When does prayer occur during Christian worship? In my view, the entire worship service is prayer offered to God.
There are obviously one or more “prayers” (plural) that take place during a worship service – an invocation, perhaps, or a pastoral prayer – but the congregation’s praying is not confined to segments that begin with the name of God and end with “Amen.”
Congregational singing is prayer. The choir director at the church I attended during my high school years had a sign on her wall: He who sings prays twice. Often misattributed to Augustine, the slogan captures the idea that both words and melody are offered to God. Words are rational; they have meaning. The act of singing words, however, incorporates non-rational elements as well. Singing comes from the heart and reaches back into the heart.
Congregational singing is prayer, and so I find myself greatly perturbed when the pastor cuts the hymn short to provide more time for other activities – a longer sermon or some “special” activity that taking place in the worship hour. Good pastor, don’t cut my prayer time in song!
In the liturgical traditions, singing is not limited to hymns. The congregation sings (or says) acclamations, responses, psalms and dialogs with the worship leader. Even “traditional” low-church Protestants will sing the Gloria Patri and the Doxology. In higher liturgical settings, I’ve come to love the Gloria in Excelsis (Glory to God in the Highest), the Sursum Corda (the sung dialog before communion), the Sanctus (the sung “Holy, Holy, Holy” during the communion prayer) and the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). It seems to me that some contemporary worship songs would also work much better as liturgical responses and acclamations than they do all piled together in endless repetitions in one big “praise and worship” section.
Congregational acclamations and responses allow us to engage the reading of scripture, the offering of our gifts and celebration of the Lord’s Supper as prayer. When the scriptures are read and when the service concludes, we respond “Thanks be to God.” At the reading of the gospel, we sing “Alleluia” and give praise to Christ before and after the reading.
Worship incorporates a number of types of explicit prayers: a confession of sins, a prayer of the day that corresponds with the scripture readings, prayers for the church and the world, a prayer of dedication of the offering, a prayer of thanksgiving before (and perhaps after) communion, and the Lord’s Prayer (the “Our Father”).
Other elements of worship are prayers disguised as something else. When we recite the creed together, to whom are we confessing our faith? To ourselves? To our brothers and sisters? Certainly. But ultimately, to the one in whom our faith rests.
Prayer is not only an offering of our words (and our selves) to God; it is listening for God’s word to us. God speaks to us in the words of absolution after confession, in the words of Holy Scripture (both read as scripture and incorporated into the structure of the worship liturgy), in the words of the pastor as he or she stands in the pulpit and in the words of the celebrant as he or she offers us Christ’s body and blood. This last element reminds us that God communicates with us non-verbally as well. The water of baptism, the bread and wine of communion, the grasp of a brother or sister’s hand as we share the peace, the experience of assembling with the faithful and the physical sensations of worship (what we see, hear, smell and feel): these can all be God’s word to us.
All of worship is prayer. Ironically, in my experience anyway, one of the least prayerful elements of worship is the long “pastoral prayer” of “traditional” evangelical worship. Eyes closed. Head bowed. Mind elsewhere.