RECOMMENDATIONS FOR ENRICHING BRANCH PRAYER SERVICES
By High Priests of the Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
July 7, 2015
October, November, December 2015
The prayer service has long been a foundational service in the Restoration Movement. The late Apostle John Garver called it "one of the principal meetings of the church." When it has been entered into with preparation, reverence, and enthusiastic participation, it has provided a setting for the expression of the spiritual gifts and inspiration to the Saints. It is perhaps second in importance only to services in which the ordinances of the Church are performed. Yet, attendance at prayer services has fluctuated through the years. In times of crisis, or new situations, the pews tend to be fuller than in good or routine times, and establishing habits of faithful attendance has proven elusive to many Saints. Undoubtedly numbers have been affected by services which have failed to inspire and uplift the Saints sufficiently to motivate them to return the next Wednesday, as well as by interference of jobs, family duties, etc. The perception of mediocrity in the minds of the Saints is, without a doubt, encouraged by the adversary of souls, as services, with very few exceptions, certainly result in the bestowal of spiritual blessings, even if undetected in the minds of the Saints.
The responsibility for prayer services begins with the presiders of the services. The elder or high priest may make inadequate preparation and not be led by the Holy Spirit as required by D&C 46:1b, which results in services that fail to meet their potential. There are many other reasons as well that cause the presider to be ineffective in his task, including physical limitations.
The members themselves share in the responsibility of ensuring that services are edifying by coming with preparation to worship, and sitting in reverent meditation, as well as by whole-hearted, concise, and appropriate participation in the service. That prayer services can be improved upon is evidenced by the fact that many a "mountain-top" experience occurs at the end of reunion after a week of preparation and spiritual "climbing" has preceded it.
With this belief, that prayer services can be enriched, the high priests first met on June 8 to discuss ways in which this may be accomplished. In addition, other resources were researched, including, Prayer Meetings, by Harry Doty; articles by various authors in The Priesthood Journal, April, 1936; Let Us Worship, by Chris Hartshorn; and "The Endowment Paper," by Earl Curry. What follows are recommendations derived from the discussions, books, and articles, determined by the high priests, and evaluated by the First Presidency for a final decision.
The first step in improving prayer services rests with the branch president, who should select men from the Melchisedec priesthood, if possible (see D&C 17:8f, 10d), whose "gifts and callings" make them preferable choices to preside at such services. (There is also a need to give opportunities to others in order for them to grow in their skills, but that is not the point of this paper.) (Obviously this step becomes irrelevant in small branches.)
The elder or high priest (all designated by the term, elders, from here on) scheduled to preside should make significant preparation spiritually and in giving thought to the service. This preparation should be the preparation of a lifetime, as well as that in which he engages for that specific service. The development of a theme is a challenging task, as it should be a thought that stimulates a response, and not just an intellectual assent. Giving thought to likely attendees and their personalities and needs is helpful in this process.
As stated in step 1 above, the presider should select those to assist in the service whose office and ministry will best serve in raising the spiritual level of the congregation in that particular service.
The presider should come to the service with a "good spirit of expectancy." All details of the service should be worked out ahead of time, such as who will start the hymns. This will be a statement to the congregation that the presider is taking the service seriously, and they should too.
It has often been stated that a person cannot rush into the presence of God, therefore a time of meditation prior to the start of the service is important. Deacons opening doors eliminates some of the banging, and the Saints should be encouraged to assemble quietly. Whispering is often not just heard by the intended person and is distracting.
The elders are instructed "to conduct all meetings as they are directed and guided by the Holy Spirit" (D&C 46:1b). However, since most elders do not know all scriptures, and all hymns, a list should be compiled prior to the service of likely hymns and scriptures to be used. Then, as the service progresses, the elder can select the specific scripture or hymn to be used as led in that moment.
Hymns for prayer services do not have to be limited to those in the "Prayer Service" section alone. There are many other hymns suitable for the dignity of the occasion, and the presider’s detailed preparation should include examining the entire hymnal for likely hymns. The music portion of the service is an integral part of the service, not an appendage to it. The music used in the service should not be jarring to the Saints, but should promote unity of Spirit. Hymns that emphasize thanksgiving and praise can lift the spirits of those who are burdened (see D&C 119:6a). Special vocal music can add much to a service.
The presider should be brief in his comments, and the congregation should be instructed to be brief in their prayers and testimonies. As a rule of thumb, the prayer season should begin in 15 minutes or less from the start of the service for an hour-long prayer meeting. If there is a lead testimony, that person should also be instructed (ahead of time) to be brief, for example, limiting his testimony to 3 minutes. These suggested time limits can vary based on the size of the congregation, but brevity is key to enriching prayer services and cannot be too strongly emphasized. Even scripture readings should be short, including the call to worship, especially since the theme or main area of emphasis can be lost in a scripture reading that covers many thoughts.
The theme is an area of debate, but there will always be one of sorts, either one determined by the presider, or one that evolves in the early prayers or testimonies as expressed in the thoughts of those participating. It should be preferable that the theme come from the leader, who has also hopefully made the most preparation for the service. The use of a "soft theme," or one that is expressed through the Scriptures and hymns only, without specifically stating one, may be the best course. The use of a question has been successfully used to stimulate testimonies. The theme should be a tool and not a rule. Most importantly, as stated above, the theme should be carefully chosen, and this promise should be kept in mind: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, as touching one thing, behold, there will I be in the midst of them…" (DC 6:15b). If someone deviates from the theme, the presider can gently lead back to the theme by stating, after singing hymn - (related to the theme), will others share how - (related to the theme as well.)
Participation is what the prayer service is all about, and quantity of participants as well as quality of prayers and testimonies are crucial aspects. However, periods of silence are not to be feared, and those who stand to fill in the time without something meaningful to say, detract rather than enhance the service.
The Saints should be regularly instructed that prayer service prayers should be for the group and preferably not for personal needs. The use of "we" rather than "I" should be emphasized. Also, we are instructed to pray in "Jesus’ name," and too frequent repetition of the Lord’s name should be avoided (see D&C 104:1c). Prayers should be not only directed to the sick, but other needs may need to be emphasized as well. Groups of prayers can be directed at different needs in order to conserve time and use a "team" approach.
In general, testimonies from the recent past are preferable to those from long ago. However, sometimes older testimonies are appropriate when describing watershed, or life-changing, moments. The congregation should be regularly instructed as to what constitutes a testimony, and it should be pointed out that sermons detract from the service. Continual emphasis on giving the essentials only of an experience should be stressed to the congregation, as it is extremely difficult for many not to engage in long, detailed descriptions. "Sharing struggles, heart hungers, weaknesses, hurts, and needs can be testimony….Testimonies of affirmation and faith" are also meaningful. (Doty, p. 107) Confession is scriptural, but the specifics of certain sins, such as moral lapses, should not be shared and are averse to the sensitivities of the Saints.
The timeframe set for the prayer service should be closely followed as a general rule. The service should not officially start early (extra hymns ok, for example), nor extend beyond the time set for ending the service, except those already sharing should be allowed to finish. The presider needs to end the prayer season early enough that there remains time for testimonies. Adjustments should only be made by the Spirit’s direction.
There is no rule that says that hymns can only be sung before or after a season of prayer or testimony. By breaking the service up into segments through interposing hymns, whether one or multiple verses are used, the attention of the congregation may be restored and refreshed.
Spiritual gifts are to be sought as described in D&C 46:4, and the gifts of faith, knowledge, wisdom, and discernment are essential as a foundation for other "spectacular" gifts. The presider is in a critical position of discerning the source, whether from above, from man, or from below, of any gift given. Any prophecy given should have a confirmation of its divinity, while any gift of tongues should have an interpretation (see 1 Cor. 14:27).
When situations arise in which the presider must curtail a lengthy testimony or spurious spiritual gift, it should done as compassionately as possible. However, any time this happens there is a good chance the participant will take offense, so the presider must carefully balance the pros and cons of intervening, recognizing the need of the branch as well.
The presider should maintain eye contact with the person sharing, so that the person sharing will know the presider is interested, and the presider will gain additional understanding of the person’s needs through body language, etc. Positive reinforcement will help the timid Saint as well.
Displaying scenic images, worship centers, and pictures can add to a worship setting. Occasionally changing the location of the service can bring renewed interest in the prayer services. Sometimes a smaller room not only helps with being able to hear, but brings a closeness among the people as well. A circle, or semicircle, seating arrangement can also be helpful.
As a rule, the smaller the prayer service, the larger the percentage of people that will participate, and intimidation will be lessened as well. For that reason, group prayer services might be interspersed with overall branch services in larger branches.
In one successful case, a branch made Wednesday evening into a family activity night that included youth meetings, priesthood meetings, women’s meetings, and then concluded with a joint prayer service. Attendance grew as the idea caught hold.
The presider should express gratitude when directions are followed, and when someone wants to deviate from the presider’s plans for the service, permission should not be automatic. There is a reason an elder is presiding, and he should not relinquish control of the service.
All elders should be familiar with Harry Doty’s book, Prayer Meetings, and the other articles mentioned previously are also helpful. The goal of the ultimate prayer meeting is before every elder, and progress should be without relaxation. May the Lord bless our prayer services.