What the Church Needs Now
Isaiah 56:6-7 NKJV
“… Everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, and holds fast My covenant —Even them I will bring to My holy mountain, And make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices Will be accepted on My altar; For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
Mark 11:15-17 NKJV
So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.'”
A House of Prayer
It was perhaps the most unusual day in the public ministry of Jesus. He was angry about the lack of prayer in His Father’s house. I have staged this scene many times and I have always provided Jesus with a whip to drive the moneychangers out of the Temple. His anger flowed from a profane substitution of commerce for prayer. He quoted the prophet Isaiah as He drove the merchants from this sacred space and reprimanded the leaders for promoting such a desecration.
“Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.'”
In this dramatic scene we can see a major purpose in a house of worship–prayer. To be sure, there are other functions of public worship services:
- The corporate expression of praise and adoration to God by His People,
- The public telling of the Gospel story to the world,
- The humble giving of alms to the cause of Christ,
- The edification of the church by the proclamation of sound doctrine,
- The renewal of the New Covenant through the signs of baptism and the table of the Lord,
- The transfer of faith from one generation to the next, and
- The binding together of the People of God into “one holy nation” and a “holy, royal priesthood.”
There is a lot to do when we gather to worship God! Each of these functions is vital to our spiritual health and to our public witness. Through these holy institutions we keep our individual candles aflame and by the action of them we shine as a city on a hill than cannot be ignored.
There is one function I omitted from the list–corporate prayer. It is certain that prayer permeates and empowers all these stations of worship, but prayer is more than just the power behind the other parts of worship. Prayer is an essential element it its own right. Have we engaged our congregations in seasons of corporate prayer? Have public prayers become more of a punctuation rather than the message itself?
In this essay I want to layout effective ways to lead the whole church in concerted prayer. The tools required for this are the same as those demanded by worship leading but the function is tightly focused on prayer in all it’s dimensions: praise, adoration, silence, intercession, and, in the words of the Psalmist, “seeking God’s face.” If the importance of an expression of public worship can be measured by the amount of time given to it, we have not properly valued corporate prayer.
Corporate Prayer Must be Led.
Just as the disciples entreated Jesus to teach them to pray, pastors and elders today must be fully engaged in prayer education. I once had the honor to teach a 13-week class on worship each year as part of the Christian Education ministry at First Assembly of God in Winston-Salem, NC. Before too many years had passed, there were at least 1000 people in that congregation who had gone through that course at least once. It was not at all difficult to lead them in worship. They knew what I was trying to do, and they knew their part in the process. The truth had, indeed, set them free to worship. Likewise, the skills and understandings of corporate prayer must be taught. We can no longer assume that because people have committed their lives to Jesus that they automatically know how to pray in public and in the Secret Place. The first requirement for leading the congregation in prayer is teaching them what prayer is and how to pray.
The next requirement is a prayer leader. Unless a church is fully trained in prayer, open prayer times will be uneven in individual participation. Just as the Bible demands that public worship unfold in “fitting and orderly ways,” so must the corporate prayer of the church. As is the case with worship, the lead pastor is the prayer leader of the church. He/She may designate other leaders to take a turn but that is seen as an extension of the lead pastor’s role. When the corporate prayers of the church are songs,–which is a powerful and biblical form of corporate prayer–the leader must be a capable singer. It is incumbent upon each prayer leader to be a person of prayer in the Secret Place. This is where the promise is found! What the Father sees in secret, He will reward in public! (Matt. 6:6)
Public Worship: Presenting the “reasonable service of worship.”
The powerful wish expressed by Paul that public worship should unfold in a fitting and orderly way is also seen in his admonition to the Romans to present themselves to God in worship in a reasonable, logical manner. (1 Corinthians 14:40; Romans 12:1-2) Moses built the first dwelling place built for God’s presence. It was a movable system of tents, the Tabernacle in the Wilderness. Generations later, a building was built by King Solomon, the magnificent Temple. Both of these structures housed the holy, mysterious manifest presence of God. These very real structures enabled a spiritual progression from the Gates of Thanksgiving, through the Outer Courts of praise, repentance and humility, into the Holy Place of the Word of God and Prayer and, finally, through the veil into the Holy of Holies wherein was found the Ark of the Covenant. This was the reality of how Old Covenant people and their priests could come before the presence of the Lord. It was also symbolic in every detail of how New Covenant worshipers, who are the Holy-Royal Priesthood, come before the Throne of God and of the Lamb. We must extract the higher meaning of these dwelling places. They were about more than getting though the wilderness or being a nation of witness among the nations of the world. The writer to Hebrews reveals that this patter of holy procession is a copy of the throne of God in the Heavenly Zion above. This is the holy protocol of worship in Spirit and Truth. (Heb 8:3-6)
This progression is a wonderful privilege and a wondrous reality.
- Prayers of thanksgiving, praise, humility, and repentance
- lead to effectual prayers of adoration and intercession because they prepare us for the manifest presence of God.
Pastors and worship leaders, if we long to see our people seeking the face of God in the Holy Place and in the Holly of Holies, we must lead them in thanksgiving and praise first. God’s holy presence demands such preparation. The people of God can pray with power when they are standing spiritually in the Most Holy Place. Public worship is the progression from outside the Gates of Thanksgiving all the way into the Holy of Holies to dwell in the Zion of Heaven and present our petitions to Him. (Hebrews 12:22-24)
Corporate Praise: Proclaiming the “manifold wisdom of God.”
In Ephesians, Paul gives us both the content and the direction of our Outer Court praise.
Ephesians 3:8-12 NKJV
To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through faith in Him.
This passage describes the spiritual warfare effect of true worship. What should be the content of the songs we sing as we progress through the Gates of Thanksgiving and proclaim the excellence of Jesus in the Courts of praise? Nothing less than “the manifold wisdom of God.” Our songs should not be about us and our passion for worship; they should be packed with truth about God and His passion for us. This fulfills Peter’s reminder that we have been called out of darkness into marvelous light expressly for this purpose–to proclaim the “excellencies” (1 Peter 2:9-10 ASV) of Jesus. There are so many “excellencies!” We need lots of songs to do this. When these songs are our prayers, they amount to “the manifold wisdom of God.”
What are the effects of such proclamations?
- Worshipers are blessed as layers of truth are piled on each other, setting them free.
- The spiritual enemies of God are routed from the comfortable clutches in the heavenly realms and sent packing.
- Such detailed, passionate confessions of who the Lord Jesus is right now, clears the way for the Spirit of God to move unhindered through every heart in the house that turns to Jesus!
The church can pray with New Testament power and the preacher can function with an unction of the Holy Spirit and, I am convinced, the promised signs and wonders will follow in short order. This is a form of worship that throbs with resurrection power. The enemy’s armies are unimpressed with our songs that are more about us than about Jesus but they cannot remain in force in the face of the manifold wisdom of God on the lips of God’s People.
Congregational Adoration: “Beholding His glory.”
The writer to the Hebrews uses graphic language to describe our access to God Almighty. He references the strangest thing that happened on Mt. Calvary: the tearing of the veil in the Temple from top to bottom when Jesus died. In this amazing act of God, the presence of God became available to all who would come to God through Jesus the Son. This entrance into the Most Holy Place is the “new and living way” Jesus opened by surrendering His body to be torn. Here’s the quote:
Hebrews 10:19-22 NKJV
Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
What could be more graphic as equating the incarnation and the atonement–the innocent humanity of Jesus with the underserved violence of the crucifixion? The writer reaches all the way back to Mt. Sinai to equate the veil shielding the Holy of Holies from the sins of mankind with the personhood of the Second Person of the Godhead–“the veil, that is, His flesh.”
The point of all this historical narrative and symbolic history is that through the New Covenant in Jesus’ blood, we can now see God in the face of Jesus. We are invited into the region of His manifest presence, the Holy of Holies, something expressly forbidden under the Old Covenant. Through the torn veil we can “behold His glory and be changed.”
2 Corinthians 3:17-18 NKJV
Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.
There is power in the Holy of Holies, all the power of God Himself, Father, Son, and Spirit. When the People of God enter here and remain, beholding His glory, transformations begin and continue. This is the power of corporate praise and worship that brings us all the way into the Holy of Holies. Believers make progress spiritually, in the words of the Apostle, “from glory to glory.” This doesn’t happen quickly. The term “behold” has an element of timelessness to it, of sustained exposure. Some footnotes suggest the word, “contemplate” instead of “behold.” A worship service of human concoction moving with unstoppable momentum from event to event, does not lend itself to contemplation, yet in contemplation is the transformation we seek. There are songs that are contemplative in character, lending themselves to these moments spent in such Holy Places. Pentecostals have always recognized the power waiting on God. Our Holiness and Pentecostal forebears called it “tarrying.” There is value in this still for as we wait in the presence of God we are changed, and the issues we bring with us here begin to change as well. The promise of Isaiah springs to mind:
Isaiah 40:31 NKJV
But those who wait on the Lord Shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
A knowledgeable congregation can intentionally call a halt to the event-to-event forward motion of a worship service to spend quality time waiting on the Lord. As they wait, contemplating the Lord, the Spirit is changing them from glory to glory and their strength is on the increase. Their petitions move from concerns to confidences. We used to sing this promise:
Teach Me, Lord, to Wait
Words and Music by Stewart Hamblin
They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.
They shall mount up with wings as eagles.
They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.
Teach me, Lord, teach me Lord, to wait.
© 1953 Hamblin Music Co.
Would any worship leaders or pastor today consider such a use of precious service time a waste?
Intentional Silence: Standing in the Holy Place: “Be Still and Know…”
Psalm 24 contains two important questions:
- Who shall ascend the Hill of the Lord?
- Who shall stand in the Holy Place?
“Ascending the Hill of the Lord” speaks of the holy progression of worship we have already discussed as such a necessity. “Standing in the Holy Place” is a different kind of prayer. One has motion at the center of it and the other has stillness. One has a soundtrack of praise and worship and the other is accompanied by stillness and silence. Except for the heart, all the instruments are tacet.
Of the many ways of worshiping God recommended by the Scriptures, one of the most unusual is to be silent in His presence. Sometimes the presence of the Lord is so powerful we cannot say or sing a single word. The prophet relays this command in no uncertain terms.
Habakkuk 2:20 NKJV
“But the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him.”
In this noisy world, silence before God is a great blessing. When silence is the order of the service, our inner voices go to work. The Lord can help us silence even our thoughts so that a deep peace can be ours. This is not the silence that ensues when some piece of technical equipment fails to fire on time. This silence is no accident, no lack of planning. It is an intentional silencing of the sounds of creation, without and within. In this silence the “still small voice” voice of the Spirit can be clearly heard. In this blessed, profound silence, the Spirit confirms past words to us and with the confirmation there is that “deep, settled peace” the old songs spoke about.
With the silence demanded by the Lord’s profound presence, there comes a knowledge that cannot be obtained elsewhere. This spiritual awareness doesn’t come from books or screens or lectures or podcasts or any of the careful presentations of men. This knowledge is a spiritual transfer from the mind of God to our hearts. The Bible declares that there is a witness of the Spirit of God directly to the redeemed human spirit of the believer. In this transfer of knowledge is the confirmation of our inclusion in the Covenantal Family of God. To reveal the total effect of this knowledge of the holy, let us combine the two promises.
Psalm 46:10-11 NKJV
Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth! The Lord of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge.
Romans 8:15-17 NKJV
For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs —heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.
No trumpets sound a fanfare. No marching bands step lively down the streets and no string players bow their way through a tune, but we know in a place even music can’t reach that we are His and He is ours. After a season of such silence, we can break it only by whispering, “Abba Father.” In public worship, the prayers of God’s People can sometimes be heard only in heaven as we “be still and know.”
Organized Intercession: “If my people will pray…”
Each of us is in the Kingdom of God because someone interceded for us in prayer. It may have been a praying parent or teacher or friend or sibling or cousin, but someone whispered our name to the Lord in prayer. They stepped into our lives without us even knowing it. Perhaps they had witnessed to us about their relationship with Jesus or perhaps not. It may be that they just observed the life we were living and were promoted to pray for us. However it began, their prayers on our behalf never went away. The book of Revelation informs us that the prayers of the saints are collected in the throne room of God. Somehow things worked out and we found our way to the cross, all because someone interceded for us before the throne of grace.
One of the most important forms of public prayer is the church at intercession.
- The fate of nations is held in the balance there.
- Revival tarries there.
- There the leaders’ dreams linger on the cusp of reality, waiting to become real when the church travails in prayer.
All leaders know this instinctively and we hope the intercessory prayers of the saints are sufficient. Isn’t it time that we began to take steps to organize this essential dimension of corporate prayer?
The great Brownsville outpouring which began on Father’s Day in 1995, lasted a number of years, and affected the whole world almost like a second Azuza Street, began with organized intercession on Sunday nights at First Assembly of God. Pastor John Kilpatrick changed the order of service from the traditional “Evening Evangelistic Service” format to Holy Communion and prayer. Eventually they designated a set of needs and made prayer stations for each one. People who felt a special call to one of those needs would spend most of their prayer time at that station, but everyone agreed to pray for each of the needs before the evening service was dismissed. This organized intercession continued for many months until that Sunday morning in June, when the power fell.
The idea is simple: identify the needs and keep them before the people. There are many ways to organize the intercessory prayers of the church. Pastors should be creative and find out how the Lord wants them to prioritize prayer for the nation, families, missionaries, the military, and the various levels of government. Weekly prayers of agreement are a powerful tool. Do something more imaginative that just saying, “Now, be sure to pray and read your Bibles this week!” It is time to lead private worship! Why should the sharpest tool in our shed be rusty?
Prioritized Passion: “The generation of those who seek Your Face…”
After the Psalmist identifies those who will ascend the Hill of the Lord and stand in the Holy Place, he provides the essential characteristic of those who change their world for the better. They are the generation of those who seek the face of God. What does it mean to “seek the face of God?”
This phrase describes our passion, the pressing need or desire that moves us to pray. It could be said that to pray for the needs pressing us is to seek God’s hand. We need His intervention in the circumstances of our lives. We need for things to change: conditions that are contrary, people who or problematic, supplies that are short, pain that persists, and all kinds of troubles that tarry. We know that the hand of God can move any mountain we face so this is the content of our prayers and the passion of our hearts.
There is also a deeper passion that is not based in circumstances. This is our passion for God Himself, not just the power of His hand, but the peace of His presence within us. This is what it means to seek His face, His person, to seek Him in His fullness. He is the prize of our quest, the point of our praying, the passion of our hearts. This is also the invitation from His heart! He invites to this deeper level of relationship.
Psalm 27:7-8 NKJV
Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice! Have mercy also upon me and answer me.
When You said, “Seek My face,” My heart said to You, “Your face, Lord, I will seek.”
Just how do we advance from seeking His hand to seeking His face? Like all forms of prayer, it begins with praise. This is why seeking God’s face is something that the church in session can do. We can move through the Gates and Courts of thanksgiving and praise into the holy place of His Word and presence and there we can see His face. I like to think that when the whole congregation worships the Lord, the Lord Jesus walks among us. In the words of Malachi, He “suddenly comes to His Temple.” He does what He said He would do that day in the synagogue at Nazareth as described in Luke chapter four.
- He preaches the Gospel to the poor.
- He sets the captives free.
- He opens the eyes of the blind and
- He heals the deep bruises left by sin.
- He helps understand the times, the Day of His appearing.
The power of His presence is the power to change the world and we see it in His face.
Chronicles 16:8-11 NKJV
Oh, give thanks to the Lord! Call upon His name; Make known His deeds among the peoples! Sing to Him, sing psalms to Him; Talk of all His wondrous works! Glory in His holy name; Let the hearts of those rejoice who seek the Lord! Seek the Lord and His strength; Seek His face evermore!
What does that mean? It means we can know Him in the “power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings.” (Philippians 3:7-11) There is a level of intimacy with Jesus where we can feel His passion, where what matters to Him matters to us. In human relations these things are expressed by the face. We know someone we love at a level deeper than words, an eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart communion. Yes, we need to seek His hand and we need to seek His face. When we seek Him with our whole heart, He will be found!
Deuteronomy 4:29-30 NKJV
But from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul.
Congregations can move from a song service to a time of intimacy with the Lord Jesus through the biblical song forms. Through the right kinds of songs, leaders can focus the passion of the people on the Lord Himself. It is interesting to note that Psalm 24 calls the church to seek the Lord’s face in generational terms: ‘the generation of those who seek Your face…” Songs are generational in nature. Each generation has its own way of singing. If we are not careful, this can be a point of division. If we are wise, it be a point of celebration and inclusion.
The Music of Prayer
When Jesus, with whip in hand, quoted Isaiah as He drove the moneychangers out of His Father’s house, He was talking about music. Really? Yes. The word Isaiah used for “prayer” is tephillah which means “hymn.” Here is the complete definition from Strong’s Dictionary.
OT:8605 tephillah (tef-il-law’)…intercession, supplication; by implication, a hymn:
For a New Testament reference, we will examine two well-known but little understood passages. It is important to note that the Ephesians passage is related to worship in Spirit and the Colossians passage is concerned with worship in Truth; this is the music of spirit and truth worship!
Ephesians 5:18-21 NKJV
And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God.
Colossians 3:16-17 NKJV
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.
Each passage presents three song forms: psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. These terms describe the content of songs, not the musical elements. The melodies, harmonies, and rhythms of songs vary from culture to culture and from generation to generation within the cultures. The Bible makes no demands of the styles of these song forms. Those issues are wisdom issues best handled by skillful musicians in each culture and generation.
The content of the songs is a different matter; the Bible’s demands are clearly stated and are applicable in every culture and generation. If we consult “authorities” who approach these song forms culturally we get nowhere fast. We are in danger of presenting our personal preferences as biblical truth. What did the words mean to the Apostle Paul and how do they affect our choices today? For a clear understanding, we turn to a standard, respected resource: Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. I will condense these detailed definitions.
- “psalms” – psalmos primarily denoted “a striking or twitching with the fingers (on musical strings)”; then, “a sacred song, sung to musical accompaniment, a psalm.”
- “hymns” – humnos denotes “a song of praise addressed to God” (Eng., “hymn”)
- “spiritual songs” – ode “an ode, song,” is always used in the NT (as in the Sept.), in praise of God or Christ pneumatikos “always connotes the ideas of invisibility and of power. …it is in fact an after-Pentecost word. … (b) things that have their origin with God, and which, therefore, are in harmony with His character, as His law is, are ‘spiritual,’ … (d) the purposes of God revealed in the gospel by the Holy Spirit, and the words in which that revelation is expressed, are ‘spiritual,’ 13b, matching, or combining, spiritual things with spiritual words …’spiritual songs’ are songs of which the burden is the things revealed by the Spirit
(from Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright © 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers.)
Here is the way I understand these crucial song forms:
- Psalms are praise songs with instrumental accompaniment.
- Hymns are songs of prayer.
- Spiritual Songs are songs born in the service itself that contain the burden of the Spirit of God.
These kinds of songs can happen in every culture and generation because they are intentional works useful to the Holy Spirit. They are not products of the culture; they are cultural expressions of the heart of God.
These three types of songs enable the People of God to pray in public. Therefore, sensitivity in worship song selection goes so much deeper than finding the latest songs from our favorite sources. Thinking in terms of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs stretches us beyond the narrow confines of our particular culture and tastes.
- The worship leader seeks out psalms to give us material to sing as we pass through the Gates of Thanksgiving and as we dwell in the Courts of Praise proclaiming the “excellencies” of our Jesus.
- Further, the worship leader finds songs of prayer for the people to sing from their hearts. It is clear that there is power in prayers of agreement. “Hymns,” (songs addressed to God) unite the singers at a visceral level. We are all saying the same words and the same time with the same emphasis. The potential for unity and agreement is limitless. The petitions contained in these songs of prayer may indeed be mountains, but they are subject to the power of saints agreeing in prayer. These mountains can be moved.
- Spiritual Songs require a different skill set from preparing and presenting songs of human composition. These are songs of stillness, of waiting on God, of seeking His face. Worship leaders can develop these special skills and congregations can be trained in their openness to spiritual songs. They open the door for precious Gifts of the Spirit in public worship. (For practical instruction in how to lead Spiritual Songs, go to: https://stevephifer.com/spiritual-songs/)
It is time to discover the biblical use of songs and use them as they were intended to be used: the proclamation of praise, the empowerment of prayer, and the peace of God’s presence.
What does the church need now? We need to pray! As individuals in the Secret Place, as a holy priesthood in the church house, and as a standing army in the community.
- The House of God must be a house of prayer for all nations.
- Public prayer must be powerfully led.
- Public worship services must be structured to facilitate prayer.
- Songs for worship must contain the “manifold wisdom of God.” They must be about God and not about us.
- The People of God must “behold His glory” as they adore the Lord.
- At times we must also, “Be still and know that God is God.”
- The intercessory prayers of the church must be focused, organized, and diligently maintained.
- The People of God must go beyond intercessory prayer to a passion for God Himself.
- The Music of Prayer must function as implementor, instructor, and integrator of public prayer.
This is what America needs. This is what the world needs now. These things are what my church needs now to fulfill the call of God on our lives. I am reminded of a traditional hymn, Rise Up, O Saints of God. The laurels of spiritual victory await the church at prayer.
For a more in depth look at the power of the prayers of the church from the Bible see What the World Needs Now
© 2020 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved