There are several physical positions associated with prayer. Is one better than the other? Does God actually pay more attention if you kneel or raise your hands? How do you decide what’s appropriate for a given situation?
Consider the following prayer position possibilities. Some are straight out of the Bible and some are traditions that have developed over the centuries:
4. Laying prostrate on the floor
5. Hands raised toward heaven
6. Hands held level with palms up
7. Hands clasped
8. Hands held flat together
9. Head bowed
10. Head raised
11. Eyes closed
12. Eyes open
If my calculations are right, there are sixty-four possible combinations to choose from, so what do you do? In your private devotions, the answer’s simple - you do what your heart feels. When leading others, however, a Biblical understanding is helpful. Here are a few scriptures that give some insight.
Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.
Psalms 95:6-7 (NIV)
Then David said to the whole assembly, "Praise the Lord your God." So they all praised the Lord, the God of their fathers; they bowed low and fell prostrate before the Lord and the king.
1 Chronicles 29:20 (NIV)
Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, "Amen! Amen!" Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
Nehemiah 8:6 (NIV)
From these and many other scriptures, we get a picture of how people in Biblical times interpreted different body positions.
Sitting, for instance, was not associated with prayer or worship. There’s no mention of chairs in or around the temples of the Old or New Testaments. For that matter, other than the thrones, no chairs are mentioned in the heavenly throne room.
Chairs were scarce in Biblical times. Without machinery to mass produce them, they were expensive and unavailable to the masses. Even homemade stools were scarce. Synagogues and public places often had stone ledges or even benches, but most sitting was done on the floor.
Sitting on a chair was associated with a person of authority, such as a judge sitting on a throne. To sit in his presence was disrespectful unless invited to do so. The only time sitting was a sign of submission was when sitting on the floor at someone’s feet. Nowhere is it associated with prayer, but most of us do a great deal of our praying while sitting. Is this scripturally acceptable? Yes. If people in the Bible had been blessed with chairs, they would have sat just as much as we do.
Many worship leaders and worshipers today make a big deal about standing during worship. There’s nothing spiritual about standing during worship or prayer. It can be concluded that because of the absence of chairs, our ancient ancestors did stand much of the time, but like sitting, standing’s not directly associated with prayer or worship in the Bible. They stood because they had nothing to sit on.
There’s another issue concerning standing that worship leaders need to keep in mind. Short people can’t see over tall people when everyone’s standing. My wife is 5’0” and it doesn’t matter where she sits, five tall people who stand during every chorus always sit right in front of her. It must be a law of nature. She might as well have a box over her head.
I mentioned to my wife one day that I didn’t think there were chairs in the heavenly throne room and that we would probably stand during the worship services there. Her reply, “Well God better resurrect us all the same height because when I go to church in Heaven, I want to see.”
Unlike sitting and standing; bowing, kneeling, and prostrating one’s self is mentioned often in scripture and related directly to prayer and/or worship. Most often these postures were spontaneous and personal expressions of humility and submission to God. There are numerous examples of large groups using these positions too. With large groups, however, it usually involved a crisis or special ceremony.
Bowing of the head in prayer helps us focus our attention away from our surroundings and is a position of submission. No wonder it’s mentioned so often in scripture.
For many Christians, it’s the most common bodily position associated with prayer, to the extent that they would have a hard time praying any other way. In their tradition, virtually every public prayer is preceded by instructions to bow for prayer.
However, for others, praying with face lifted is more common. In fact, many congregations use the face lifted posture almost exclusively.
Which should you use? The one that’s appropriate for your situation and expresses the heart of the people you’re leading.
Both traditions would do well to be open to the other. As mentioned, the bowed head is a position of submission and is appropriate for prayers of confession and supplication. The face lifted is a position of open communication and fellowship. It’s more appropriate for prayers in which the worshiper is receiving God’s blessing.
There is an issue of pride here that should prompt anyone who raises their face to God to examine their heart first. More discussion of this issue follows in the section on praying with eyes open or closed.
Kneeling is always appropriate in private devotions and every sanctuary should make provision for individuals to kneel. If you’re leading a group and want to give them opportunity to kneel during the prayer time, consider these issues.
• In most groups, there are some who can’t kneel at all because of physical problems.
• The average person can only kneel for a short time unless provided with a very good kneeling rail.
• Kneeling can produce modesty issues.
Because of these and other matters, it would be unusual for a whole group to get on their knees. The best thing is to make preparations so they can kneel, then give them the option to kneel if they want.
There’s a piece of hardware that evangelical Christianity needs to go back and borrow from its Catholic ancestors - the pew mounted kneeling rail. If pew salesmen would market these to all churches, they might find a big market. Prayer rails and benches in the altar area are good, but having rails on the back of every pew is superior.
The emphasis in evangelical Christianity is on getting people to the altar. That comes from the camp meeting heritage, which shouldn’t be abandoned. However, if there’s to be a revival of congregational prayer, it will take place in the pew. (to be continued)
Next month we'll look at some other physical manifestations of prayer and how God feels about it all.
See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Ephesians 5:15-16 (NKJV)
Success is in the details and a worship service profile documents details of worship that reveal a great deal about how a church does worship and whether it’s actually giving quality time to the things it deems most important. For instance, if a congregation says that it wants to be a house of prayer , but spends two minutes in monologue prayer and only fifteen seconds in corporate prayer, but ten minutes on announcements; they’ve got some significant adjustments to make.
To do a profile, you need to write down the exact time of every transition in the worship service. You can do this in real time using a digital watch, or from a video using the time stamp from the video. With each time stamp, make a brief not of what the transition was. It might start something like this:
From this list, you can calculate how much time was given to different elements and help you see the structure and flow of the service.
Time is one of the most valuable possessions people have and they are very careful about how they spend it. If there are 100 people in a worship service, that means the congregation, as a whole, is offering one hundred hours to the Lord as a kind of time offering.
One detail that’s exposed by a profile is wasted time. One profile revealed thirty-five seconds in which a soloist walked from the back of the congregation to the podium, talked privately with the accompanist, then found a microphone. Multiply that half minute parade by the 200 people sitting in the pews and it amounted to almost two hours of boredom.
Another issue that many worship leaders don’t recognize until they’ve done a profile is the fragmented service. Even after decades of the Worship Wars, most churches still chop worship into two to five minute segments. The congregation is caught in a revolving door going in and out, in and out, of God’s presence.
Then there’s bookend prayer, the habit of always putting prayer at the beginning or end of some element of the service and never in the middle of a worship segment. One of the simple evaluation techniques in the profile evaluation is to put a heart around any prayer preceded and followed by worship. (prayer at the heart of worship)
Whether it’s a little issue like dead time between songs or a major one like bringing significant congregational prayer into the heart of worship, a profile gives you an undeniable picture of what you’re doing.
If you have the Prayer Guide book, there's more about conducting a simple profile in chapter 17.
This is the best way to improve worship. Not only will it alert you to deficiencies in the way your service is conducted; it gives you concrete information to discuss with church leaders, moving the discussion from likes and dislikes to facts and priorities. It includes:
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