For many Christians, corporate prayer is awkward. It was for me. My first corporate prayer meeting was as an undergrad at a campus gathering of about ten college students. I got dragged there against my will (and what I thought was my better judgment). I had so many objections.
Why do we have to pray out loud? Isn’t it the heart that counts? Why pray together at all? It all seemed a little . . . I don’t know . . . self-righteous? All I knew about prayer from the Bible was that we were supposed to do it in our closets, which meant alone, privately, and maybe in the dark.
Resistance to Corporate Prayer
Many of us, whether Boomers or Busters, Gen X’ers or Millennials, have grown up feeling that prayer is intensely personal and private, perhaps because our culture privatizes the spiritual. Some of us are used to thinking that our quiet time is the sole measure of our maturity—church itself is something more than good, but less than necessary. There are other reasons we don’t resonate with corporate prayer. It could be that we didn’t grow up in a church that prioritized corporate prayer. Or maybe we didn’t grow up attending church at all. But some of our discomfort, quite frankly, is that the prayer meetings we’ve attended in the past were either poorly led or full of odd and obscure requests, like Mrs. Waddington’s great aunt’s severe gout—a genuine need, yes, but kind of gross and maybe a little inappropriate.
Corporate prayer also makes us feel inadequate. We stumble through our words, not knowing quite what to say, and all this happens in front of other people! And then there’s that one person who insists on being the show-off of the group—the pious rambler. Not surprisingly, if there were an award for the most sparsely attended weekly meeting of the church, the prayer meeting would probably win.
Given the choice between praying with the church and playing pick-up basketball with your Sunday School class, we all know what we should say. Privately, though, many of us would rather be out on the court.
But Jesus told us to pray “Our father,” not just “My father,” which might not demand a corporate context, but it does fit perfectly within a gathered church setting (maybe there’s a reason for that). The church in Acts obviously prayed together as a model for us (Acts 2:42; 4:23-24; 6:6; 12:12). Clearly, Scripture wants us to pray together in our churches! The question is, what should we pray for when we’re all together as a church?
Priorities of Corporate Prayer
Everyone’s favorite answer is Philippians 4:6—all things! And, of course, that’s right in a sense; but it’s not a sufficient guideline for a prayer meeting (unless we’re up for an all-night vigil). Yes, Peter tells us to cast all our cares—all of them!—on Christ because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). But when we’re gathered for prayer as a local church, we serve each other best by focusing our prayers on the corporate, gospel, and spiritual concerns of the church rather than taking a pray-for-whatever approach. This is not unloving. It’s simply prioritizing for the good of the body.
A typical prayer meeting can’t be about every personal request of every member and their kin. We can pray for “all things” privately. But doesn’t it make sense biblically to pray for the church and its mission when we gather together? And if so, what would that look like? Here are seven categories from my own church’s Sunday evening prayer meetings of things we pray for regularly.
1. Individual ministry opportunities
Our congregation knows that we want to be praying for our members’ evangelistic conversations with their non-Christians friends during the week. So we ask if anyone is having gospel conversations with unbelieving family members, coworkers, or friends and we pray together for conversions and for the faithfulness of our own members in speaking the gospel. We also pray generally that God would multiply fruitful Bible-reading friendships between our members and their unbelieving friends. We pray that we’d increasingly be a church full of disciple-making disciples of Jesus.
2. Public ministry concerns
This category covers anything in the category of the church’s general ministry of gospel proclamation. We pray for conviction of sin and renewal of spiritual interest among the unbelievers in our neighborhoods and in our local area. We also pray for spiritual fruit from the regular preaching of God’s Word at our church, and for conversions from our formal outreach opportunities. For example, next month we’re cooperating with another like-minded church to put on a “Faith Q&A” where I and the pastor of their church will field questions about Christianity from unbelievers. So in the weeks leading up to that event, we’re praying for new friendships between our members and unbelievers, thought-provoking gospel conversations, conversions, and new members through those conversions.
Under this heading we also pray for the multiplication and spiritual growth of teachers and preachers in our congregation. We want God to raise up more men among us to be able to preach and teach God’s Word. The church body prays for those already teaching, that the Lord would grow them in faithfulness and fruitfulness. We also pray regularly for our missionaries, especially when we’ve received recent updates from them.
3. Excerpts from biblical prayers
We periodically pray through the categories of the Lord’s Prayer on Sunday nights. Or, we might take one or two of Paul’s prayers for the churches and pray them. When we look at Paul’s prayers, we find him praying for gospel-centered concerns related to fruitfulness in Christian ministry and growth in Christian character among the churches.
4. Character concerns
We regularly pray the simple prayer that we’d all be growing in holiness and love. This includes commending the gospel by our speech and by our behavior at work during the week. It also includes praying that we’d bear with each other’s sins and weaknesses, forgive each other, and serve joyfully to meet the needs of the church. We might also pray that the Lord would grow us in the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23) or in foundational Christian virtues (2 Peter 1:5-11).
5. Prayers for elders and deacons
We pray regularly for our elders to remain biblically qualified in their character, faithful to the gospel, fruitful in ministry, wise in decision-making, and joyful in their service. We pray similarly for our deacons. If we have an elders’ meeting scheduled for later in the week, we pray that the Lord would do good to the congregation as a result of the decisions we make. When we have a congregational meeting scheduled, we pray that our decisions would serve to spread and clarify the gospel, promote unity among us, honor God, exalt Christ, and edify the congregation.
6. Practical concerns
We’re certainly not above praying for faithful generosity in our giving. Praying together about our finances reminds us of our continued dependence on God for all things, and it reminds us to keep giving faithfully even when it’s inconvenient. We also pray that the Lord would raise up people to serve in specific ministries where needed, and for practical provisions in terms of our meeting space or other material resources we need as a congregation. And, of course, as we have members dealing with a chronic illness, prolonged unemployment, depression, unwanted singleness, or other new circumstances—like an engagement or the death of a spouse—we lift them up to God’s special care and providence.
7. Sermon applications from the morning’s sermon
We make time on Sunday nights to briefly pray through a few of the most important applications from the Sunday morning sermon. This is another way we try to let Scripture set our priorities in prayer. It gives us confidence that we are praying according to God’s will and that He will answer our prayers.
Our prayer meeting is far from perfect, and church softball isn’t a sin. However, in our experience, a commitment to weekly corporate prayer has paid generous dividends in the sweetness of our fellowship, in the growing maturity of our prayer life together, in our unity as we ask God for the same things together, and in the undeniable joy of seeing God answer our shared requests. Doesn’t that sound better than a game of hoops?
 Colossians 1:9-12; Ephesians 1:17-22; 3:14-19; Philippians 1:9-11; 1 Thessalonians 3:12; 2Thess 1:12; 2:16