Can We Talk About Prayer Meetings?

Paul Levy and I have, but the differences of our talk may be worth considering.

Like many evangelicals who seem to need to show their piety (despite our Lord’s warning about praying that others can see us at prayer), Levy provides a number of reasons for the week night “gathering” that seem to have less to do with prayer itself than with the fellowship that such meetings might encourage. For instance:

4. There is something that unites us together when we pray together – People ask sometimes what is encouraging you in Christian ministry? For me the big one is to hear someone pray for the first time. I am a Westminster Confession believing, card carrying Presbyterian and yet to hear someone pray for the first time makes me want to dance a jig of delight. As in marriage, those congregations who pray together stay together. You cannot hate your brother while praying with him and for him.

Is the point of prayer to encourage other believers or inspire a dance, or is it to offer up to God our desires “for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies” (SC 98)? If it is the latter, then Levy is closer to the mark when he writes:

6. Prayer is a means of grace – Hebrews 4:14-16 ”14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Prayer is us speaking with God, but, as we pray, we receive mercy and find grace. It is my experience that at prayer gatherings when the people of God together call on the name of God we are often more conscious of his blessing. As we draw near to him he draws near to us.

But is prayer more effective, more gracious, when people gather for it and it’s done corporately? If people stay home and pray, even at the same time, is the effect the same? With God maybe, but not for those for whom prayer becomes a means of bonding or becoming more personally acquainted. Fellowship is a valuable thing. But doesn’t it happen more over a meal than when either listing prayer requests of extemporaneously praying for them. In fact, sometimes prayer meetings can hurt fellowship when you find that saints (see what I did there?) request prayer for ephemeral matters or lack eloquence when praying publicly (myself included). In other words, prayer meetings can be very uncomfortable because of the performance component inherent in them. But Levy, like so many pietists, only sees the spiritual (up) side.

On the other hand, prayer meetings may be a very good marker of Christian devotion, as they reveal Christians who participate in the life of a congregation and are willing to make that a priority. Instead of being culture warriors, they are church members.

At the same time, if we limit serious church assemblies to the Lord’s Day and the regular administration of the means of grace, Christians may actually have time to serve on school boards or attend public events and show that they are active members of the earthly kingdom where they live while they await and pray for the coming of the kingdom of glory.


43 thoughts on “Can We Talk About Prayer Meetings?

  1. 8. Praying together reminds me that there is a world out there – I am so prone to pray this sort of thing ‘Lord bless me and my wife, my son John and his wife, us four and no more, Amen’. It is at the prayer gathering that I am confronted by the needs of the church and the world

    Really? I can forget the world — much as I might like too? And I care enough to show up on Wednesday night but don’t care about the church? Well, at least he got a full list of nine, which should please Joe Carter.

    The listing is fine, but praying the list is awkward and contrived. Why not list the needs then have someone pray a written prayer that mentions no one in particular but hits all the right, biblical notes? Then we’re reminded how unspecial we are and how able God is. And the lists always get abbreviated, don’t they? I mean, you have the stars (cancer patients, breaking families) but who are we to prioritize? And who wants to hear about someone’s aunt’s urinary tract?

    Confession time: More than once co-conspirators and I have enjoyed the fellowship meal on Wednesday night only to skip the prayer meeting and head to a respectable restaurant bar where (believe it or not, pietists) the conversation is mostly churchly, spiritual, and I might even say wholesome.


  2. Without defending Levy or disagreeing with your specific criticisms, there is yet Acts 1.14 and 12.12 that seem to suggest that church gatherings for prayer have biblical warrant. DG, would you interpret these as instances of public worship services?


  3. C-dubs, Mrs. Z. has a term for listical public prayers: pious gossip.

    But I favor the alternative: regular Sabbath attendance of the means of grace with the six days in between given to earthly life, i.e. “six days you shall labor, but the seventh is a Sabbath.” I’m never sure that first part is understood so much as a positive charge as it is a necessary evil. The mid-week prayer meeting is liberty but often seems easily given to becoming a Sabbath-Part-Two.


  4. With couples working two jobs and a plethora of school and sports activities for the kids, I have been struck by the change in the makeup of our Wednesday prayer meetings (which includes dinner). The % of young families has gone up a good bit. Not sure of all the factors that contribute to that but family time shared with similarly situated folks seems to be something the younger members enjoy a lot. I do know that some secular organizations are still hesitant to schedule things for Wednesday evenings, though not as much as they used to be. To the point DGH raises in his last sentence, it would be hard to find a local congregation with a higher % of members involved in community activities.


  5. ….and even more so, ‘never send an Arminian to do the work of a Calvinist’……….

    …..’or a Lutheran’……………..and so on…………………


  6. This does not speak to when corporate prayer should occur, but does suggest that those who hold the practice (in general) in high esteem are in good company, as long as certain properties are observed, and humility practiced; “For he taught by this term that the chief part of his worship lies in the office of prayer, and that the temple was set up like a banner for believers so that they might, with one consent, participate in it… the prayers of the church are never ineffectual, for God always furnishes his people occasion for singing with joy… For he, who promises that he will do whatever two or three gathered together in his name may ask [Mat.18:19-20], testifies that he does not despise prayers publicly made, provided ostentation and chasing after paltry human glory are banished, and there is present a sincere and true affection that dwells in the secret place of the heart… the chief use of the tongue is in public prayers, which are offered in the assembly of believers, by which it comes about that with one common voice, and as it were, with the same mouth, we all glorify God together, worshipping him with one spirit and the same faith.” John Calvin


  7. Lance, Calvin considered singing (almost all psalms or other scriptural passages) a species of prayer. This implies that prayer should be orderly and even corporate most of the time. And ministerial prayers were almost always written and standardized. These things seem to mitigate against extempo-experiental unregulated meetings.


  8. There’s nothing like a good Calvin quote to start my day with my cup of coffee.

    Thanks Lance. Welcome to Oldlife.


  9. Went back and re-read Calvin’s section on Prayer in the Institutes – no question he expects corporate prayer to be orderly, with set times and prudent procedures. No question also that he warns agsinst frivolous prayer, either privately or corporately. But that a Church may indeed want to set aside regular times, beyond Sabath day worship, to dedicate to prayer seems to be something he supports, without mandating. He also seems quite concerned that members of the body offers prayers of intercession for one another (although the exact method of doing so he seems to view as a prudential concern for individual Churches). Anyway, I really appreciate this post as it was a good impitus to re-visit Calvin on the topic. I cringe as much as the next guy at some aapects of the traditional evangelical prayer meeting: the converting of prayer into performance, the focus on health and jobs and family at the expense of more direct concern for the Kingdom of God etc…. But then I wonder if the larger problem is me, and a lack of willingness to humble myself, to love my brothers and sisters with a more open heart, and to take seriously the burdens of others – even if at first blush they strike me as inconsequential. Churches with wise Sessions can help direct and focus our times of Corporate prayer to better give glory to God. Perhaps threre is some benefit for run of the mill Church goers like me to simply pray that God would give wisdom to those He has placed in authority over me in this regard, while giving me a heart ready to submit, in Christ, to that leadership.


  10. if prayers are “means of grace”, not what we do but what God does, won’t prayers necessarily be for show—-public?

    “Aristotle taught that some activities in life (intellectual acts) were “more human”

    p 192, Letters and Papers, Bonhoeffer— “It is always concerned with the whole man, even where, as in the Sermon on the Mount, the Decalogue is pressed home to refer to ‘inward disposition.’ That a good ‘disposition’ can take the place of the total goodness is quite unbiblical. The discovery of the so-called inner life dates from the Renaissance, probably from Petrarch. The ‘heart’ in the biblical sense is not the inner life, but the whole man in relation to God. But as a man lives just as much from ‘outwards’ to ‘inwards’ as from ‘inwards’ to ‘outwards,’ the view that his essential nature can be understood only from his intimate spiritual background is wholly erroneous. “


  11. No need to get precise about doctrinal details, because Mormons and Arminians probably love the same Jesus even more than we do, and it’s grace that over looks their lack of education in things “Reformed”. Being Confessional is the “cherry on top”, but not so very important in a day when we agree that our common (but unknown) god opposes same-sex marriage.


  12. Lance, “I cringe as much as the next guy at some aapects of the traditional evangelical prayer meeting: the converting of prayer into performance, the focus on health and jobs and family at the expense of more direct concern for the Kingdom of God etc…. But then I wonder if the larger problem is me.”

    It’s not.


  13. Maybe if your people had better theology and a more Biblical understanding of corporate prayer your prayer meetings wouldn’t be filled with narcissists reading our their shopping lists for life. I don’t recognise this picture of prayer meetings in our own gatherings. Your a teacher, Mr. Hart, maybe you should do better instead of whining about how uninformed in Reformed piety your own people are.


  14. cw, when Kev says this, “13. Pray before you pray. Ask God for help as you prepare. Ask him for humility and grace as you go up to pray,” don’t you get the feeling that this really is performance? Which it is when the pastor is leading the congregation. But what about when the every member ministry minister is leading in prayer meeting? If she prays before she prays then she fails to hear and attend to the prayer of the every member ministry minister who is currently leading the congregation in prayer.


  15. #13 stood out to me, too. You have to pray before you pray before you pray. And as a discerning, theologically-astute (hat tip to Alexander) you also have to evaluate the prayer of the other pray-er as you pray along with the pray-er. And what if you suspect the pray-er didn’t pray before the prayer? Or if you forgot to?


  16. This sounded a little more performance-y to me:

    12. Show proper reverence, confidence, and emotion. Pray like you mean it, like God is God, and as if he really hears us.

    What about when I’m not so sure though? “Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief” doesn’t sound like it’s packed with confidence.


  17. Zrim and Dr. Hart,

    Appreciate your honesty more than you know. I can identify (doubt – being inarticulate – e: all of the above) when praying. My mind wanders, thinks about lunch, solves problems, worries about stuff, sins, and feels very unfocused at times……….all the while when I am desiring to not do that……….very earnestly


  18. This is well expressed:
    At the same time, if we limit serious church assemblies to the Lord’s Day and the regular administration of the means of grace, Christians may actually have time to serve on school boards or attend public events and show that they are active members of the earthly kingdom where they live while they await and pray for the coming of the kingdom of glory.
    And it is not just serving on school boards, it can be work that consumes lots of hours, time for family, to catch your breath, maybe go and watch a game of football with your son.
    I would add daily family worship and personal devotions.
    The problem with mid week prayer meetings or early Sunday morning prayer meetings is that they divide the congregation – those attending are susceptible to pride and those not attending guilt.


  19. Not that DGH needs my help, but Alexander compared “your prayer meetings” with “our own gatherings.” Hence the relevance of “where are you writing from” or words to that effect.

    The gossip-prayer has been mentioned. Has anyone mentioned brag-prayers like “pray for my coworker that I’ve been sharing the gospel with,” faction-prayers like “bless the ministry of my theologically quirky guy that you should like,” legalist prayers like “help Claire be able to stay home instead of work,” and nag-prayers that, when translated say “help everyone around me to do as much stuff as I do?”

    I’m not as against prayer meetings as this might sound, but it can be like putting your church members on a therapy couch and just letting them speak their minds, only it’s in public.


  20. At least Protestants don’t have this kind of distraction when making prayer requests:

    Q. I read recently that, during the consecration at Mass, the blessed Savior is most present to us — and that if we have a special prayer request, that would be the best time to make it. Can you tell me if that is correct, or is there a more appropriate time? (Columbia, Missouri)

    A. It is true that when the words of consecration are pronounced by the priest, Jesus himself becomes present on the altar under the appearance of bread and wine. This makes that moment, of course, an especially sacred one. I have noticed that even when a congregation has seemed fidgety and distracted, a reverent hush descends at the time of consecration.

    If you feel a particular closeness to Christ right then, by all means go ahead and make your request — although the primary focus at that moment should be gratitude to the Lord for coming so near.

    Finally, I need to point out that, in listening to our needs, God has no “office hours.” I believe, and the teaching of the Church holds, that Jesus’ invitation to “ask and you shall receive” applies in any circumstance and in every setting.


  21. David Palmer-

    If an hour a week keeps people from being on school boards or conducting family worship, I’m thinking they’re not particularly motivated about performing those tasks in the first place. You could just do what our people do: have family worship when you get home from the prayer meeting. And why are you taking your son to a football match at all? Furthermore, if Christians think that showing they are “members of the earthly kingdom” is more important than showing their allegiance to Christ and His kingdom, then they really need prayer meetings!

    Muddy Gravel,

    No, not relevant. All the relevance was contained within the comment: clearly my church’s prayer meetings are separate from Mr. Hart’s. That’s all you needed to know. I’ve also mentioned where I’m from a number of times. One might think it just the height of bad manners to keep asking.


  22. Alexander, some might say it’s bad manners to challenge someone on something that is squarely within the bounds of liberty (not to mention self-righteous). But I take it you’re from the “‘six days you shall labor and do all your work’ is a necessary evil” camp.


  23. Alexander, there you go mixing up the function of prayer. Wouldn’t it be the case that folks like Muddy need to be prayer requests rather than participants in prayer meetings? If you think prayer meeting is for bonding and proving your piety, well maybe you have a point. But that was precisely what Christ advocated praying in closets.


  24. Zrim,

    I would have to accept that it is within the bounds of liberty. News flash: What Mr. Hart doesn’t like does not automatically equal “bounds of liberty”. Prayer Meetings may well be within such bounds, or not, but I prefer to follow the tradition of the Reformed churches over internet svengalis when it comes to these sorts of things. It always amazes me how those things which apparently fall within the “bounds of liberty” square up pretty much with living an affluent, middle class, suburban lifestyle which doesn’t like to be bothered by such frivolous things as meeting for corporate prayer and striving after godliness.

    And I have no idea what you mean by your last sentence.

    Mr. Hart,

    Again you make my point. You are judging Prayer Meetings on your own experience. I don’t know who all these narcissistic people are who are so keen to prove their piety. Maybe they’re just in your church? But I do know the Bible gives us the record of Christians meeting daily for fellowship. An hour on a Wednesday evening doesn’t seem too much to ask.


  25. Alexander, I was referring to football games. Why chide someone for taking one in?

    And see my first comment up above. You said: “…if Christians think that showing they are ‘members of the earthly kingdom’ is more important than showing their allegiance to Christ and His kingdom, then they really need prayer meetings!” My point is that while the fourth is about the seventh day, we’re also commanded to labor and be citizens of the earthly kingdom (just not of it). Why are you undermining that command by suggesting a form of pious world flight?


  26. But some neo-Calvinists helpfully remind of the fact that God himself prays for us (even without our request). Why don’t the neo-Puritans ever seem to talk about that?

    This blog will appear two days before Ascension Day 2015. The “Session of Christ” is one of the least known of Christian doctrines even in the Church, but our belief that Jesus Christ is “seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” is one of our deepest Christian comforts. Christ is there with the Father, the firstfruits of our also having a place in the Father’s kingdom and New Creation but Christ is also there as the Intercessor in chief for his people. He is praying for us. He is interceding for us. And there are moments in most people’s lives when something about the possible reality of that is a needed belief–the belief of having Someone on our side to receive our prayers and pass them along to the One in charge of everything. Maybe it’s Calvin’s semen religionis, Augustine’s God-shaped hole in the human heart, the embers of God’s image still glowing faintly in even the most secular of people. Whatever it is, it can be an encouraging phenomenon to witness.


  27. An OPC take vs. the now PCA DeY on praying.

    How to Pray at Prayer Meetings: Some Practical Suggestions
    Ryan McGraw

    Prayer meetings are vital to the church. However, prayer meetings can be difficult to manage. Most who have led prayer meetings have experienced various difficulties in doing so. When Christians gather together in families or in small groups to pray, ordinarily they go to prayer directly. Yet when the church gathers for corporate prayer, the scene often changes. Instead of focusing primarily on prayer, most of the time is often used in taking requests or conducting Bible studies. . . .

    Written prayers?
    RefTheo101: Survey of West. Assembly Dir. Public Worship.
    Presbyterians are not anglicans and prefer premeditated prayers to written, though for those who need help the examples in the DPW could serve as a pattern.


  28. Zrim-

    Actually I would take the Fourth Commandment’s mention of the six days of work as, in the words of the Larger Catechism, “allowing” us six days for our own labours. The Commandment is not equally concerned with our earthly work as our spiritual work; rather its concern is that we make sure we reserve one of our days for God. The Fourth Commandment does not “command” me to labour, it is assumed I will be labouring during the week. And your use of “earthly” is too vague. Do ministers labour in an “earthly” way? By the definition of “earthly” on this website I would have to conclude you would say no.

    And unless one is labouring “earthily” for 24 hours, 6 days a week, then I think they can find an hour for a prayer meeting when they can find the time for all their recreations and frivolities.


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