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“Should churches have separate services for prayer?” If by “separate services for prayer” the questioner implies that prayer should not be the focus during congregational worship on the Sabbath day but should be relegated instead to separate meetings dedicated to the purpose, then the answer must be no. The scriptural presentation of the gathered worship of the New Testament church indicates that it was, in its entirety, a service of prayer.

In Acts 2:42, we read of the post-Pentecost church in Jerusalem: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This is not just a list of the general activities that occupied the New Testament church at different times as circumstances and need dictated but a description of the constituent elements of the church’s gathered assemblies. It’s how the New Testament church worshiped. Crucially, as we read the list, we ought not to miss the definite article before each noun: “They devoted themselves to the . . . teaching, and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” “The prayers” suggests at least two things about the place of prayer in the post-Pentecost church in Jerusalem.

First, and most obviously, “the prayers” indicates that prayer was vital to their shared piety, collective devotion, and corporate priorities. “The prayers” implies a centrality, a liturgical importance, to the praying life of the church. This is why they came together: for “the prayers.” Interestingly, beyond this verse, Luke does not provide many details about gathered worship in the church in the book of Acts. But he does tell us, again and again, that when the church gathered, it met to pray. Prayer is, without a doubt, the great characteristic of the assemblies of the church in the book of Acts. They were people who prayed (for example, see 1:14; 2:42; 4:23–31; 6:4; 12:5). Whatever else we may say about the church in the New Testament, we must say that whenever they assembled, they devoted themselves to “the prayers.” Sadly, we cannot say the same for many churches today where prayer is perfunctory and marginal. Such churches may well meet to pray at other times, but I doubt that Luke would recognize their services as authentic expressions of the Apostolic norm if they are not saturated with prayer in all its various biblical forms and types.

Prayer is, without a doubt, the great characteristic of the assemblies of the church in the book of Acts.

Second, “the prayers” at least suggests the continued use of the unison praying of specific, set prayers, according to the pattern customary both in the temple and in the synagogues. They prayed “the prayers” together. Acts 4:24 may well be an example of this. Luke tells us that when the church heard about Peter and John’s persecution, “they lifted their voices together to God.” Putting the evidence together, it would be safe to infer that someone—likely an elder—led the prayers, and that as part of his praying he called for the unison recitation of part of Psalm 2, which, Luke says, “they lifted their voices together” to pray. So, John Calvin says:

The chief use of the tongue is in public prayers, which are offered in the assembly of believers, by which it comes about that with one common voice, and as it were, with the same mouth, we all glorify God together, worshiping him with one spirit and the same faith. (Institutes, 3.20.31)

Far from vain repetition (see Matt. 6:7), the corporate congregational use of the Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, and portions of other scriptural prayers, along with biblically faithful prayers composed by the saints across the centuries, continues to honor the Apostolic pattern and helps teach the people of God how to pray well.

Should churches have separate services for prayer? If this question expresses dissatisfaction with the lack of prayer in corporate worship, we sympathize. But the answer to this problem is not to acquiesce in the “petitionary anemia” of so many churches’ liturgies today. Rather, it is to reform corporate worship until it reflects the prayer-rich pattern of the New Testament. It was this instinct that led the post-Reformation churches to create liturgies with a full diet of scriptural prayer: invocations, confessions of sin, pastoral prayers heavy with petitions and supplications, laments and praises. They prayed for illumination before the reading and preaching of the Word, and they prayed with thanksgiving for the Spirit’s blessing on the Word in the hearts of the congregation afterward. One great need in the churches of our day is to recover the centrality of prayer in corporate worship that marked the assemblies of our Reformation forebears and, before them, of the Apostolic fathers. But if by the question “Should churches have separate services for prayer?” we mean to question the validity and urgent need today of specific, focused, congregational prayer meetings, instead reducing the place of congregational prayer to the formal services of the Lord’s Day only, then the answer must be a vigorous yes. We must have additional gatherings just to pray. Luke’s presentation of the praying church in Acts seems to indicate that the church met regularly and often for this purpose. Prayer was its response to persecution in Acts 4:23–31. When tensions in the growing church arose in Acts 6, the Apostles set apart seven men to serve and ordained them with prayer. Similarly, as Saul and Barnabas undertook their missionary labors, congregational fasting and prayer preceded their ordination in Acts 13:3. When suffering, the church met to pray. When growing, the church met to pray. When addressing internal conflict or external threats, the church met to pray.

Surely, prayerlessness in corporate worship cannot long survive in a church where vibrant and vigorous prayer meetings take place. But by the same measure, the recovery of prayer-rich liturgy can only serve to strengthen the church’s other gatherings for prayer by modeling and teaching what biblical prayer ought to look like.

So should churches have separate services for prayer? The answer must be no, and yes.

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