"... My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations" (Mark 11:17, MEV).
If the church asked me to suggest one thing that would make the greatest improvement in all they do, I would not hesitate.
I would make their worship center a house of prayer.
While that could involve a number of things, the most obvious change would take place in the worship service.
1. I would make the front of the church—what we call the altar area—conducive to people coming to kneel and pray.
2. I would schedule a time in every worship service when the congregation is invited to come and pray. Usually, that would be the invitation time, but not always.
3. And I would see that this is regularly mentioned in the church bulletin as well as by the worship leader. We want to let people know "you are invited to come and pray," and "we expect you to come and pray." Their coming is no interruption.
Give the people a place to pray and a time to do it, and keep this before them, and a hundred positive things will take place. (We will make no attempt to come up with that list of 100 blessings from making your church a praying people, since it would vary from church to church.)
Your people want to pray, pastor.
That they need to pray is a no-brainer. "Men ought always to pray and not to lose heart and quit" (Luke 18:1).
My observation is they want to pray in church. And, they want to pray with one another.
They will need leadership on how to do this.
There needs to be a place to pray. This means a comfortable place to kneel, room for some to stand and space on the front pew for others to sit and pray. Not everyone is physically able to kneel and then get up, so we encourage them to "come and pray while standing or to take a seat on the front pew." We would add, "When you finish, you can return to your seat, or if you would like, you can share with a minister, who will be happy to pray with you."
The front of the church has to be cleared of too much furniture, too many displays and too much clutter. Some churches have small fronts, which are filled by the Lord's Supper table and a piano. In those cases, the front pew may need to be removed in order to make space for people to pray.
Why does it matter that people come to the altar to pray? Answer: I don't know. I only know that it does.
We do this every Sunday in our home church.
Last Sunday when I returned to my pew, I noted that more men and boys were kneeling at the altar than women and girls. Sometimes, it's the reverse. Either way, the fact that people come to pray speaks volumes about the health of the congregation.
God's people need to be given a time to come and pray. This does not have to be printed in an order of worship. In most cases, for our Southern Baptist churches, who tend to have similar orders of service, the obvious time to come and pray is after the sermon when the pastor extends the invitation for people to make decisions for the Lord. By coming to the altar to pray, church members encourage others to come by their example.
I was preaching in a church in Atlanta. Had anyone asked me previously, I would have said that this church probably had a formal "high church" tradition. I was pleasantly surprised. The best surprise of all was that during the middle of the service, members spontaneously (it seemed) got up and filled the altar area for prayer. Furthermore, the service did not go forward so long as one person continued kneeling at the altar. The congregation had learned very well that prayer was an integral part of their worship and they loved it.
The people need to hear that they are welcome to come and pray. I've been in churches where I wanted to kneel at the front and pray, but knew that since no one else did so, it would appear as an interruption or a distraction. I'm an extrovert, but not a show-off, so I remained in my pew.
Pastors and worship leaders may mention briefly in the service that "our people love to pray. As many come to kneel and pray, or stand here at the front and pray, following the sermon, please feel free to join them. This is God's house and our Lord said it is to be a house of prayer for all the nations."
Start with yourself, then branch out. If you as a pastor or worship leader are not committed to praying personally, you're not ready to lead your church where you are not going. So, become a man or woman of prayer yourself.
Then, mention this to a few of the best people in your church (you understand the term: those who are godly and sweet-spirited and want the church to be more than it is presently). Get them on board.
I've told on these pages how we got started. Nearly 20 years ago when I was pastoring this church, the choir sang a hymn on the subject of "someone is praying for you." As they sang, one by one, people got up and came to the front to kneel and pray. I joined them, and was touched by this spontaneous display.
The next morning in staff, I learned that the worship leader had arranged for a half-dozen people to come and pray. But more than twice that many had joined them at the altar. That was a surprise.
I said to the staff, "Guys, God has just sent us a message. These people want to come to the altar and pray."
That week we had the custodian remove the cushions from some unused pews and build bases for them. We placed them strategically across the front of the sanctuary, where they remain to this day.
We're in our second pastorate since I was the shepherd here, and our people are still filling the altar at the invitation time, praying. The point of that is this: This has become a tradition in this church and no longer depends on the pulpit to promote it (although that is welcome). The people want to pray and are doing so.
The. People. Want. To. Pray.
A wise leader will find ways to help them to do that.
Joe McKeever has been a believer over 60 years, has been preaching the gospel over 50 years, and has been writing and cartooning for Christian Publications over 40 years. He lives in New Orleans. For the original article, visit joemckeever.com.
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