Many people have written much about prayer but few have focused on corporate prayer. Therefore, this article is exclusively about why, what, and how we pray when we come together, specifically on a Sunday morning.
In this series of articles, I am addressing the question, ‘what kind of church would Jesus attend?’ Although I have identified nine indicators of the presence of The Lord in a church service, I acknowledge that these nine are also ways in which we respond to His sensed presence.
Prayer is the second of the nine indicators, but to be more accurate I need to amplify it with the word ‘passionate’. Prayer is communicating with God and passionate, in this context, is expressing strong feeling. If we sense the immediate presence of the Lord Jesus in a Sunday service then we will surely want to communicate with Him heart-to-heart. Equally, it is hard to imagine that The Lord would be pleased to be in the midst of people who feel little for Him and who don’t really want to communicate with Him.
What makes corporate prayer different to individual prayer and why is it an important element of gathered church life?
I think that the best way to answer these questions is to look through the window of the book of Acts into the corporate prayer life of the early church.
The embryo church consisted of no more than about 17 men and women (Acts 1:13-14) who continued to meet together frequently after Jesus had ascended back into Heaven. Significantly, the primary purpose of these gatherings was to ‘join together with one mind in prayer’. They were constantly together both physically and in unity of heart and mind. Jesus had risen from the dead and then had spent 40 days with them teaching about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). They had then seen Him ascending bodily into Heaven and so it was natural for them to want to continue to talk with Him as a group of disciples. This then is the very essence of corporate prayer – a group of disciples talking passionately to Jesus.
Ten days later, those same disciples, plus about another one hundred, were meeting again in the upper room when the Holy Spirit came with power to birth the church and to anoint its members with the fire and wind of heaven (Acts 2:1-4). The result of this was the start of a wonderful cooperation between God and the church. The Spirit-filled disciples poured out into the street from the room where they were gathering, praising God in a spiritual language (tongues). This attracted a huge crowd of Jews who, to their amazement, found that they could understand what the disciples were praying. Because there has been so much confusion over this, I think it best to give you the full account as per the NIV Bible:
Acts 2:1-12 ‘When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked; “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs — we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”’
As a very minimum, we can take from this passage that when the believers met together in prayer they were filled by The Holy Spirit with spiritual power that enabled them to speak out in prayers of praise ‘declaring the wonders of God’. What is more, the Holy Spirit then enabled those in the crowd to understand what the disciples were praying. [Paul later identified these as two of the ‘gifts’ of The Holy Spirit to the church Tongues and Interpretation of tongues)]. Peter then answered the question “what does this mean?” by presenting the Gospel of Salvation, and as a result, about 3,000 people believed and were baptised!
Was this a once-off spiritual ‘birthing’ of the first church or an ongoing ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’ that we can continue to expect and pray for in our church today?
Well, something similar happened again just a short while later. Peter and John were hauled before the Jewish religious hierarchy and told to stop speaking and teaching in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:18). Their initial response was to publically reject this instruction, and secondly to report to the gathered church. Acts 4:24 records what the church did when they heard of what had happened to their leaders; “they raised their voices together in prayer to God” and asked Him to enable them to “speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” (Acts 4:29-30). Then the Acts account goes on in verse 31 to record that ‘After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly’.
This alone should encourage us to meet together regularly to pray! However, corporate prayer also featured in other aspects of early church life. For instance, after Judas had killed himself, the disciples felt it necessary to appoint a replacement. So what did they do? They prayed together and asked God to help them decide on which of the two candidates was more suitable (Acts 1:24). Sometime later, the apostles appointed seven deacons to distribute food to the needy in the church, but before they ‘ordained’ these men what did they do? ‘They prayed and laid their hands on them’ (Acts 6:6).
Later, Samaria experienced a Revival and so the Church in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to check it out. Acts 8:15 records that ‘when they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit.’ Later still, the Kingdom of God spread to the city of Antioch where Barnabas and Paul co-pastored a growing church. Acts 13:2-3 gives the account that while they (the gathered church) were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off’.
Of course, the theme of corporate prayer runs on through the rest of the book of Acts but its importance is established right at the beginning of the church in Jerusalem where ‘they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42). In other words, when the church came together they focused on an intertwined combination of four things – the apostle’s teachings about Jesus, the sharing of testimony and life, the shared meal of Holy Communion, and… corporate prayer.
Paul later developed the subject of corporate prayer in his letters to the young churches, particularly in 1 Corinthians 14.
Now, here is a picture I will be putting before you, in one form or another, throughout this series:
Imagine for a moment that at some point in your Sunday service, at your local church, everyone there suddenly becomes aware of the tangible presence of the Lord Jesus. There He is standing right there! He looks around and His eyes linger briefly on every person there. Then He says; “Here I am my dearest people. What would you like to talk to me about? Come, speak to me.” What would you, and the others there, do and say?
Would you start to mouth out well-used prayer clichés like “Most holy Lord, we your people humbly beseech you…”? I doubt it. Would you start a chorus or read out a scripture? Surely not when He asked you to talk with Him. Would you turn to your pastor and mutter “Something’s wrong here because we should only pray to The Father you know” Perish the thought? No, rather one of you would start to tell Him how you feel about Him and others would exclaim “Yes Lord that is how I feel too!” Someone else would ask Him for forgiveness for apathy and faithlessness and you may well agree with a heartfelt “Amen” as you associate yourself with this prayer request. Others would speak out expressing personal passion but also seeking to express the heart and mind of the whole group. Oh, and hopefully you would then be silent as you waited with almost breathless expectation for Jesus to respond to your prayers.