January 26, 2017

A plea for pastoral prayer

by Jesse Johnson

Image result for pastor praying

Pastoral prayer—the part of the worship service where a pastor stands before the congregation and leads them in prayer as part of the worship service—seems to have fallen on hard times.

By pastoral prayer, I mean a pastor (someone whom has been ordained, and is being paid by the congregation for pastoral ministry; 1 Tim 5:17) praying a deep prayer over/for/with the congregation on the Lord’s Day.

Terry Johnson—who wrote When Grace Comes Alive and When Grace Comes Home (two books about theological prayers), points out that through church history, pastoral prayers have been a mark of healthy churches, but particularly during the Reformation. They are common today because they remain embodied (if neglected) in most liturgical churches.  

By deep I mean that the prayer is profound. That it takes some truth of the Bible, or a pair of truths often in tension, and prays through their application. It causes to the congregational prayer to move past the sick list and the immediate, and instead strengthens our understanding of how we relate to God. Of all places, church is the place where people should be exposed to carefully crafted and deep prayers. It is helpful to know that the pool we are in has a deep end, and that it is ok to swim there.

By over/for/with I mean that the prayer draws in the congregation. It is done on their behalf, with them in mind. It exposes the pastor’s heart in a personal way, but beyond that it exposes the pastor’s care for his people. It gives them a window to the pastor’s prayer life, and to specifically how the pastor prays for them. It is with them, in that it draws them in, and they begin praying the same thoughts as well.

Marks of a good pastoral prayer:

  • The prayer is about praying. The public prayer grows out of the private prayer life of the pastor. And that private prayer life is in part seeking guidance for how to pray publicly.
  • Each prayer has a main doctrinal focus. One theme, or one antimony. One thrust. This helps focus the congregation on that one truth that will cause them to grow in their worship.
  • The prayer uses biblical language, often from the passage of Scripture that was just read. It avoids religious jargon, Christianeese, and the word “just.” (As in “we just come before you, and just want you to be here with us, and just be honored by what do.” Never, ever, ever does it use the word “just” unless it is a prefix for “justification.”) It does use terms that are biblical, even if they are not common in English. It is a picture of how the Scripture forms our speech, not the other way around. Puritan Thomas Murphy wrote:

The prayer of the sanctuary should be thoroughly saturated with scriptural thought and expression. The language of the Bible is that which the Spirit prompted, and which must therefore be most in accordance with the mind of God. For the same reason it must be Bible language which is best calculated to express those devotional feelings which are the work of the Spirit in the heart.

This is the pattern in the Bible. The Lord revealed to Moses that he was compassionate and slow to anger (Ex 34:6-7), and those lines appear in prayers throughout the OT (I can find seven different people praying that at least, from Moses to Jonah). Solomon, Mary, Jesus, and Paul all have prayers recorded that are drawing from passages that would have been read in public worship.

  • It carefully represents the needs of the congregation before the Lord. It battles doubt, confesses sin in areas general enough to apply to the congregation, but specific enough to be connected to the passage just read.
  • It is prepared–even written down (while allowing for spontaneity). In the book, “Preaching and Leading Worship,” Willimon complains about unwritten prayers: “Many of our pastoral prayers are a maze of poorly thought out, confusing clichés, hackneyed expressions, shallow constructions, and formalized, impersonal ramblings.” As far back as the 1800’s, Shedd saw that pastoral prayers were becoming more and more extemporaneous, and he warned against the trend, writing:

In the recoil from the formalism of written and read prayers, Protestants have not paid sufficient attention to an orderly and symmetrical structure in public supplications. Extemporaneous prayer, like extemporaneous preaching, is too often the product of the single instant, instead of devout reflection and premeditation. It might, at first glance, seem that premeditation and supplication are incongruous conceptions; that prayer must be a gush of feeling, without distinct reflection. This is an error. No man, no creature, can pray well without knowing what he is praying for, and whom he is praying to. Everything in prayer, and especially in public prayer, ought to be well considered and well weighed.

  • It reinforces the ministry of the Word. It underlines, underscores, and validates the preaching ministry by showing the connection of the congregations need (prayer) to the congregations output (singing), to the congregations input (preaching flowing from the prayer).
  • It reinforces the ministry of music. It makes subsequent songs richer, as they flow out of a heart that has just been in personally involved in contemplation and supplication.

The connection between reading and prayer is one of efficacy. Prayers that conform to God’s character and revelation are more apt to conform to his will, and thus more apt to provoke true worship.

In writing this, I’m not arguing for liturgy, or saying that every service should have a prayer in this vein. But if you are a pastor, let me appeal to you to strive for excellence in the way in which you lead your people in prayer.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • robertetozier

    Great thoughts. Let’s do it.

  • Brian Morgan

    Good stuff brother. I am concerned that prayer gets added to the list of our “anti-liturgical” Baptist liturgy…Announcements, prayer, 2 hymns, offering, one more hymn, sermon (3 points and one application) closing prayer….go eat. How’s that for not being “locked into a format!”

  • Jonathan F.

    Good post. I would suggest that any elder/pastor looking to pray for God’s people in this way would do well to read through the Valley of Vision.

    • AGREED! MacArthur’s “At the Throne of Grace” is a great too 🙂

      • Jonathan F.

        I’ve not read that, but thanks for the recommendation!

  • Parker Reardon

    Good & important thoughts. Appreciate Spurgeon’s The Pastor in Prayer…

  • Kermos

    Jesse, you are assuming that “double honor” translates to “being paid by the congregation for pastoral ministry” in 1 Timothy 5:17. The Apostle Paul also wrote “For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:9). How about Paul’s writing in 1 Timothy 5:8, “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever”. And, again, Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 “For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either”.

    See 1 Timothy 5:18, “YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING,” the unmuzzled ox can open it’s mouth – to eat! Continuing with verse 18, Paul wrote “The laborer is worthy of his wages”, but the whole verse reconciles back to Luke 10:7 – not talking about monetary rather about food and lodging.

    Recall that Peter rebuked Simon the magician for him trying to pay for the Apostles to lay hands on him (Acts 8:14-24)!

    The King of Glory, Jesus Christ, did not specify payment for services, rather food and shelter for those bearing the Word of God is found in Holy Scripture, “As you enter the house, give it your greeting” (Matthew 10:5-15) and again “Stay in that house, eating and drinking what they give you; for the laborer is worthy of his wages” (Luke 10:1-12).

    There is much more related about all of this at:


    • Karl Heitman

      You’d better duck and run for cover, Jesse! You’re no match for “Kermos'” eisegesis!

      • Kermos

        Karl, you falsely accuse me of reading into the Holy Scripture. You do not even quote the Word of God.

    • Jason

      It’s clear from these scriptures that a congregation should provide for the needs of those who are serving them. Since there is no explicit restrictions (or even recommendations) on how we are supposed to provide for our elders, it would be very presumptuous to declare that monetary wages cannot be the means of doing so.

      Imposing specific requirements of how a congregation does and does not provide for those who are serving within the body is to go beyond scripture.

      • Kermos

        Lord Jesus reigns in this conversation, Jason.

        The Apostle Paul wrote “nor with a pretext for greed” (1 Thessalonians 2:5), and “working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you” (1 Thessalonians 2:9). The Thessalonians were being “you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen” (1 Thessalonians 2:14). The intervening portions of this passage do not change that “not being a burden” sure sounds like not collecting money from a persecuted people because Paul used the phrase “pretext for greed”. Paul worked night and day, and Paul was a tentmaker for income purposes, and more importantly, Paul proclaimed Christ and Him crucified and Him risen! With prideful men, the Gospel of Christ proclaimed without charge and dialog in LOVE among the saints sounds very solid according to the Holy Spirit.

        Let us proceed to the words spoken by the incarnate God, our Lord Jesus Christ.

        First, Lord Jesus said “Stay in that house”. See the King of Glory issues a command, and that command is contingent on the God’s indication “If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you” (Luke 10:6, see also Matthew 10:13). Now we have:

        1) Jesus said “Stay in that house” – a requirement.

        Second, continuing with the passage, Lord Jesus continued “eating” and “what they give you”. See, again the King of Glory issues a command. He commanded to eat what is given. Now we have:

        1) Jesus said “Stay in that house” – a requirement.

        2) Jesus said “eat” – a requirement.

        Third, continuing with the passage, Lord Jesus continued “drinking what they give you”. See, yet again the King of Glory issues a command. He commanded His disciples to drink what is given. Now we have:

        1) Jesus said “Stay in that house” – a requirement.

        2) Jesus said “eat” – a requirement.

        3) Jesus said “drink” – a requirement.

        “Do not acquire gold, or silver, or copper for your money belts” (Matthew 10:9). That is the Lord Jesus speaking, Jason. The Lord Jesus spoke DIRECTLY to acquiring financial support.

        I say, “stay within the constraints of the Holy Writ”, on the other hand, you say “it would be very presumptuous” to by constrained by the Holy Writ. I would assume that you would say that Charles Russell and Joseph Smith proposed teachings that were not constrained by the Holy Writ. Jason, beware where you tread, as evidenced from the above (and much more at the essay I previously linked), it is evident that God issued requirements about the congregation supporting the elders because Jesus is the Son of God and Jesus said lodge, eat, and drink then we can see that even said not to acquire money and Lord Jesus was talking to the disciples.

        In love, we can help others financially or lodging or eating or drinking. Men are arrogant and prideful, and the root of all sorts of evil is the love of money. The Lord Jesus said sell everything then give it all away to the poor (Matthew 19:21, Luke 18:22, Mark 10:21). Jesus said “poor” repeatedly. He did not say to give it to a man that takes the title of pastor which the Lord Jesus reserved to Himself (John 10:16), but we still can out of love that is driven by the Holy Spirit – I am not writing about giving in the same way you are, Jason and Jesse. Not long ago, a “local church pastor” was suffering financially with medical bills, so we helped him financially – we are not members of his church. I knew of another “local church pastor” that was suffering financially – we are not members of his church either, and the Holy Spirit led us to provide some profitable short-term work for his wife to help them a couple of times over the years. In other instances, we have helped the poor not only to their physical needs, but more importantly we have given to the poor the proclamation of the Kingdom of God – without charge. This is not braggado, rather it is an example elaborating on the first sentences of this paragraph.

        Jason, by definition, to do something that is NOT in Scripture is to go beyond Scripture; on the other hand, to do something that is IN Scripture is to abide the Word. The Word of God clearly reveals commands and Holy Spirit leading on the giving (Matthew 19:21, Luke 18:22, Mark 10:21). To use your terminology: restrictions, requirements, and recommendations.

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  • Encouraging through and through!

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  • Vinod Anand S

    Hi Jesse, thought provoking post. Thanks!

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