In an effort to reform our worship practices, we have increased the amount of time we spend praying in our Lord’s Day gatherings. Along with this increased emphasis on corporate prayer has come the decision to incorporate a blend of both written prayers and spontaneous prayers. These written prayers are carefully prepared beforehand and read or recited, usually for the opening of the service as well as for our time of confession. For example, before the sermon, we recite this beautiful ancient prayer of the church:
We ask that what we have not, you would give us; what we know not, you would teach us; and what we are not, you would make us; all for the glory of your beloved Son, Jesus, who lives and reigns with you, together with the Holy Spirit—one God, forever praised. Amen.
For a church steeped in the Pentecostal tradition, written and recited prayers can be viewed as cold, insincere, or as “quenching the Spirit.” The unfortunate assumption is that structured prayers are only for those who aren’t “led by” or “filled with” the Spirit. In light of this, here are several thoughts that will hopefully clarify and justify our decision to include both spontaneous and pre-written prayers in our Lord’s Day worship.
- God has given us prayers to pray in Scripture. Just like parents teach their kids how to speak and pray, God teaches his children how to pray. The prayers we find in Scripture can be said to serve as disciplinary structures. Michael Horton concludes: “Like a trellis, they [teach] wandering hearts to weave their prayers up to God in a manner that delight[s] him” (A Better Way, 146). The Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4), and the prayers of the apostle Paul (Eph. 1:15-21; 3:14-21; Col. 1:9-14; 2 Thess 1:11-12) are for the church. When we don’t know how or what to pray, the Holy Spirit graciously helps us as we read or recite (or even sing!) these prayers, making them our own.
- Written prayers help you convey exactly what you want to say and can diminish distractions from poor wording and mental lapses. By prayerfully considering what to pray for ahead of time in a corporate worship service, we are able to pray for things we might otherwise forget to pray for. For example, we plan our opening prayer of invocation to center around different attributes of God and aspects of his saving work based on the sermon text for that particular morning. And when we use a written prayer of confession, our congregation can see the many ways we can and should confess our sins, as well as the many different sins we often need to confess.
- Written prayers have the same benefits and dangers as other structured elements of corporate worship. It’s safe to assume that most charismatic churches find no issue with singing lyrics from pre-written songs in worship. Prayer, just like our favorite worship songs, can serve as a trellis to help us commune with God in ways that are pleasing to him. Of course, both our songs and our prayers can become empty and ritualistic, but that is not necessarily the case. In fact, spontaneous prayers and song can be guilty of the same hypocritical insincerity (cf. Matt 6:7). Like all of our worship, it comes down to the condition of the heart.
- Prayer can benefit from careful planning and structure just like preaching. Most, if not all, preachers approach the morning service with at least something planned for that particular Sunday. They have taken the time to pray, study the Scriptures, and have considered how they can edify their congregations. Why not consider prayer the same way? The use of written prayers does not grieve the Holy Spirit any more than the use of sermon notes.
- Written Prayers are not meant only for your listening pleasure. Just like singing, any prayers offered to God are meant to be prayed and adopted by the congregation. Christians aren’t spectators in worship, merely observing the people up front. No, Christians are to actively participate in the liturgy. The prayers, whether spontaneous or pre-written, are meant to be adopted as your own. The prayers of invocation and confession that are read are meant to be our prayers, which is why we conclude our prayers with a hearty “amen!”
- Written Prayers from Scripture and church history connect us the universal church. Praying the prayers (and singing the songs) that Christians have used throughout the centuries helps us remember we aren’t the first and only Christians in the world. When we pray and sing the Psalms, recite the Lord’s Prayer, or use prayers written by Christians in centuries past, we join in with the cloud of witnesses that includes the prophets, apostles, the church fathers, Augustine, Luther, Cranmer, Spurgeon, Wesley, and more.
- The Spirit can work spontaneously and through planning! Preachers rely on the Spirit to work through their time of study and preparation as well as when they are delivering their messages. Song writers rely on the Spirit to help them write songs that are faithful to Scripture and edifying to the church. Confining the Spirit’s work exclusively to either spontaneous or written prayers effectively puts God “in a box.”
- Spontaneity and structure are not the keys to effective prayer. James 5:16 and 1 John 5:14–15 show us that prayer is not effective or pleasing to God if it is spontaneous or structured, but only if it aligns with God’s will and comes from the one who humbly approaches the Father through the Son by the Spirit in faith.
Here are some fantastic resources to help you pray Scripture and some of the prayers employed by Christians for centuries.
- The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions
- Praying with Paul: A call to Spiritual Reformation, by D.A. Carson
- Praying the Bible, by Donald Whitney
- The Book of Common Prayer
- Prayers, by Thomas Cranmer
Mitch Bedzyk serves as a teacher and worship leader at Elmira Christian Center. He received his Master of Theological Studies from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and works in IT for the NY Office of Mental Health. He and his wife, Sarah, have two sons, Oliver and Micah, and are foster parents. In his spare time he enjoys reading, coffee, guitar, following the Bundesliga and MLS, and playing fantasy soccer. You can follow him @mitchbedzyk