First, a disclaimer: I don't claim to have the "definitive" list of what should be in the congregational prayer, by any means. I recognize that I probably have missed at least a few things (and maybe a number of them), and I'd welcome you to comment with things that you think should be added!
For example, one congregant recently commented that he would like to hear me pray for our military more often. He was absolutely right! I didn't realize until he said it that I had overlooked that important topic, and I now include it regularly in one section of my pastoral prayers.
That said, what I now present as "prayers of the people" in weekly worship is based on months (and even years) of making adjustments and additions in my own leadership of pastoral prayers during worship, and that itself was based on years of sitting under faithful and capable pastors in different churches and hearing them pray for our congregations.
Here is what I offer regularly in our season of congregational prayer:
- Meditation on the worship theme. Every week, the liturgy of our worship is crafted around one or more themes that are themselves drawn from both the sermon and other factors. I take one of those themes (usually the most prominent one) and we meditate on it for a moment. I try to include Scriptural ideas (direct quotes as much as I can) in that meditation, and also some drawing together of those ideas with the sense of application for the day.
- Prayer for one aspect of the church. In this section, I essentially rely on the set of topics that I identified in my book, For All the Saints: Praying for the Church and use one of them each week, rotating through the whole list over time. There are 15 topics, and I've identified several distinct ways that we can pray for the church in each topic, so there's a lot of room for variety here even though we rotate through.
- Prayer for one segment of creation. We are commanded in Scripture to pray for our government and those in authority in it (I Timothy 2:1-2; cf. I Peter 2:13-14), and we ought to do that as a congregation. I remember one pastor in my hometown, the memory of whom challenges me now 20 years later, because (among other things) of his faithfulness to pray for our nation's president and other elected officials every week. In our congregational prayers, we break it down into these segments, praying for one each week in rotation: our local community (the unincorporated area where the church is, and the two adjacent towns); our region (both the county we are in, and the metropolitan area in the next county over that we are increasingly becoming a part of); our state; our nation; and for the whole world. Incidentally, I have begun to include prayers for our nation's military in my prayers for our nation, and for all military servicemen-- ours and others-- in my prayers for the world and for peace. Though my prayers for each of these is different every week, two consistent themes emerge for all of these every time I pray: first, that the leaders at each level will recognize the limits of their own authority and the sovereignty of God to grant them any authority at all, and that they would bow the knee to God in acknowledgement of their need for His salvation and for His guidance in their leadership; second, that both the authorities and those they lead (including us) would recognize that no work of politics, military action, or social activism can bring true and lasting peace, but that we would place our trust in Christ alone to bring peace and not in any of these as idols toward that end.
- For our sister congregations and denominations. We are part of a larger work of Christ, yet it can be easy for a local church to focus primarily on what the Lord is doing in their congregation alone. For that reason, and because we genuinely hope for the prosperity of our sister congregations and denominations, we pray for one each week. Here again, we have a list (ours consists of seven nearby PCA churches, six other nearby congregations, and seven other denominations) that we rotate through each week. For congregations, I try to pray specifically for their pastor(s) as well as for the ministries of their church and their partnership in the Gospel. For denominations, I pray for the health of the denomination, for its commitment to the Gospel and to God's mission in the world, and for any known difficulties within each denomination to be handled with truth, mercy, and love. I get more comments and feedback about my prayers for other congregations and denominations than just about any other aspect of worship. I've had folks exclaim their surprise that I prayed for a church in another denomination, and indicate how much they felt welcomed by this part of my prayers. Not long ago, I was in Walmart and spoke to the lady behind me in the checkout line, who recognized that I was a pastor (from my clerical collar); she said that she was from so-and-so Baptist church, and I mentioned that their church happened to be in our congregational prayers the previous Sunday. She was blown away! Isn't it a shame that simply praying for one another is so astonishing?
• For our missionaries. We have a few missionaries (and "ministry workers") that we support financially, and several more to whom we have committed prayer support. Our list includes several domestic church planters, several campus ministers, one international church planter, a couple who work with Native American peoples, a couple planning to serve in India, and two missionaries on the U.S./Mexico border. We include one of these each week, praying for any specific needs as we know of them and for their mission work in general. We pray for their families, and we pray for their financial and prayer support.
- For our congregation. One of the best models for pastoral prayers I had prayed every week for a few members of the congregation, slowly working his way through the entire roll. We would get letters about a month before "our Sunday" asking for any specific prayer requests, and he would include those requests that weren't marked as private. I have tried to emulate this practice, praying each week for three or four people/households and simply going through alphabetically, then starting over again. (At first I did the letters like my former pastor, but our congregation is small enough that most of the time I already know generally how to pray-- though I do ask our congregation to keep us informed for how they would like for us to be praying with and for them.) I always begin my prayers for each person/household with a prayer of thanksgiving for something specific that they contribute to the community of our congregation, and then pray for them in any other ways that are known to me (that is, ways that I believe it appropriate to pray for them in public-- some people are much more comfortable than others with having their prayer needs announced in public, even in the context of congregational prayers).
- For any other needs. Sometimes there is someone who is sick, who recently lost a family member, or who has some other item for prayer or praise. Most weeks there are at least one or two ad-hoc items for prayer that weren't printed in the worship folder prayer list, but that I include fairly spontaneously. I always include that at this point in the congregational prayer, so those who are familiar with my prayers will not be surprised that I've gone "off-list"!
- Confession of the weakness of our prayers. I think it is important to acknowledge that the things we have prayed for, and the way that we have prayed for them, is not exhaustive or even adequate. At this point, we confess to God that even our most selfless prayers are dependent upon His grace and work on our behalf for their perfection. We also give thanks that we can rely upon His complete knowledge of our lives and our hearts, and that even those items for prayer that we haven't or wouldn't share with others are known to Him and answered in His perfect will.
- The Lord's Prayer. We conclude our congregational prayers every week with a corporate praying of the Lord's Prayer. This serves at least two functions: it draws the congregation into a final participation in these prayers (which, hopefully, they have been following all along and praying with in their hearts); and, it reminds us of God's care and provision as "our Father" to Whom we lift up all of these words of prayer.
One more comment about the above: with a little forethought and care, it's not difficult to tie all or most of the sections together a bit. For example, I often will refer back to the theme throughout the rest of my prayers, and will pray for both the theme and the aspect of the church to be clear to our sister congregations, to be demonstrated to our region/nation/world/etc., to be effectively administered by our missionaries, and so on.