Winging Our Prayers

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Most pastors carefully prepare and deliver their sermons.  They commit hours to study. They develop outlines, even manuscripts for each sermon. Some even practice delivering their sermons in empty sanctuaries.

Most worship leaders carefully prepare and deliver their songs and sounds. They select and rehearse music. They craft visual components to accompany their songs. They complete thorough sound checks.

Yet, many of those same pastors and worship leaders choose to wing their prayers. Not all of them, of course. Some utilize the centuries old tradition of formed prayers. They borrow and read the prayers of others or write and read their prayers. Others prepare outlines for their prayers, documents that often include inspiring phrases borrowed from brothers and sisters in Christ.

Outside of those exceptions, the rest seemingly opt for impromptu or unprepared prayers.

Throughout my life of corporate worship I have heard three types of impromptu prayers, one of which is miraculous prayers of the Holy Spirit or glossolalia. Those prayers, accompanied by interpretation, are amazing. The second I can only describe as the prayer of those with the gift of prayer. When these gifted Christians pray, their words sound like intimate conversations with the Lord. They pray as friends of God. Their prayers bear marks of reverence and familiarity, sincerity and confidence. They are laced with Scripture. As I write those words I think of Pastor Arnold Dykhuizen. His prayers had a way of lifting you to heaven where you overheard a conversation between two great friends. Incredible. I wish I could pray like him and, perhaps, some day, with the help of the Holy Spirit, I will reach that goal.

The third and most popular type of impromptu prayer prompts this blog. Like all prayers, this type of impromptu prayer may be characterized by sincerity, humility and confidence. Unlike the first two types, these impromptu prayers are also characterized by one or more of the following: meaningless repetitions, biblical illiteracy, theological shallowness, poor grammar, and thematic confusion.

I am not writing to critique such prayers, though I find much in them to criticize, especially when offered by those invested with the incredible responsibility of leading God’s people in worship.

I write to ask with this question: Why do most pastors prepare their sermons and most worship leaders prepare their songs, but some of those same individuals choose not to prepare their prayers? Why do they opt for impromptu prayers marked by the maladies just listed?  

One reason may be an assumption that impromptu prayers are more spiritual than prepared prayers. This conviction has roots in seventeenth-century England where an intense debate took place over worship. In short, the Free Church tradition protested the ecclesiastical mandate to use formed prayers in the Book of Common Prayer. Free Church proponents insisted, among other things, on the practice of free or impromptu prayer, believing that such prayers allowed for the free movement of the Holy Spirit. 

The Welsh pastor-theologian Martin Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981), a more recent proponent of impromptu prayer, wrote these words in his commentary on Romans 8:15-17: “It is very interesting to notice that as men and women know less and less about a living spiritual experience, the more formal does their worship become… This is because of the low level of spirituality. Conversely, when people come to a living experience of God they rely less and less upon forms.”

The seventeenth century debate in England produced two distinct approaches to public or liturgical prayer, each of which is with us today: prepared or formed prayers and impromptu or free prayers. Surely one may list the benefits of both approaches to prayer but such an approach assumes the viability of both approaches – an assumption many in the free prayer tradition are unwilling to make. They simply assume that impromptu prayers are more spiritual than prepared prayers. Hence, they choose to wing their prayers.

Could it  be that those among us who have intentionally chosen to offer impromptu prayers during our Sunday services believe that such prayers are more spiritual than prepared prayers? I hope not for if that be the case, many of our most respected saints are not too spiritual. 

Like some in the formed prayer tradition, I write not to question the validity of the free or impromptu prayers. That’s the provenance of our Triune God. Plus, there is a time and place for impromptu prayers. Instead, I write in an effort to understand why so many pastors and worship leaders choose to prepare sermons and songs but also choose to offer impromptu prayers.

That choice seems inconsistent. Both pastors and worship leaders work hard to deliver biblically rooted and theologically sound sermons and songs. They seek poetic prose and memorable lyrics while minimizing meaningless repetition and grammatical lapses. Yet, their impromptu prayers often fall far short of those standards. Why this inconsistency? Shouldn’t we expect pastors and worship leaders to offer prayers that meet the same standards they establish for their sermons and songs?

Anticipating a resounding “Amen,” I propose an alternative to formed or impromptu prayers. I label this option “extemporaneous prayer.” 

I credit Quentin Schultze for my use of the word “extemporaneous.” In his An Essential Guide to Public Speaking, Schultze notes that extemporaneous speeches combine “careful preparation with sensitive adjustments,… solidly organized content with flexibly expressive delivery.” The result of this preparatory work is “an extended sentence outline” (69).

Similarly, I suggest that extemporaneous prayers combine careful preparation with sensitive adjustments and that those who offer extemporaneous prayers prepare an extended sentence outline. This outline may include scriptural citations, key phrases, short quotations, and a list of intercessions and petitions. Such an outline will minimize meaningless repetitions and poor grammar, and maximize, biblical illiteracy, theological shallowness, poor grammar, and thematic confusion.

So, three options for those who have the great privilege of leading public prayers. We can go with formed prayers, impromptu prayers, or extemporaneous prayers – as well as any combination of the three. If you are a pastor who prepares your sermons, I encourage you, more often than that, to prepare extemporaneous prayers. If you are a worship leaders who rehearses your songs, I encourage you, more often than not, to prepare extemporaneous prayers.

In the end someone may ask, “What difference does it make?”  On one hand, it doesn’t make any difference to the Lord, our High Priest. He is willing and able to forward our prayers to the throne of grace where we receive mercy and find help in our time of need. On the other hand, I believe it makes a difference to the gathered community who hears our prayers – and who long to deepen their prayer lives. In my experience, I have learned that those who pray for the people shape the prayers of the people. Public prayers tutor the faithful.  When the apostles overheard Jesus prayers, they asked the Lord to teach them how to pray like he prayed. Wouldn't it be great if the people who hear our prayers asked us to teach them how to pray?

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Thanks, Sam, for your article on corporate prayer.  Prayer, for most Christians, is a puzzling subject.  Before answering your question of how ministers or worship leaders should pray in corporate prayer, let me make some necessary comments first.  What do we accomplish or hope to accomplish through prayer?  In what ways is prayer effective?  Does God change his mind about our circumstances in life so that by prayer we can persuade God to change his preplanned actions.  Does the one praying have to fulfill a list of criteria in order for his/her prayers to be effective?  Is prayer for the benefit of God or for the one praying? The list can go on and on as to the questions and doubts one has in regard to meaningful and effective prayer.  Although there are a number of different aspects of prayer (ACTS), what stands out in both the Old and New Testaments is the concept of petitionary prayer.  Jesus taught on several occasions to “ask for whatever you want and it will be given.”  It easy to give thanks to God, to give praise, to confess one’s shortcomings, but petitionary prayer is where the rub comes in.  How often do we receive from God what we prayed for, that wasn’t likely to happen anyway?  When it comes to petitioning God, does prayer really have any effect?  It would seem that if prayer was effective in the simple and commonsense way that Jesus taught about it in the gospels, then Christians would stand in much better stead than those who weren’t Christian and who didn’t pray. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.   So if Jesus’ instructions can not be taken literally how should we understand them?  And so ministers and theologians come to a multitude of conclusion in regard to prayer.

That is the reason why different ministers and worships leaders pray in the various ways that they do.  They are, perhaps, trying to reach God in the most effective way possible in order for God to hear and answer their prayers.  Some might suggest that written and pre-prepared prayers do not touch the heart of God therefore are not as effective as Spirit driven spontaneous prayer.  Others would say that the Spirit can inhabit prepared prayers as much as spontaneous prayer.  So I would suggest that one reason that a minister might use one kind of prayer over another has to do with his concept of prayer and what happens through prayer.  

A question I have in regard to extemporaneous prayers, as you suggest, is, are they any more effective than any other pattern of corporate prayer?  Perhaps as you suggest in your last paragraph, what difference do it make?  The difference that you imply, is it doesn’t really matter to God, but it might to the congregation.

Something worth remembering as to the difference between prayer and other parts of the worship service, is that in prayer you are addressing God and in the sermon you are addressing the congregation, two different audiences.  So if in prayer, you are addressing God, then as you say, why does it make any difference?  If you are trying to impress a congregation with a style of prayer, then maybe you have to pick and choose?  But who are you praying to anyway?  Certainly not the congregation.  I really doubt that any one form of prayer has a greater effect than any other.  But I’m quite certain that others would disagree.

Maybe the makeup of the congregation would also make a difference as to how a worship leader or minister would conduct prayer.  A large traditional church, a large contemporary congregation, or a small farm community church would each make a difference in the church’s personality and likely would also make a difference in the spontaneity or formality of congregational prayers.

Thanks for your interesting article.  It does make a person think about the topic of prayer.

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Thanks, Roger.   Good stuff.   Always good to talk about prayer.  And you got me thinking about the impact of the audience on our preparation.  We prepare our sermons for the congregation but shall we prepare our prayers for the Lord? You raise a good question. 

Plus you accent two points I was trying to get at.  First, of the three types of prayer - impromptu, extemporaneous, and formed - I have not found one type essentially more spiritual than another. Second, the prayers of those on the platform will shape the prayers of those in the pews. For that reason, I often opt for extemporaneous or formed prayers, rather than impromptu.  

Thanks again for taking the time to response.  Your words are helpful to me as I shape my lectures for seminarians.

Thanks Sam for responding to my long winded comment.  I judge from your last response, as well as your original article, that apart from the theology of prayer, or who we are addressing in prayer (whether God or the congregation), pastors and worship leaders are directly or indirectly helping to shape the prayer life of worshipers.  The reality, though, for most if not all in the congregation (including ministers) is that their personal prayer lives consist of impromptu prayers, rather than formed or extemporaneous.  So if ministers are hoping to shape the prayers of those in the pews, shouldn’t they help them in the format they are most comfortable with?  Do we really expect church members to use “formed” or “extemporaneous” prayers in their devotional lives?  Following your premise of shaping the prayer lives of those in the pews, perhaps developing easy patterns of impromptu prayer (such as Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication) would be more helpful to those in the pews, especially if ministers used such impromptu patterns thoughtfully.   

As to my personal opinion, as to what format ministers and worship leaders use in congregational prayers, I think they use what is most comfortable for themselves.  Some find it much more comfortable to have their prayers prepared ahead of time, so they don’t find themselves put on the spot in the immediate moment of praying.  Others use the formed prayers of others because they sound and feel meaningful to the ears and hearts of the congregation.  Others feel more comfortable and adequate with impromptu prayer.  Extemporaneous prayer, as you describe, seems to be a combination of those three.  Whichever format one uses in public prayer it should be thoughtful, just like the rest of the worship service.  I agree with you that ministers should never just “wing it,” (even with impromptu prayer).  And if that is the point of your article, that congregational prayer should not be winged, I agree with you.  Thanks again for making us think.

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Thank you for the excellent feedback - and for the spirit in which it was given.

Community Builder

Sam,

Thank you for writing this reflection on the Prayers of the People.  I'm thinking quite a bit about this ministry right now, so I appreciate your thoughts on the topic.  I work hard on my Prayers, as I recognize the importance of them.  I've employed a variety of strategies as I seek to pray for the people and teach them how to pray.  We sometimes have what I call "prayer conversations" at our church, at which time we invite testimonies of thanksgiving and prayer requests.  Then I'll invite the people to pray for any requests they feel called to pray for.  At other times I'll write out my prayers and read out the prayer.  Regardless, one thing I've found very helpful with both forms of prayer: praying the psalms.  I'll almost always read a psalm as a Call to Prayer or use parts of a psalm in the actual prayer--with great blessing. 

Again, thank you for reflecting on public prayer.  A very important ministry in the worship service.

Grace & peace,

Leon

Community Builder

Leon, thanks for the reminder that the Psalms are the best of the formed prayers.  Your comments harmonize with today's reading in the One Year Bible - Psalm 36.  Verses 5-7 offer a great prayer of praise. 

Grace and peace to you,

Sam

This is the other reason I prefer a liturgical worship service - the prayers have been vetted and I know what the sentences

mean. Sometimes I disagree with the theology of the readings that come out of Grand Rapids so I keep my mouth shut. Some of the things I hear/read are more dispensational than Reformed. 

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