Different people will have different ideas and feelings about what is happening in intercessory prayer:
- some will have a vivid sense of addressing requests to a personal God who will listen and respond while others will struggle to imagine such a God and have more of a feeling of sending their words into the unknown;
- some will believe that their prayers might make a real and important difference to what happens while others will find that difficult to accept, for a variety of reasons;
- some will feel comfortable with expressing their own wishes and desires in prayer while others are more inclined to say to God “as your will not as mine”;
- for some it will be natural to pray about things that are concerning them at the moment of prayer while others will feel that some things are more worthy of prayer or more important than their own concerns.
No doubt there are other such differences between those who are offering prayer. It might be interesting to explore them in our sessions in the future. The main point for me now is that as the person leading the congregation in prayer the intercessor has to try to do two things at once. On the one hand it is essential that the prayer offered comes from the heart of the one leading it. It is vital that you mean what you say, that your prayer expresses your own true relationship to God in that moment, whether that be total trust and love towards the Father of Jesus or a doubtful hope in an unknown distant God. On the other hand the prayers have to be ones that the whole congregation can sincerely join in with. Prayers that don’t mean much to many members of the assembly are not appropriate in public prayer.
One reliable way to manage this is to use familiar forms and words from the traditions of the Church. These have evolved over a long time to be helpful to a wide variety of people in all sorts of situations. For this reason they are a safe and helpful resource when in doubt. There are a variety of such forms offered by a wide range of books and web-sites. My own first preference is to use one of the prayers offered by the URC Worship Book when I’m struggling to write my own.
These traditional forms can quite legitimately be used exactly as they appear but can also be adapted and expanded if there are particular prayers that need to be added. In most cases there will be a suitable “slot” where they will fit. In our case the prayer focusses in the prayer cycle and anything in the prayer request book will need to be put in in this way.
These traditional forms are also helpful with some “technical” things. For example they guide us in making sure that all our words are addressed to God (as is right in prayer) and not to the congregation. If words are to be addressed to the congregation (and sometimes this is helpful if otherwise they would not be clear what they were praying about) these can be separated out as what are known as “biddings”. These call the congregation to prayer about some particular need or situation, so we might have a bidding that says:
“Let us pray for our friend xxx who has suffered from a heart attack and is in hospital at Barnet General.”
This would be followed by a prayer that says:
“Lord, we pray for the comfort and healing of xxx bring her through this time of trouble and restore her to fitness.”
This avoids the awkwardness of appearing to be telling God what’s happened in order to inform those praying.
For some of us prayer is primarily about asking God to do things, to bless, heal, reconcile, feed or comfort. For others these actions need to be carried out by human beings and prayer will tend to take the forms; “Lord, help us to …” or “inspire people to …”. There are good arguments for both and nobody should feel they need to pray in one way if their heart inclines them to pray in the other. Nor is there anything to prevent a single set of prayers including both kinds of prayer. We might say: “Father, bring healing to those who are sick. Guide and lead those caring for them.”
The most important thing of all is that the prayer offered is sincere. If you can’t mean something then don’t include it. If world peace seems to you just too much to ask for, then don’t ask for it. If you are uneasy about praying for our Queen and her government, then don’t. One of the gifts we get from having a large number of different intercessors is the assurance that if we don’t pray for something then somebody else probably will.
Similarly don’t worry about being having a wonderful way with words. When we join together in prayer the main thing is the quality of our connection with God. This will be enhanced for some people by beautiful words but these might even get in the way for others. A simple statement of what you want to say to God is the best thing. Look into your own heart and discern what you are being moved to ask for and then ask for it directly and without fuss or embarrassment.
The form of prayers should be clear and easy to follow. It is usually best to group them into clearly demarcated sections. A traditional structure is to pray for the Church, then for the nations, then for those near to us. Prayers for those in need may follow – the sick, the lonely and the troubled.
If responses are to be used these should be clearly communicated before the prayers begin and kept quite simple.