My former mentor was once asked why we don't spend more time praying in church.
His answer stuck with me: nearly everything we do involves prayer! Outside of the time of 'intercessions', many of us will pray to begin and end our services. We pray before the sermon, some will pray the Lord's Prayer, prayers of confession and use other liturgy. And of course, we do a lot of praying in our songs.
Each time we sing "Be Thou my vision", "here's my heart, Lord, take and seal it", "when he shall come with trumpet sound, O may I then in him be found" or "let no vice or sin remain that resists your holy war" - we're asking God that he would do those things in our lives. But I want to suggest that praying at other key moments during sung worship will heighten our awareness of God's work, help us serve others, and enrich our own experience.
Quite often when we're singing, we'll come across a line that we'd like to be true of us, but we're aware the reality is far from that. One example among many are these words that we sang at REVIVE 2019:
Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow Thee.
Destitute, despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my all shall be.
We can use those moments as an opportunity to pray that God would do a work in us that it might become true of us. This is an important lesson in an age where we prize authenticity. Coming across lyrics like these can make us feel ashamed that we're not like that and not want to sing (or else make us feel like hypocrites by singing about our devotion to God when in reality our hearts are cold.)
We can pray in those moments "God, I want this to be true of me. Please do a work in me."
Between songs, you sometimes get that awkward pause as sheet music is shuffled, capos are moved and everyone's mind wanders onto just about anything else. Musicians can help us with this, but it's down to us to seize the opportunity of gaps between or during songs to reflect on what we've been singing.
A congregation member at Christ Church Mayfair came up to me after we played an instrumental section in a song and said: "I didn't know what I was supposed to do during that time." I realised I should have led more carefully, and suggested to them that they use the time to reflect and pray on what we'd just been singing. In our culture we're constantly bombarded with content. We're overstimulated. We need to teach ourselves to slow down, embrace the silence, quieten our hearts and use moments like this to turn our songs into prayers to our Father.
A brief aside to those who lead sung worship: clear transitions and (where possible) maintaining a musical flow can help people stay focused on the content of our songs. Bob Kauflin once said: "people's responses don't finish when the song does." Help people stay focused on Jesus by giving them the chance to pray in what the Spirit has been saying to them through the word sung.
The time we spend in gathered worship with our church family each Sunday is the most focused time of being immersed in the truths of Scripture, hearing God speak to us and responding in faith in community that we have. It's the pinnacle of our life of worship, the engine-room for our evangelism, and a bountiful means of God's grace to us. But so often, I turn up to church with my head in a million other places, and I haven't thought to pray that God might use the service to shape me, challenge me, change me. Wonderfully, he does so anyway, because he's gracious. But on those occasions when I've made time to pray, I've been more deeply impacted by the truth of the gospel and more useful in service of my brothers and sisters.
Often, these battles are won the night before. Why not try reading through the sermon passage before you go to bed and simply pray: "God, show me wonderful things in your word when I gather with your people tomorrow" (Psalm 119:18). As far as we're able, aim to get to church early and pray that God might minister his truth to you as it's read, preached and sung, and that you might be equipped to share that word with others.
As we engage prayerfully with God's word sung, who knows what he might do!
A final note to those who lead sung worship: when leading, our focus can easily be torn away from Jesus onto how well or badly things are going. "We sound great/terrible". "The congregation are really responding/not engaging at all" (delete as appropriate). We must fight for faith that God is transforming people into the likeness of Christ as they behold him through song (2 Corinthians 3:18). Keep praying as you lead: "God help us to behold you, together." And, as Paul goes on to say (2 Corinthians 4:1), don't lose heart!
This article was originally published in Co-Mission Articles in December 2019.