THE REBOOT BLOG | June 10, 2021
For Youth Leading Prayers for the Church (and Other Liturgical Acts)
Summer Series 2021 #3
By Mark W. Stamm
Professor of Christian Worship and Chapel Elder, Perkins/SMU
As with scripture reading, the church, the Body of Christ, honors you by giving you the opportunity to lead prayers and other acts of worship. Many times you’ll be given a printed text, perhaps a prayer or a greeting/call to worship, and much of what we said previously in our discussion of scripture reading applies here as well. Begin by becoming familiar with the text and learning what all of the words mean and how to pronounce them. Be sure to follow the punctuation and speak loudly and clearly.
Before we get to some practical suggestions, let’s talk Greek. I’ll add the term “liturgy,” one that builds on the concept of the Body of Christ, that we expressed before. Early Christians borrowed it directly from the Greek word leitourgia, meaning “common work” or “work of the people.” In its ancient use it implied an offering for the benefit of the community, thus, for example the building of a road could be called a leitourgia. The word liturgy doesn’t imply any particular worship style. What it does imply is that worship is offered together by those who gather as the Body of Christ and it is for the common good of all. Keep that in mind, and especially as we speak to one another and pray for the world.
As we do this work together, notice that we’re usually addressing someone, each other, perhaps our neighbors, and yes, God. So look at the text you’ve been given and ask who is being addressed. Phrases like “The Lord be with you” and “Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:3) are addressed to people and thus should be spoken directly to the congregation with appropriate enthusiasm and warmth. Here you are blessing beloved fellow Christians, and not simply reading words. Prayers are addressed to God on behalf of the congregation, and thus they should be prayed, and not simply read. I’ll grant you that’s a matter of perception, but work with a text until it becomes prayer for you. The congregation will hear the difference.
Many of the prayers you’ll be asked to lead are texts like this classic one, known as the “collect for purity:”
“Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and to whom no secrets are hidden: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 355, UMH, p. 6)
Practice using this prayer, as always following the punctuation and speaking in full phrases. When you offer this and other prayers, remember that you are speaking them to God, yes, but you speak it on behalf of fellow Christians who surround you. That is both joyous privilege and responsibility. Even if you speak as a solo voice, feel them joining with you in Spirit, and know that it is their prayer as well. You may invite the congregation to join you verbally through saying the “Amen” at the end of the prayer. It’s an ancient way for them to say, “Yes, we agree and we join you in the prayer that you offer.”
What about preparing to lead congregational intercessions, sometimes called “prayers of the people” or even “joys and concerns?” As you consider this task, remember the calling that God has given to all Christians. We’re called to pray not only for our friends, family, and fellow church members, but also for others who suffer, for others in trouble and need. We’re called to pray for our community and nation, but also for peoples throughout the world, and for other churches and their leaders. Many also believe that we should pray in thanksgiving for the life and witness of the communion of saints, that is, in thanksgiving for beloved sisters and brothers who have died (for classic lists of such prayer foci, see BCP, p. 383, UMH, p. 877).
As you look at the agenda that I offer here, you’re likely to say, “that’s quite a lot to remember,” and you’re right. But, remember that Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1) and in a sense he’s still teaching and we’re still learning. You won’t complete the task today, but consider this: You love God and neighbor by bringing your imagination to this invitation to pray. So then, take the agenda that I offer above and place it in dialog with this open-ended question, “Why don’t we pray for …?” See where that combination leads you, who comes to mind, what situations you remember. Ask it as you walk through your school and neighborhood, as you watch the news. Let God’s compassion move within you, all the while understanding that you have a perspective unlike anyone else’s, and thus you can help the rest of the church know how to pray in a deeper, more comprehensive manner. Bring the classic list and the “Why don’t we pray for …?” question to your youth group and Sunday School class, and yes, to worship planning, and see how it shapes the prayers that you prepare and offer.
The prayers that we speak should lead to the prayers that we express in our hands and feet, but action often begins with imagining a world shaped by the love and justice of God, that is, through the prayers that we offer. You are part of that process. Remember that Jesus taught us to pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:11).
Note that Dr. Stamm has an extensive conversation about the vocation to intercession and the imaginative work of “Why don’t we pray for …?” in his book Devoting Ourselves to the Prayers, A Baptismal Theology for the Church’s Intercessory Work (Discipleship Resources, 2014).