I attend a church now that recites the Lord’s Prayer as part of every Sunday service. It also encourages its recitation in home devotions, both morning and evening.
That’s quite a leap from becoming a Christian in a church tradition that never recited this prayer. In fact, that tradition never recited anything. We didn’t even have scripture readings. Everything was spontaneous, except for the more-prepared portions of the sermon.
This practice was a bi-product of a strong bias … that written and recited acts of worship aren’t “sincere”. Or “authentic”. Or “genuine”. Only the spontaneous can be “real”. Everything else, because it has taken a preconceived form, if form-al. Because it can be said by rote, one can never know if there’s heart behind the recitation.
Interesting. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, Jesus did not say, “Just talk to God like He’s your best friend.” He did not say, “Pray whatever is on your heart, as long as it’s what your really feel” (as though your feelings is the barometer of whether or not your prayer is appropriate!). He did not say, “Pray over these types of topics.” He never said anything like these well-worn approaches to prayer we find in our shallow, contemporary spiritualities.
He said, “Pray thus.” Then He said words. As Christians, we usually are very cautious about mincing the words of Jesus. But not when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer. We not only can find it dispensable … we often consider these words boring and inadequate.
The ancient church did not make this mistake. They recited the Lord’s Prayer. This was central to the liturgy for 1,500 years, and remains central in the expressions of classical Christian traditions today. But, from the outset of Early Modern thinking, the Lord’s Prayer has been trivialized by huge swaths of Christian practitioners. I don’t think what has replaced its use has been anything like an improvement.
A few principles to consider when it comes to written prayers in general, and the Lord’s Prayer in particular:
- We should be careful with our words before God. Spontaneous worship acts can get us into big trouble — just ask Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1-2). A concise presentation of well-chosen words is to be preferred — just ask King Solomon (Eccl. 5:2) and Jesus (Matt. 6:7-8).
- Only pre-written prayers can be prayed in multiple locations at once. In our service book, we have what are called “collects”, from the Latin word collectia, which means “gather people together”. These prayers not only gather the thoughts of everyone within earshot in the service, but also with churches all over the globe. How else could we pray together with our brethren in the global south if we didn’t have written prayers?
- The Lord’s Prayer is the Word. Your prayers are not. Recitation of the Lord’s Prayer secures our trust, and demands our reverence. Spontaneous prayers can be a crapshoot.
- Spontaneity is a shallow well. Do you really want your congregation’s dialogue with God to be limited to the off-the-cuff thoughts of your leaders? Isn’t it to our advantage to led in prayer by mature, thoughtful saints, from both the past and present? If you’re going to have spontaneous prayer, it had better be done by people with deep doctrinal equipping who know what they should be praying and how.
- Spontaneity is no more “genuine” than thoughtfully selected written phrases. For years I have endured “spontaneous” prayers in church that are nothing but the same drivel that has been prayed a thousand times before. Often it’s an auto-pilot prayer which has as it’s only priority providing enough time in the service for the band to get off the platform.
- Spontaneous praying makes it hard for people to pray. Do you ever bow your head, and wonder what you should say? Especially when you’re asked to pray out loud, in a group? Written prayers free up those who aren’t so glib to enter into solid seasons of prayer without the pressure of coming up with good stuff. This may be a key reason why there isn’t much actual prayer in most contemporary church services.
My prayer for all of us is that we would be liberated from the cul-de-sac of our limited minds, and be freed to embrace the rich tradition of our church’s prayer life that is stored for us through literature. Jesus’ prayer is indispensable. So are the Psalms. May the Word, and those God has given to us to be its pastors and teachers, give thoughtful shape to our ongoing conversation with God.