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The summer seminars I help to lead often provide fodder for this blog. That was the case last month after a seminar in Colorado. And it is true now again following last week’s seminar “Addressing God: How Preachers Encourage Vibrant Prayer.” Neal Plantinga and I led a terrific group of 16 pastors in a week-long reflection on a variety of preaching-related topics, always with an eye toward a central thesis of this seminar: viz., how preachers pray in public worship services has a shaping effect on how everyone else prays the rest of the week.
As liturgical scholar Gordon Lathrop once noted, prayer is probably the only element of Sunday worship that is portable. Outside of a worship service, most people don’t sing many hymns, don’t hear sermons, don’t give offerings, don’t listen to choirs, don’t see baptisms or participate in the Lord’s Supper. Those are mostly Sunday-only events. Prayer, on the other hand, happens all the time with the number of prayers spoken outside of church on any given week hugely dwarfing the number offered in worship. So what shapes all of those many non-church prayers? Well, many things no doubt but surely a key influence is the nature of the prayers people hear in worship.
Across church history prayers in worship have come from a spectrum of sources. Some traditions insist that only pre-written, pre-approved, formalized prayers be used in public worship. Praying, it was thought, is too important to do ever and only off the cuff or to be left to the whims of those who may or may not have thought carefully about how to pray. Prayers had best be prescribed. On the other end of the spectrum, of course, are traditions that use only the extemporaneous prayers of the pastor or of whatever lay leaders may offer prayers in church. In between those two extremes are, of course, a large variety of other options, including those who combine formalized prayer rubrics with off-the-cuff embellishments and riffs or prayers composed by a worship committee or others in leadership in a given congregation.
When it comes to offering prayers in public worship services, there are finally no hard or fast rules as to whether the prayers must be composed ahead of time or offered up in the moment. But the history of the church does suggest that all who lead the congregation in prayer can and should keep in mind certain guideline principles that can lend a shaping effect to the prayers of God’s people. What follows is a very incomplete list of ideas generated by our seminar group last week as things pastors and other worship leaders would do well to bear in mind.
Language: Taking a cue from C.S. Lewis and his thoughts on both preaching and praying, perhaps the verbal register one should shoot for is what Lewis called “the elevated vernacular.” The words one offers in prayer are not at the level of the casual banter one may share with friends while eating at Panera. But neither should the language be so lofty and purple as to sound downright unnatural in its overly formalized attempts at eloquence. Somewhere in the middle is the verbiage and vocal intonations of everyday speech but ratcheted up a notch or two that conveys also a sense that this is important and thoughtful speech, not throwaway talk.
Reverence: A number of seminar participants noted that in recent decades–in an effort to make the church less stuffy and more accessible to outsiders–language on a number of fronts has gotten so casual that also in prayer, it could appear that the person praying was less approaching the majestic God of all holiness and more slapping a chum on the back and saying “How’ya doin’?” No, the person leading in public prayer need not try to evoke some exaggerated sense of a Mount Sinai-esque holy terror. But neither should the grace-saturated privilege of being allowed to approach God and call him “Father” be trifled with as though it were no big deal. Again, somewhere in between being terror-stricken and being buddy-buddy casual is probably a good place of reverential tone to aim for.
Capaciousness: Too many prayers offered in public worship never rise much above the level of what is printed in the bulletin. There seems to be no concerns worthy of prayer beyond the stained glass windows in the sanctuary. A colleague of mine some years back visited four different churches in the month following the terrible tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan. Not one of those four churches ever prayed for Japan or its people. Not once. In last week’s seminar we took a look at examples of some of the earliest public prayers of the church from the 4th and 5th centuries. What was striking about the prayers was how broad and inclusive and capacious they were. Prayers were offered for every conceivable job and vocation. Prayers were offered for people nearby and very far away. Prayers were offered for travelers, for those on the road on upon the seas. Prayers were offered for kings, queens, princes, princesses, potentates and leaders at every level. Prayers were offered for commerce and agriculture, for agreeable weather and opportune rains, for new Christian believers and for old ones, for those struggling against heresy and those contending for orthodoxy. The whole wide world, in short, was encompassed by the prayers of the people in public worship. Do we still strive for this today?
Kingdom Perspective: N.T. Wright has observed that when Jesus taught his disciples how to pray by giving them what we now call the Lord’s Prayer, he was not merely giving them a model template. Jesus was revealing his own heart. The prayer Jesus gave displayed how he viewed the world and his deepest desires for that world. It was finally all about that kingdom of God that Jesus talked about all the time. The more we pray to the one we call Father, the more we need to see the world from the Father’s perspective. It is a place where God’s will must be done. It is a place of both lofty spiritual concerns like the hallowing of God’s Name and of earthy everyday concerns like having bread to eat. It is a place of grace and forgiveness but a place that daily contends also with temptation and evil in a still-fallen world. By praying we are supposed to start seeing the world and its people–including all of its most vulnerable people–the way Jesus saw it all, which was the way his Father saw it all.
We say “prayer changes us” but too often we mean that in a kind of privatized sense that MY spirituality and MY piety might see an uptick. But the change prayer brings is about so much more than that–it involves our perspective on the whole world.
“Teach us to pray” the disciples once asked. It is a request to Jesus that the rest of us should never stop asking.