Samuel Wells and Abigail Kocher have given the church an important gift with their recent work Shaping the Prayers of the People: The Art of Intersession. This book is a richly theological and immensely practical exploration of intercessory prayer in public worship. It is a short, yet highly engaging, read – 77 pages of exposition (chapters 1-5) followed by approximately 76 pages of example prayers. As the lead pastor of a Protestant church, I found my liturgical imagination ignited in a new way as I was led to think through the intentions behind our practice of corporate worship. This work will be more accessible to those from a liturgical tradition, but perhaps is even more important of a read for those who come from a tradition that lacks this intentional liturgical shape.
I found the book’s theology to be highly satisfying and informing. For instance, the authors give a reasoned exploration of the theology behind prayer. They especially explore the function of intercessory prayer in light of the Trinity:
“Prayer is a conversation between the Son and the Father in which the Holy Spirit invites the believer to participate.”
. . . . “The ministry of the Holy Spirit is, as it has always been, to make Jesus and all that God has given us in Jesus (sometimes called “his benefits”) present to us; and to make us, in all our humble and naked folly and need, but also in our faith and longing, present to Jesus.”
. . . . “Perhaps the deepest mystery is what takes place between the Son and the Father… There is a sense in which the Son who pleads with the Father on our behalf is always the Jesus we see on the cross. Because every petition is, on closer scrutiny, a plea for salvation – for safety, for healing, for reconciliation, for communion, for blessing – for all the things that Christ won on the cross. So every time we pray in the power of the Spirit – every time the Holy Spirit carries our prayer to Jesus and Jesus intercedes to the Father for us, the question for the Father is the same: “How much of your ultimate glory are you going to reveal and bestow at this present moment, and how much are you going to withhold until the last day?” (page 2-3)
The book is also bursting at the seams with practical insight for ecclesial leaders. Beyond the authors’ analysis of the shape, content, and form of intercessory prayers, I found the discussion on the “social location” of the prayer to be very helpful. They state, “The most dangerous word in liturgy, especially informal, spontaneous liturgy, is ‘we.'” (39) This is something equality true for preachers as for prayers, speakers must always mean the global Christian community with their “we” and not “our country, our troops, our children, etc.” This is a common and easy way that church leaders sometimes exclude portions of God’s people from our petitions and worship. Equally enlightening was the discussion on prayer (specifically intercessory prayer) as not being an alternative sermon. As the authors state, “How can one tell that intercessions are turning into a sermon? When the speaker drifts away from talking to God and starts talking to the congregation” (7-8) or begins to stop using the word “you” to address God and instead referring to him in the third person, as “God.” This is something I commonly see when folks are given the task to pray in public and one that ultimately leads to a confused prayer.
As mentioned, the book contains an abundance of example intercessory prayers. Most of these examples come with an identification of the season/place/intention behind the prayer. The book also ends with a masterfully condensed “checklist for preparing the prayers of the people.” (157-158)
As a church leader, Shaping the Prayers of the People is easily one of the best books I have read this year. I highly recommend it to all who are tasked with leading or participating in public worship services or those who simply wish to take a deeper look at intercessory prayer. I will be giving a copy to all of the pastoral and lay leaders at my church and am looking forward to working through it in community.
Note: I received this book from Eerdmans in exchange for an unbiased review.