have immediate need

The departed Fathers and Mothers of the Faith

This is followed by both communal and personal confession that acknowledges the need for God’s grace. In Reformed and other Protestant traditions, the confessional prayer included a prayer for forgiveness that "we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone." For most Wesleyans, this does not fit well with the idea of "perfection in love" and "love excluding sin." As a result, most Wesleyans are hesitant to pray any prayer of confession.

However, this is far more a reactionary distortion in the opposite direction, a form of functional "perfectionism," than it is sound theology. More than once in Scripture we are called to humble ourselves before God and acknowledge that no matter how sincere and committed to God we might be, or how pure our intentions, we do not always perform perfectly (Lev 4, Matt 23:12; Luke 18:10-14; 1 John 1:8-10, etc.). So, while the traditional "word, thought, and deed" confession is too strong for many Wesleyans, the idea of a prayer of confession, even for God’s people, is thoroughly biblical and an important part of any service of worship.

Traditionally, the Lord's Prayer is used as part of the Great Thanksgiving Eucharistic liturgy.  However, for many evangelicals, it seems more appropriate to place it here as the conclusion to the Prayers of the People.  The communal dimension of the Lord's Prayer, shared by Christians across the centuries, is an appropriate transition to Passing of the Peace.

The conclusion of the Prayers of the People is the Passing of the Peace, which places the prayers in the context of a community of Faith. In reaching out to each other in the sharing of Peace we acknowledge the communal nature of our Faith and the importance of sharing the journey of Faith with others who are on the same journey. It is this conclusion that affirms that our desires, longings, needs, victories, and celebrations of life are, indeed, part of a larger community that shares those things with us as we share the same things with others.

The Prayers of the People should not be rushed. The intervals of silence, while not needing to be long, should be clearly defined. In this approach to prayer, it is assumed that people will actually pray themselves in these moments of silence. The prayers should be read slowly so people can easily follow the words as genuine prayers and not just as an activity to fill time.

What follows is an example of what Prayers of the People might look like. The Prayers can be adapted to the various seasons of the Church Year or to the needs of local congregations. The important aspects are the communal nature of the prayers with involvement of the congregation, the flow of the prayers moving from general concerns to local to personal, the movement toward confession and affirmation within the context of community, and the setting of the Prayers within the context of a service of worship that includes both Word and Table.

The Prayers of the People

[Congregants may be invited to come to the altar to offer personal prayers of petition or thanksgiving. They should bring their worship folders and in the moments of silence may offer their prayers either silently or aloud.]

Prayers

Minister: Let us pray for the church and for the world. Jesus, you are the light of the world. Bring the light of your gospel to the ends of the earth. Use us with our President and the leaders of all nations to be instruments of your freedom, justice, and peace. [Silence] Lord, have mercy on us . . .

People: O Lord, hear our prayer.

Minister: Lord, you are the bread of life. Use us to give food to the hungry and nourish us all with your saving word. [Silence] Lord, have mercy on us . . .

People: O Lord, hear our prayer.

Minister: Lord, you are our way, our truth and our life. Hear our prayer for the church, for all ministers and all the people of God. Guide us and all who follow you in the Way, deepen our appreciation of your truth, and renew us with your life. [Silence] Lord, have mercy on us . . .

People: O Lord, hear our prayer.

Minister: Lord, you are our blessing and our joy. We thank you for all the blessings of this life, for those who love us, for occupations that fulfill us, and for leisure that restores us. Make us faithful stewards of your bounty. [Silence] Lord, have mercy on us . . .

People: O Lord, hear our prayer.

Minister: Lord, you are resurrection and life. We remember before you all who have died: receive them into eternal life and raise us with them into the joy of your heavenly kingdom. [Silence] Lord, have mercy on us . . .

People: O Lord, hear our prayer.

Minister: Lord, you are our hope and our strength. Be close to all who are alone, rejected, unemployed, and give courage to all who are without hope. [Silence] Lord, have mercy on us . . .

People: O Lord, hear our prayer.

Minister: Lord, you are the Good Shepherd who gave your life for the sheep. Hear our prayer for all who are in need, sorrow, or sickness. Bind up the injured, heal the sick and inspire those whose faith is broken. We now call out to you the names of those for whom we are praying.

People: [respond by giving first names only of those for whom prayers are being offered.]

Minister: [Silence] Lord, hear our cries and have mercy on us . . .

People: O Lord, hear our prayers.

All: O God who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Minister: O Lord our God, accept the fervent prayers of your people; in the multitude of your mercies, look with compassion upon us and all who turn to you for help; for you are gracious, O lover of souls, and to you we give glory, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and for ever.

[Optional] Minister: Amen. [The "Amen" is omitted here if the prayer continues with the confession.]

Confession

Minister: Let us confess our failures and our sins against God and our neighbor.

All: Most merciful God, we acknowledge that you are our God and that we have covenanted to be your people. But we confess that there are times when we fail to live out that covenant in the dailyness of our lives. We sometimes miss opportunities to love others. We sometimes allow fear to make us small in our faith. We allow the shadows of doubt to obscure the brightness of your presence. Sometimes, we follow the desires of our own heart instead of seeking your presence.

Holy God, forgive us for what we have done and for what we have left undone. Remind us again of your presence near us and in us. Free us from guilt, shame, and self-doubt. Help us to see you in the moment-by-moment possibilities to live with integrity, to act courageously as your people, and to speak the love of God in all of our words and actions.

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name.

Minister: Almighty God, thank you for your mercy and your forgiveness. Strengthen us in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep us in eternal life. [Amen.]

[Optional: The following can be included if The Lord's Prayer is not used as part of the Eucharistic liturgy.]

[Optional] Minister: We now join with Christians across the centuries and pray as our Lord taught us . . .

[Optional] All:  Our father who is in heaven, holy is your name; Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses [debts] as we forgive those who trespass against us [our debtors].  Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  For yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

Passing the Peace

Minister: Praise be to God! The peace of the Lord be with you always.

People: And also with you!

Minister: Take a few moments to greet one another in the name of the Lord.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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