Rifqa Bary was born into a Muslim home in Sri Lanka where, as she writes in “Hiding in the Light,” her family “followed all the required rituals of Islam: the five daily prayer recitations, the feasting and fasting, the memorization of the Qur’an.” As a young child, Bary learned the daily set prayers only in Arabic, which meant she never understood what she — or anyone else — was saying.

One day after her family had moved to the United States, Bary found herself looking around the home of a neighbor boy who had befriended her. Though she didn’t yet know it, the boy and his family were Christians:

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a delicate blue tapestry hanging on the wall, the elegant script of a strange word — Amen — embroidered on the wool. My eyes shot back to reread the words. I was curious. I pulled him aside and whispered so my parents wouldn’t overhear. ‘What does that word mean?’

For Christians well-versed in the Scriptures and immersed in the practices of the church, it is almost shocking that the word “Amen” would be a matter of intense spiritual curiosity for someone. To us, “Amen” is very familiar, and, sadly, it may be as meaningless as Arabic prayer was to Rifqa.

In the home of her new Christian friend, Bary first learned the meaning of “Amen” and then marveled at the privilege of intimate communion with the Father in prayer. Do we marvel too? And when we pray together in our homes and communities and churches, do we savor the opportunity to say “Amen”?

Though we Presbyterians might sometimes shy away from giving an audible “Amen,” our vocalized assent during public prayer has great value. And though we seek to avoid misuses and abuses — “Amens” which are either disruptive or self-righteous — thoughtfully using that biblical word is still our privilege.

In prayer meetings, in corporate worship, and in times of prayer among friends and family, each of us can say “Amen” as an earnest expression of agreement and as a helpful means of both personal discipline and mutual encouragement.

Agreement

Though this may not always be well understood, every public prayer is every person’s prayer. The pastor or elder may be the one praying aloud, but he is merely the mouthpiece giving voice to the prayers of everyone in the room. Your “Amen” — whether at the end of a single petition or the end of the entire prayer — is your verbal agreement to the words the leader has spoken. “Yes, Lord,” you are saying, “that’s my prayer too.”

Agreement is one of our chief aims in corporate prayer (see Matthew 18:19-20). First, we agree with Christ — praying confidently in His name for whatever pleases Him, whatever accomplishes His purposes, whatever makes His glory known. Then, as we agree with Christ, we will likewise agree with everyone else who agrees with Christ. Our corporate “Amen” becomes an expression of our united desire.

In the middle of a passage about worship practices in the local church, the Apostle Paul directs the Corinthians to pray clearly so that other people will be able to understand and add their assent. “Otherwise,” he writes, “if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?” (1 Corinthians 14:16).

Our desire in public prayer is that each person present would be able to say “Amen! I agree!”

Discipline

As someone who has spent her life praying with others (and who has recently written a book on the subject), I’m embarrassed to admit how many times my mind and heart wander during corporate prayer. The smallest earthly thing — a forgotten task, a remembered idea, a missing item, a newfound opportunity — can keep me from ascending to the Throne.

“Amen,” then, is a tool of accountability, disciplining my heart to pay attention and join in. Constrained by the precious privilege of saying an “Amen” of heartfelt agreement whenever possible, I am obligated to listen closely to the prayer the leader offers on my behalf.

The overdue library books or the undercooked lasagna diminish in urgency when I am intent on not merely hearing but also participating in the prayer. I begin to pray, in the quaint words of one writer, “every whit as heartily as the leader.”

Encouragement

Recently, in our time of family worship, my 7-year-old son led in prayer. He prayed sincere, bold, and Christ-exalting petitions for the success of the Gospel throughout the world. As he prayed, my husband and I added our verbal “Amens” to his supplications. Afterward, he said to my husband, “Daddy, when you were saying ‘Amen,’ it really encouraged me.”

This encouragement isn’t just for kids, of course. Each of us leads in prayer with a measure of uncertainty — some more fearful than others but all of us rightly impressed with the great responsibility of bringing others to the Throne. The spoken “Amen” of a brother or sister assures us that we do not stand alone but that our prayer has become “the joint and humble supplication of hundreds of penitent and believing souls, all engaged in pouring out their hearts to the God of salvation.”

“Amen” also encourages those sitting in the pews around us. As I bow my head in Lord’s Day worship, I hear from all sides the murmured agreement of my brothers and sisters. This is good. By expressing our “Amen,” we remind one another of our duty to participate in the prayer, and we warm one another’s hearts with our tangible commitment to our mutual task.

Brothers and sisters, “Let all the people say ‘Amen!’” (Psalms 106:48)

—-

Megan Hill is a PCA pastor’s wife and writer living in Massachusetts. She is the author of “Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer in Our Homes, Communities, and Churches (Crossway, 2016).