by Carol Penner

We need to pray. We need to pray together. And in the pandemic we are in now, when our lives are turned upside down, prayer is even more essential.

If your church is recording services that are watched on the internet, or if you are meeting in a virtual way through some on-line platform, what are the things you should be thinking about as you prepare to lead the congregation in prayer?

In some ways, our communal prayer is the same as ever. The worship leader speaks to God on behalf of the people. The leader prepares by thinking, “What do the people need to say?”

The tradition of the church tells us that congregational prayers should help us;

  • offer thanksgiving & praise
  • confess and receive assurance
  • raise petitions for ourselves and others
  • rejoice and lament

Congregational prayer is, basically, a time where we open our hearts to God.

Open-heart prayer, sort of like open-heart surgery, is a delicate business.

It involves being vulnerable, and sharing our deepest fears and hopes with God.

A prayer hits home when the listeners feel that their inner life has somehow been caught and offered to God–when they can say a deep “yes” to the prayer. A good prayer is cathartic, and offers insight: “I didn’t know that was what I was wrestling with until I heard you say it…but that’s exactly it.”

For my home church, our virtual service is shorter. Everything is streamlined, so that we won’t be staring at a screen for so long. For the person preparing to pray, it’s been an opportunity to ask, “What is essential? What needs to be said today?’ Here are some things I’ve been thinking about including in congregational prayers lately.

Prayers should help us lament

We have lost so much in this pandemic. Some have lost people to the virus, some have lost their jobs or savings. Many important things have been cancelled or postponed, and physical distancing has been excruciating for some. The Black Lives Matter protests have brought attention to the evils of racism and police violence in our society. Lament, where we name what hurts, is essential.

We hear lament in the psalms. David accuses God of not listening! Too often worship leaders today are afraid to be so frank.

As you prepare to lead worship, ask yourself, “What has gone wrong, or what is going wrong?” Is God addressing these problems fast enough, or completely enough?

In some Mennonite contexts, emotions are restrained in worship, and lament can seem too extravagant. Many Mennonites emphasize following Jesus, and taking up our cross. We often offer prayers that are resigned, “Help us live through this pandemic.” There is nothing wrong with that prayer. But there is also a time for wild lament.

Think of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Can we cry out, “Take this pandemic away from us!” Or, paraphrasing David’s thoughts in Psalm 44, “Why have you turned your back on us? We need you to do something about this!”

By saying these hard-to-say-out-loud statements and questions in a congregational prayer, you model praying in a transparent way. We can be totally honest with God, individually and corporately.

They should foster empathy in the community

As a worship leader, it’s important to think about the whole congregation, and not just your own reality. Whatever your situation is right now, it is not the case for everyone. Some people’s lives are busy and absorbed with children and homeschooling, with people underfoot all the time. Other people face empty hours and too much silence. For essential workers, work goes on, with no extra time at home. Your congregational prayer should be nuanced, naming a number of options, so people can find themselves in it.

If you only pray, “Thank you for keeping us safe,” you assume that everyone is feeling safe. But what about the person in the congregation whose mother is sick with COVID-19, or the person who just lost their family business?

Naming different realities allows your prayer to be more expansive and inclusive. For example, “Some of us are relieved and thankful that we have not been sick. Some of us are worried we will lose someone to this virus. There have been losses of many kinds because of the pandemic. We need you to help us.”

Prayers are directed to God but they also serve to draw the attention of the community to hurting people. “Show us how to support each other in these difficult times.”

They should broaden our vision

One of the things I’ve noticed during the pandemic is that our prayers have a tendency to become short-sighted.

Sometimes we can hardly lift our eyes from the needs of our own congregation. It’s important to keep praying for the rest of the world.

At the same time, there is a danger in a congregational prayer to pray for too many big picture things–heaping petition upon petition. There are a lot of needs in the world!

It can be very depressing to hear about too many desperate situations in a single prayer: the mind simply can’t absorb it and people tune out. Avoid the temptation to show how socially aware you are through your long list of requests.

Instead, think about what the Spirit is laying on your heart…what hasn’t your congregation prayed about in the past few weeks or months? Has something happened in the news or in your community that will be present in many people’s minds? Pray for that.

They remind us of our hope

Just as there is a place for lament in congregational prayers, there should also be a place for hope. There are people listening to your prayer who may be on the edge of coping, they may be desperate for good news.

What is our hope? Why are we praying? We are part of a long Christian tradition that looks to God to save us. This is not the first pandemic the world has seen. God has helped countless communities weather plagues and viruses before. I ended a recent prayer with these words: “Thank you that love is also contagious and stronger than any virus. You will be with us, and we will be with each other in sickness and in health.”

It may seem like I am stating the obvious. But our faith in God’s faithfulness is a powerful anchor when people feel storm-driven. Confessional statements like this remind us what we believe together.

There may be people joining your service who have not been to church in a long while, or who have tuned in to see what church is about. Our move to on-line services is a missional opportunity.

The faith of our community is on display in your honest, from-the-heart prayers.

Finally, pray about praying. Ask for God’s guidance as you prepare to lead the congregation. The Spirit will guide you to find the words that your community needs in this pandemic.

Carol Penner teaches practical theology at Conrad Grebel University College. She has been a pastor in churches in Ontario and Alberta, and has a blog of worship resources at www.leadinginworship.com. She lives in Vineland, Ontario where she is a member of The First Mennonite Church.

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