Why Do We Pray So Much During Covenant Renewal Worship?


The biblical commands to pray are many (Mt. 5:44, 6: 5-9; Luke 22:40; Col. 4:3; 1 Thess. 5:17, 25; 2 Thess. 3:1; Heb. 13:18; James 5:13-18; Jude 20). The examples of prayer in Scripture are also many. In 1 Kings 8:23 – 53, Solomon prayed for the dedication of the Temple as a house of prayer, something that Jesus reaffirmed (Mark 11:17). Solomon mentions seven occasions for prayer in the Temple. The assumption is that God’s people will sin, and when they do they need to confess, repent, and receive the forgiveness of God. This is to be done while God’s people are gathered corporately. The prophet Joel calls the people together in solemn assembly for a time of prayer during a national catastrophe (Joel 1:13-14). The prophet Jeremiah offers prayer in the Temple on the instance of famine, sword, and pestilence (Jeremiah 14:2-6), followed by a prayer of penance (Jer. 14:7-8). A less glum example of penitential prayer is in Psalm 12, where there is a liturgy of lamentation, confession, supplication for mercy, God’s assurance of rescue, and the people’s words of thanksgiving.[1]  

Sermons about the need to pray are also many. Yet it is still the case that most Christians report that they don’t pray as often as they should. One remedy to this is the use of frequent prayers during Covenant Renewal Worship. During a typical service at Trinity Reformed Church, there are at least ten public prayers. This is by design. How will the people learn the habit of frequent prayer if the Lord’s Service has infrequent prayer? Also by design is that these prayers are not spontaneous. They are written out beforehand.

Why do contemporary evangelicals dislike written prayers?

Evangelicals are prone to resist, if not resent, written prayers. Such a thing smacks of religion, is too dependent on reason, and functions as a spiritual straightjacket. Written prayers (so it is thought) quench the spontaneous work of the Holy Spirit. Spontaneity is a keyword for modern evangelicals. If a thought spontaneously pops into the head of the person praying, God must have put that thought into the mind for a reason. They wonder: Where did the thought come from if not from God?

Written versus spontaneous prayers tracks closely with the common evangelical distinction between “head knowledge” and “heart knowledge.” Those with head knowledge are thought to merely know about God but don’t know God. They have followed an intellectual path producing spirituality only brain-deep, creating a version of Christianity as an idea in the mind that leaves dryness of soul. It is spiritual deadness with orthodox theology. These people lack heart knowledge, so it is said. They lack emotions and encounters with God. They need a private, personal, and spontaneous relationship with God.

This preference for spontaneous spirituality follows in the path of Samuel Gorton (1593 – 1677). Gorton, like Anne Hutchinson, was expelled from Massachusetts because of his peculiar doctrines. His followers described his teaching as “esoteric knowledge,” while Gorton described himself as a “professor of the mysteries of Christ.” He was a “Familist,” one who sought transformative communion and communication with the Holy Spirit outside the Bible.

Gorton opposed formality, ceremony, sacraments, local churches, college-educated clergy, and written prayers. Eschewing preparation, he preached and prayed spontaneously so as not to disrupt the immediate impulsion of the Holy Spirit. Gorton’s logic was that when someone preaches and prays in a way that hinders the authority of immediate experience, they hinder the Spirit’s activity.[2]

In evangelicalism, the value of spiritual spontaneity meshed naturally with the growth of small groups. American Christians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were influenced by German Pietism’s development of small prayer groups that met in private homes. These groups became the “church within the church” and functioned as the center of religious life for church members and the place for more intimate prayer with other Christians. The prayers during the Lord’s Day service were perceived as a dry formality of perfunctory religion.[3]

Similarly, in the twentieth century, Adolf von Harnack taught the priority of the inward over the outward, saying the former was spontaneous and ethical while the latter was ceremonial and dogmatic. In our day, this priority is entrenched in evangelicalism such that extemporaneous prayers reflect inward ethical authenticity, and written prayers reflected dead dogmatic ceremony.[4]

The problem with the evangelical insistence on spontaneity is that reducing the Holy Spirit to primarily spontaneous activity has a strikingly formulaic lack of spontaneity since it significantly restricts the ways the Holy Spirit can work. The connection of spontaneity with truth conjures up Ralph Waldo Emerson more than it does Scripture. Emerson equated Spontaneity with Intuition, assigning each almost a divine authority.[5]

Prayer and Fellowship

Why does God have his people pray corporately and publicly? Why is God more inclined to answer the “prayers of many” (2 Cor. 1:11)? The reason is that the “prayers of many” means “that many will give thanks” to God (2 Cor. 1:11). The more people are praying for God to act, the more thanksgiving will come out of those people when God acts. This effect is multiplied when the faithful pray together because when one person sees the answer by herself, she is glad. But when she looks around and sees the gladness of the entire congregation, her gladness is compounded. One hundred people glad in isolation is not the same as one hundred people glad together.

According to the logic of the Apostle Paul, thanksgiving is a partnership in all gratitude, a partnership in all blessing, and a partnership in all thanksgiving. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in the prayer closet alone, it becomes a partnership not only between individual Christians but between those Christians when they are gathered together. So, while it is good and proper for Christians to pray alone (Luke 9:18), it is also good and proper that Christians pray corporately. Prayer is largely a communal activity. If prayer is the prayers of the body of Christ, then it must regularly take place in fellowship with other Christians. The most natural place to pray in the fellowship of other believers is during the Lord’s Day service.

Christians need more than coffee-fueled eutrapely with other Christians. They also need prayer fellowship. Congregational prayers are one way the people of God “take care” that there not “be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12). Perhaps counseling couches would be in less demand among Christians if the weekly service emphasized the prayers of pastoral care.[6] When God’s people are stricken with the plagues of flies and boils, they may each go into their homes for refuge, and they may pray while in their homes. But better when they pray together, as the congregation of the Lord, because a church all to yourself is not a church at all. Rather than trembling in fear at the terrifying sight, God’s people must “come to … the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:22-25).

Different Types of Corporate Prayer

During Covenant Renewal Worship there are, among others, prayers of confession, praise, thanksgiving, petition, and consecration. The First Epistle of Clement, written in Rome about AD 90, includes a list of petitions on behalf of the afflicted, fallen, needy, and sick. It also includes a prayer for the nations and governing officials. One of the chief components of Justin Martyr’s second-century liturgy was intercessory prayer. This habit carries into the fourth century, where the Apostolic Constitutions included specific and thoughtful intercessory prayers for people in all walks of life. As the Middle Ages progressed, the Roman Catholic Church moved away from practical prayers of petition. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the Reformers carried out an intensive study of the prayers of Scripture. What was the result? They reformed Lord’s Day worship to include vigorous and ample prayer time.

The first-generation Reformers instituted prayers of confession of sin and supplication for mercy. Martin Bucer revived the prayer of intercession. Calvin translated the prayers of confession, supplication, and intercession to be used in Geneva, as did John Knox in Scotland. The Westminster Directory for Worship scheduled one comprehensive prayer in the middle of the worship service that included prayers of praise, confession, petition, intercession, and thanksgiving. Over time, this prayer took place between the Scripture reading and the sermon.

Most protestants view the sermon as the primary activity during a worship service. While the sermon is of immense importance, without robust prayers during the service, the words of the sermon are empty. The corporate prayers of the church are described as the smoke of incense rising to God (Rev. 8:1-5). Every congregation has prayer rituals, even the church that has only a couple of short extemporaneous prayers during the service. The deep defect of the extension of unscripted prayers is that they are singularly glib: “I just want to thank you Lord for today … I just want to ask that you be with us during the service … I just want …” Any breakfaster knows, as Chesterton pointed out, that if you spread the butter far you spread it thin. But more than that, when you find the butter thin, you begin to spread it still more. Unplanned prayers default to the stalest ideas of the mind spread to the thinnest possible layer.

For better or for worse, public prayers teach the congregation how to pray more than a sermon about prayer ever could. The prayers during Sunday worship are the weekly modeling of a difficult spiritual discipline. If a child listens to thoughtful prayers week after week, year after year, by the time they are an adult they will know how to pray biblically. But this steady work of formation is not merely designed to aid individual devotion. The church doesn’t arrive on Sunday as a collection of individuals. We come together—hands and feet; ears and eyes; adults and children—as the body of Christ together to confess our sins, praise and thank the Savior, and set petitions before God. Not only is this how personal prayer becomes corporate prayer, but it is also how the Spirit creates a covenant community.


You can’t understand one individual piece of Covenant Renewal Worship until you have an integrated picture of the whole, and not just the whole liturgy, but the whole Christian life. The amount and quality of the prayers during the service are not simply an issue of the order of worship. It is the result of many other interacting factors: how we understand the Christian life; the particular temptations to which we are subject; patterns of sin into which we have settled; how the household is shaped spiritually; how to submit the most deeply felt anxieties to God; how to relate to God and His world. In this sense, the many prayers during Covenant Renewal Worship are the model for what faithfulness during the week looks like.

Here are some of our other articles about Covenant Renewal Worship

[1] Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 91-95.

[2] Sydney V. James, Colonial Rhode Island: A History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975), 28-37.

[3] Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 104.

[4] Michael Horton, In the Face of God: The Dangers and Delights of Spiritual Intimacy (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1996), 67.

[5] Ralph Waldo Emerson; ed. by Mary A. Jordan, Compensation, self-reliance, and other essays (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Company, 1907), 98.

[6] Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 175.

Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.