In my religious tradition, we have something commonly called The Prayers of the People.
Essentially, it’s a time when people within the congregation have an opportunity to identify and voice their own concerns—silently or out loud.
Most of any worship service is defined in advance. It may come from a prayer book or a lectionary.
Some one—sometimes a minister or priest working alone, sometimes a team of staff and volunteers—chooses the readings, the music, the themes that will be presented to the gathered people.
The worshippers often have no direct input (aside from singing hymns and intoning liturgical responses) until the Prayers of the People.
There are still places, I’m sure, where clergy presume that they already know what their people should be praying for, and proceed accordingly.
But that doesn’t happen as often as it used to.
Even in churches that follow a prescribed liturgy, there’s usually time for individuals to name the persons and situations for whom they want prayers.
But why, I keep wondering, must those concerns be expressed by the worship leader to qualify as a prayer?
I understand and respect the need for the person with the microphone to repeat some of the requests. Even when asked to speak loudly, some people can’t—or won’t. Perhaps when they were children, too many adults told them to keep quiet in church.
But why, having already repeated the information once, do clergy then feel they have to repeat it again in the body of the prayer?
Does God listen only to church professionals?
I recall visiting a church where the minister asked for prayer concerns. People spoke of one person’s diagnosis of cancer, another’s car accident, of a spouse sent overseas to help with disaster relief. They spoke with joy, with pain, with a catch in the throat.
Even as an outsider, I could feel emotion rippling through the congregation.
The minister made careful notes. And then he repeated all the concerns in his prayer. But by then, a spontaneous outpouring of caring had become a sterile formality.
After the service, I asked, “Didn’t God hear, when the people said it themselves?”
He looked startled.
There was a time, before Roman armies razed the Great Temple, when the Jewish people thought their religious obligations were taken care of as long as the High Priests in Jerusalem performed their functions. I wonder if modern churches have slipped into the same mindset.
Invariably, it’s the minister who’s asked to open a meeting with prayer. Or to say grace before a meal. Or, on Sundays, to voice the prayers of the people, as if concerns only register with God when an accredited voice says them.
Does heaven use voice-recognition technology?
To his credit, the next Sunday, the minister I referred to above asked for the people’s prayer concerns as usual. As usual, they responded from the heart.
After a pause for reflection, the minister simply said: “God, you have heard our prayers…”
I don’t think anyone felt God had not been listening.