In reading Re-Membering the Body: The witness of history, theology, and the arts in honour of Ruth Gouldbourne (Wipf & Stock 2021) edited by Anthony Cross & Brian Haymes, I was struck by an essay by Brian Haymes entitled ‘Pastoral Prayer’. Although Brian was principal both of the Northern Baptist College and Bristol Baptist College, he states that the most significant ‘position’ offered to Baptist ministers is to be the local pastor, and that an important part of that ministry is “that moment when, in the public worship of God, the pastor gives the invitation, ‘Let us pray’”. This leading of the congregation in prayer is “a crucial responsibility”.
As Brian Haymes reminds his readers, the great Victorian ‘prince of preachers’ Charles Haddon Spurgeon believed in the importance of the pastor leading the congregation in prayer. In Lectures to My Students Spurgeon wrote:
I am not able to see any reason for depriving myself of the holiest, sweetest, and most profitable exercise which my Lord has allotted me; if I may have my choice I will sooner yield up the sermon than the prayer… Let your petitions be plain and heart-felt; and while your people may sometimes feel that the sermon was below the mark, may they also feel that the prayer compensated for all.
Alas, in many Baptist churches today ministers delegate the praying to others. Often the opening worship is put in the hands of the ‘worship group’ leader – as if a gift to strum a guitar is a qualification to lead the congregation into God’s presence. Often too the prayers of intercession are led by members of the congregation, with the result that the only prayer left to the minister may be the closing benediction.
When I was ordained, like all my contemporaries I was charged “to lead the congregation in worship and administer the gospel sacraments” (Ernest Payne & Stephen Winward, Orders and Prayers for Church Worship, 4th edition 1967). Although the wording has changed in the latest Baptist worship manual, nonetheless “leading the church in worship” is specifically defined as the pastor’s role (Christopher Ellis & Myra Blyth, Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples, 2005) . It is precisely because of this responsibility that ministers receive training for leading in worship. Indeed, I have argued in Living Out The Call: Book Four Serving God’s People (2nd edition 2016) that ministers are called to be ‘creative liturgists’.
The writer to the Hebrews describes Jesus as a ‘liturgist’ (leitourgos): as our high priest he is “a minister in the sanctuary” (Hebs 8.2 NRSV) i.e. he serves in the worship of God. The root etymological meaning of our English word ‘liturgy’ is ‘the public worship of God’. Liturgy has nothing to do with a particular form of words – it simply denotes the worship which we offer to God. “Into the liturgy the people bring their entire existence so that it may be gathered up in praise. From the liturgy the people depart with a renewed vision of the value-patterns of God’s kingdom, by the more effective practice of which they intend to glorify God in their whole life.” (Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology 1980) This is the context in which we say that pastors are called to be ‘creative liturgists’; they are called to lead their people into the presence of God himself.
Minsters are responsible for the framework of worship, and in turn they should be involved in leading the worship of the church. Precisely how this works out will depend on individual contexts. However, this does not mean that they and they alone lead the congregation in prayer. For instance, when I was pastor of a local church, two or three times a month the Sunday morning prayers of intercession were led different members of the church. Nonetheless, the opening prayers of praise and confession were always led if not by myself then by one of the ministers of the church. What’s more, I used to ensure that I always led the prayers at the Lord’s Table: there we remembered the needs not just of the fellowship but also of the wider church and indeed of the wider world, ending with a prayer for ourselves which normally took the form of a prayer of rededication. For me and for many others too it was the high point of the church’s worship.
Yes, ministers are called to lead the church in prayer!