He thought about it, and after much consideration declared that the question was complex and difficult, but if he must choose between the two, he would have to choose the congregational prayers.
Imagine that: the Prince of Preachers, whose sermons were heard by thousands each week and emulated by others, felt that the pastoral prayers were closer to the heart of his pastoral ministry than his preaching.
This season for prayer that comes in the middle of worship for most congregations-- which is often called the pastoral prayer, the congregational prayer, or the prayers of the people-- is an essential part of ministry within a congregation. If Spurgeon took the pastoral prayer/prayers of the people that seriously, the rest of us (pastors) should take it very seriously, too. This means several things, it seems to me:
- They shouldn't be hurried. One of my former pastors taught me this lesson best, because he never hesitated to keep praying until the prayers were "done". (Of course, we could pray for hours without adequately praying for all of the needs and concerns of a congregation, but that's beside the point.) I find that my pastoral/congregational prayers are usually 10-15 minutes, and that's vital time for the life of our congregation. I've never gotten a complaint that my prayers were too long!
- They should be intentional. Good prayers at any time are purposeful, not consisting of empty phrases and the same thing repeated over and over again, but expressing well-formed ideas that are useful for the matter being prayed for. How much more so for the congregational prayers! How many pastors enter into this season of prayer too casually, having given little consideration to what they will pray for and how they will pray for it? If the number is one, that is one too many: this time of prayer should be considered, studied, prayed about, and prepared for in the same manner as the sermon and the rest of the liturgy.
- They should attend to many needs. Obviously there will be items for prayer that are known to everyone, and these should be included in the pastoral prayers. But there are other things that are valuable to include in these seasons of prayer. Praying for the congregation regularly, for the missionaries that your church supports, and for the leaders of the nation are a few ideas. I'll follow up soon with a post about the content of my pastoral prayers, and say more on this then.
- They should be instructive. This time of prayer is a weekly opportunity for your congregation to learn how to pray. Many of them long for a more vibrant prayer life, but do not know how to get there. Let your pastoral prayer be a model for them each week.
- They should be corporate. This means that the congregation should be included in the actual praying of the prayers. In our congregation, we accomplish this in two ways: we have a printed list of the general topics that will be covered in that week's prayers, so that the congregation may pray along silently as I pray aloud, and we conclude our congregational prayers with a corporate praying of the Lord's Prayer.
I'll address what comprises the content of my pastoral prayers in a follow-up post.