II. THE PRAYER SERVICE.
Prayer is an important element in all religious service. Not only is it vital to the individual Christian life, its importance in social religion is scarcely less important. " Ask, and it shall be given you ; seek, and ye shall find ; knock, and it shall be opened unto you," was the positive declaration of our Lord to His disciples.Matt. 6 : 7.
There are special blessings promised to united prayer, as well as to personal prayer. " If two of you shall agree on earth, as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven."Matt. 18 : 19. Secret prayer, and personal communion alone with God, is essential to the soul's spiritual life, and is encouraged by the promise of special blessing. " But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly."Matt. 6 : 6.
Prayer adjusts itself in form to the various occasions which demand its exercise, but in spirit it is essentially everywhere the same. The pastor's prayer before his congregation would speak for them as well as for himself, and would be different from his prayer in his own study, at the family altar, in the sick-room, with a penitent sinner, or with a dying saint. An intelligent faith will adjust its form to the peculiar circumstances in which it is called forth. The prayer before the sermon would naturally be somewhat different from that at its close. If the petitioner have the true spirit of supplication, the petition will take on suitable language for its expression. The form will need to give no anxiety.
1. The motive of prayer.Prayer includes worship in its strictest sense. He who prays is supposed to shut out the world, and become insensible to aught else, while he communes with God. It includes adoration, confession, thanksgiving and petition. In its narrower sense prayer is supplication (precarito beseech, to supplicate); making request for needed blessings on behalf of the worshiper, and other objects of divine clemency. The intercession of Christ must evermore be recognized as the only prevailing influence with, and cause of blessing from, the Father. " Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, He will give it you." John 16: 23. While the office of the Holy Spirit must be relied on as the only means of communication with the Throne of Grace by the merits of Christ. " For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit Himself maketh intercession for us, with groanings which cannot be uttered."Rom. 8 : 26.
2. Preparation for Prayer.There needs to be a preparation for prayer, in order to lead profitably the devotions of others in addresses to the mercy seat. Not a preparation of words, but of the heart; not a forethought of phrases for that particular occasion, but a spirit in harmony with the divine fulness and a felt necessity for the blessings sought. - He who would have the preparation, when in the pulpit, must obtain it before he goes there. " He that com- eth to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them who diligently seek Him." Heb. II : 6. "But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering."James I : 6. "Praying in the Holy Ghost."Jude 20.
To make prayers and to pray, are very different things. Anyone can make a prayer, who can command the use of language; but to pray, the soul must commune with God. There is constant danger that prayers offered in the pulpit will become stereotyped and monotonous, so constantly are they repeated, and under circumstances so almost exactly similar. The best preventive is a fervent spirit, and a deep sense of the need of divine assistance.
3. Style of Prayer.While prayer is not to be measured and meted out by mechanical rules, nor subjected to the rigid canons of logic or rhetoric, yet the petitioner is notordinarily, at leastbeyond a self-conscious sense of certain proprieties, which even prayer, as a public or social exercise, should not transgress. Nor need it dampen the spirit, or interrupt the flow of devotion, to regard those proprieties. Prayer should be simple, direct,
and brief. It should be so simple in style that all in the assembly can intelligently unite in it. It should be direct as to what is prayed for, and not wander over all possible subjects, seeking nothing in particular, and expecting nothing in particular. It often seems as if prayer was offered in public worship, not because there was a felt need of it, but because it is the prevailing custom to pray in that particular part of the service.
Prayers should be brief: of course, in some cases more so than in others. There is no excuse for the painful length of what is called "the long prayer" preceding the sermon in the case of many clergymen. In fact, the "long prayer" is a calamity, to both the minister and the people. It is often difficult to perform it, and painful to endure it. Very largely it is not prayer at all, but a religious address, the rather, discursive in style and promiscuous in matter. If it could be confined to three or five minutes, the " long prayer " would be no more, and public worship would gain immensely. But the tyranny of established usage still preserves and inflicts it on preacher and people alike without compensation.
Prayers should be distinctly uttered, so that all can understand and unite in them; nor should there be anything, in manner or expression, so peculiar as to divert the thoughts of hearers from the devotion. Especially should not the petitioner " use vain repetition as the heathen do; for they think they shall be heard for their much speaking."Matt. 6: 7. Besides which, the whole style and manner of address should be penitential, reverential, and dignified withal, savoring of meekness and humility, as is becoming in sinful, helpless creatures when approaching a holy God. All flippant familiarity with the sacred names, which seems an affectation of unusual piety, should be avoided, as most offensive to sensible minds.
4. Faults in Prayer.It may seem a most ungracious thing to criticise so sacred an exercise as prayer ought to be, and point out defects which not unfrequently mar its excellencies. The one prevailing defect, no doubt, is want of faith, spirituality, and the influences of the Holy Spirit. But these attach to all Christian exercises. There are, however, certain defects in the drift of prayer more particularly prayers in the social meetings into which the pious sometimes unconsciously fall, which deserve attention and correction.
Preaching Prayers, in which Scripture is explained, doctrine expounded, and instruction offered to the audience.
Exhorting Prayers, where warnings, rebukes, and exhortations seem addressed to classes, or individuals, and possibly personal sins are pointed out.
Historical Prayers, in which facts and incidents are related, from which inferences and arguments are adduced. Not to be commended, though David, Solomon, and Ezra indulged in them on very special occasions.
Oratorical Prayers, which seem framed with special regard to the language, as if intended for critical ears.
Complimentary Prayers, where the excellencies of persons present or absent are effectively dwelt'on, as if individuals were flattered, rather than the Deity worshiped. Clergymen in praying for each other, on public occasions, often use flattering speech.
Fault-finding Prayers, which make prominent the real or fancied faults of the Church or of individuals, existing difficulties deplored, advice given, remedies suggested, or rebukes administered.
All such things should be avoided.
The Prayer-meeting is emphatically a Christian institution. For while prayer, as a religious exercise, or form of religious service, is by no means confined to Christian assemblies, nor indeed to Christian life, yet gatherings for social worship, chiefly for thanksgiving, supplication and song, are peculiarly the outgrowth of the Gospel of Christ. In saying this, the fact is not overlooked that among idolatrous and barbarous races, even, there are assemblies for worship constantly recurring, largely and enthusiastically attended. But the prayer-meeting idea does not enter into the purpose or conception of such assemblies. The disposition to pray, to petition the Supreme Being for benefits needed, and for defense against impending evils, is instinct in the human mind. But the idea of worship, in its strict sense, of fellowship with the spiritual, and communion with the unseen, seems never to have entered into the idea of prayer, except to those illuminated by a divine revelation.
The teachings of Jesus revealed to men the fact that God is a father interested in human affairs, caring for the welfare of His creatures, and that He is pleased to have them approach Him, and make known their requests with prayer and supplication. Indeed, under the old dispensation, God declared Himself to be a praying-hearing, and a prayer- answering God. But Jesus brought the divine presence nearer to believing souls, and gave assurance of the Eternal Father's loving care, which even a weak faith could not question. " Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened." And He further assured His disciples, that God was more willing to give the Spirit to those who asked, than parents were to give good things to their children.
In the Old Testament much is said of prayer, many remarkable instances of which are narrated, with equally remarkable answers to them. But nothing is said of prayer-meetings for worship. The temple services contained nothing equivalent to it. During the captivity the Jews had their assemblies for mourning and lamentation over the desolations of Zion. They may have mingled prayers for the promised restoration. Of this we do not know. It is certain that the jubilant spirit of social worship could not have inspired their assemblie.s without song, for they hanged their harps on the willows, and refused to sing the Lord's songs in a strange land. In the triumphs of a Christian faith, Paul and Silas beguiled the midnight hours, in the Philippian jail, with prayer and singing, though their feet were held fast in the stocks of the innermost prison. After the captivity it appears that the synagogue service, in some cases at least, did approach the social worship of the prayer-meeting. Pious Jews, not numerous enough, or not rich enough to build and sustain a synagogue in heathen cities, were accustomed to have oratories, places of prayer, cheap and temporary resorts for worship. In one of these the Apostle found Lydia and her associates, out of the city of Philippi, by the riverside, where they were accustomed to pray.
It does not appear that even Jesus and His disciples held seasons of social prayer together. He prayed much, and taught them how to pray, as John also taught his disciples. But immediately after the ascension, the spirit of the new life took possession of the disciples, even before the baptism of the Pentecost, and they resorted to "an upper room," where " these all continued, with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and His brethren." There was born the prayer-meeting of the Christian dispensation, which has, through all the generations continued, with non-liturgical churches, a component, and a most important part of Christian worship in theory at least, however much it may be neglected in practice.
As the services of evangelical churches generally
are arranged, the principal prayer-meeting, or, as it is sometimes distinguished, "the Church prayer- meeting," comes in the middle of the week. As a rule it is not numerously attended. But the most spiritual and devout members attend; and those who do habitually attend become the devout and spiritually minded, if they were not such before. This service not only reveals, but nourishes and develops the religious vitality of the Church, and the importance of the service as a spiritual force cannot well be overestimated. The pastor who is wise unto righteousness for the good of his people, will cultivate this part of worship with the most painstaking assiduity. Those pastors who have been most successful in edifying their churches, have most magnified the prayer-meeting. Those ministers who have been most successful in winning souls, have most magnified the functions and the efficacy of prayer. And those churches which most devoutly pray for the success of the gospel among them, are the most likely to realize that their work is not in vain in the Lord.
Doubtless every pastor believes himself fully capable of so ordering this service as to produce the best results, without advice from any one. And yet it is probably safe to say, that not one minister in ten knows how to make a prayer-meeting efficient, and about one in twenty would kill the best one that could be put into his hands. By many it is considered a very unimportant affair, that will care for itself, or, if not cared for at all, it matters little. No wise pastor will make such a mistake.
The following suggestionsa few out of many may be helpful to some.*
I.'The success and utility of the prayer-meeting depends on the leader, more than on any other one thing, save the presence of the Holy Spirit. The leader will presumably be the pastor. He certainly ought not to commit the management of so important a matter to other hands, as a rule. And he ought to give diligence and prayerful study to bring this department of worship to the highest possible state of interest and efficiency.
2. The success of the service does not depend on the numbers who attend. Though a full meeting is desirable, yet a very full meeting may.be a very poor one, and a very small meeting may be a very good one. And all attempts to crowd the service by introducing other than legitimate topics, is a mistake. The prayer-meeting has its special mission. Diverted from that, it ceases to be the true prayer-meeting, though it may prove an interesting service of some other kind.
3. The prayer-meeting is not a " teaching service." Though its exercises will convey instruction, yet instruction is not its special function. That belongs to the pulpit, the Bible class, and other similar exercises. This is for the heart rather than for the intellect. To feed the spiritual hunger of the soul. To cheer, inspire, comfort. Many keep silent because they say they cannot instruct. But that is not the peculiar vocation of the service. They can console, sympathize, encourage.
*For a more extended discussion of the subject see " The Star Book on Prayer-Meetings," published by Ward & Drummond, New York.
4. The opening exercises should be brief. So should they all. Many pastors talk to death the service, by long, dull, dreary harangues, just to " start the meeting ! " Give a desultory discourse, a kind of pointless lecture, of a promiscuous character, confusing rather than illuminating the minds of the people, giving them nothing in particular to think about, to speak on, or to pray for. Then the leader sits down, telling them to occupy the time and be very brief! Is it a wonder that no one feels like moving, and that the meeting expires after a few ineffectual struggles for animation ?
5. Singing should have a large place in the prayer-meeting. Not so much as to absorb and cover up, or exclude prayer and exhortation, or degenerate into a singing-school. The hymns should be wisely adjusted to the service and the temper of the occasion. After the meeting is fairly opened, one stanza at a time is all that should ordinarily be used. The hymns should be so familiar that all can use them. At the opening and closing of the service an instrument is of special use. But during the progress of the meeting, it is rather preferable, as being more free and less formal, for some one to strike a familiar verse, without waiting to look it up in the book, or for the instrument to lead.
6. Begin the meeting on time. That will help the attendants to be prompt. If the leader waits for the people, the people will be all the later. Train them to habits of punctuality. Close on time, except that, on occasion, the interest may justify protracting the exercises somewhat. But do not continue so long as to exhaust the interest, and have to stop on a falling tide.
7. Have the place of meeting pleasant and attractive. This can be done, however plain and poor it may be, by those little arts of handicraft and good taste which people anywhere can exercise. By the use of flowers, inexpensive pictures and mottoes, you can make a barn look pretty. Worshipers, especially the young, should associate beauty, purity and good order with religion.
8. Be sure to have a plenty of pure air and good light in the prayer room. Few buildings are so badly ventilated as our church buildings. On Sunday people can better bear to be poisoned with a noxious atmosphere, when they have nothing to do but listen to the preacheror not listen, as the case may be. But in the conference meeting, where they are expected to take some part, it is absolutely essential that they shall not be put to sleep, made drowsy, or given a headache by vitiated air.
9. As the chief value and potency of the social meeting lies in its spiritual unction and power, therefore one of the chief subjects of prayer should be the implored presence and aid of the Holy Spirit. And those persons are best prepared for it, and the most useful in it, who do the most to live in and walk by the Spirit. No intellectual or literary qualifications can meet this demand. Here, the spiritually minded bear the palm, though in all else they may be quite behind.
10. As the fabric of the prayer and conference meeting consists of this threefold texture, prayer, exhortation and song, does not assume the functions of teaching, and relates largely to personal Christian experience, therefore all, old and young, male and female, learned and unlearned, can take part in its service, be benefited, and benefit others. All who have a personal experience of divine grace in their own hearts and lives, are fitted to do good and to receive a blessing in this sacred service.
Besides the mid-week general prayer-meeting of the Church, many other occasions for special or stated prayer are observed by most Christian congregations.
The women's prayer-meeting. In very many churches Christian women have a weekly service of this sort, conducted by themselves, where they can feel more freedom than in the general meetings. These services, sometimes inaptly called "female prayer-meeting," give occasion for those to exercise their gifts who lack the courage, or possibly doubt the propriety of females speaking in promiscuous assemblies, as in some communities they do.
Young people s prayer-meeting. Within recent years, the organization of classes, especially women and young people, for religious and benevolent work, has assumed proportions not formerly dreamed of. Great good has resulted, and greater good, we may hope, will yet result, notwithstanding some doubts and drawbacks as to the evils of class divisions in Church life and work, as imperiling the unity of the body. The young people's prayer-meeting is now almost everywhere in the churches. The only objection that seems valid, as against them, is, that having done their part in their own prayer-meeting, they may either feel at liberty to absent themselves from the Church prayer-meeting, or, if present, to take no part. Where this does happen it is a serious misfortune, and overbalances any good their separate service may produce. The Church should not be broken up into sections and segments of old people and young people, male and female, but be as one family, a sacred unity, as the body of Christ. But these unfortunate results do not always follow.
The missionary prayer-meeting. The concert of prayer for missionaries, and the success of the Gospel in heathen lands, held once each month, seems falling into neglect. Formerly it was generally observed by all Evangelical churches. " The week of prayer," for the same object, and for the universal revival of religion, is still generally observed on the first week in the year. Usually very gracious resuits follow in the churches which observe it. They that water others shall themselves be watered.
The temperance prayer-meeting. This is not so generally observed as it should be. For if there be anything that appeals to Christian faith, and which should lead Christian people to appeal to God, the righteous judge, for help, it is this cause,that the gigantic iniquity of the saloon, and the drink habit, which cause more suffering than war, pestilence and famine combined, may be checked and destroyed. With churches so apathetic, and good people on every hand so indifferent, the rum power rides riot over all that is fairest and best in society, destroying homes, impoverishing nations, and invading the sacred altars of our holy religion. Appeals need to be made to Him who is able to hear and save, for who else can avail ?
The mothers' prayer-meeting. There is fitness in the gatherings of mothers for special prayer for their children, that they may escape the snares of sin and the temptations of the world, be early converted, and make honorable and useful Christians. Such meetings, persisted in, have often been followed by the most manifest blessing of God in answers to prayer. But mothers who pray for the conversion of their children must constantly strive to answer their own prayers, by training them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
The Sunday-school prayer-meeting. It is quite natural for Christian workers in any department of service to feel specially interested in that department, and to implore the divine favor to attend and give success to their endeavors. Sunday-school work has become so wide-spread, so vital as a religious agency, and so efficient among the young, that it rightly holds a large place in the sympathies and the prayers of the churches. It is most commendable, therefore, that special prayer, and special seasons of prayer be designated for the success of this line of Christian endeavor.
For colleges and schools of learning. An annual "week of prayer" is now generally observed for educational institutions, especially schools for higher learning, that they may be made subservient to virtue, truth and piety. For the conversion of students, and the sanctification of all intellectual acquisitions to the best interest of true religion. This is a matter of the gravest importance, especially as nearly all of our colleges and high schools were founded, and are largely supported by the benevolence of Christian men and women.