Christianity 201

September 17, 2017

Sunday Worship

While worship – acknowledging the worth of God – should be part of our everyday lives, we tend to do this best in a corporate setting. While we began this series saying that worship is more than just music; more than what we sing; we often forget that in that same corporate setting, we can ascribe worth to God, along with his majesty and greatness and power, in the words we pray.

This begs the question: Should those words be planned or spontaneous? While the terminology may differ if you’re taking a course in public speaking, rhetoric, debate, etc., in The Church we usually speak of extemporaneous worship vs. liturgy. So in prayer we’re talking about prayers which are generated on the spot, as opposed to those read from prayer books, from the prayers found in the Bible itself, or prayers simply written in advance.

Although the context is slightly different, I’m often drawn to this verse in this debate:

What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.
-1 Corinthians 14:15 ESV

While I’m sure there is much to find online about the negative aspects of spontaneous prayer — “Well, uh, Lord we just want to tell you and Lord we just want to ask you from the bottom of our hearts that, um, well, Lord… I just forgot what I was going to say…” — there are times when prayers simply overflowing from a heart of both gratitude and devotion are exactly what is needed.

But instead, we want to focus today on the positive aspects of perhaps planning to use something which has been previously written. This is a small part of an article by David Bennett at the website Ancient and Future Catholics. Click the title below to read the entire article.

Objection: Why Do You Pray Using a Book

1. Written Prayers Provide a Solid Structure for Worship
The original intention of using written prayers was to provide a basic order for worship and prayer. This basic order can be traced back to the earliest church, and the words and phrases of most written prayers and liturgies (such as you may encounter in a Catholic or Orthodox Church) are practically lifted verbatim from the Bible or the writings of saints. The traditional order of worship includes the spiritually necessary parts of a worship service: confession, thanksgiving, communion, etc.

2. Written Prayers Allow for Common Prayer
The early Church was a tight-knit community. Today, thanks to Western enlightenment values, many tend to view Christianity as a highly personal matter. The early Church did not. Therefore, they often prayed many prayers together, and always would offer an “amen” after the presider said his words. The idea that everybody comes to worship to sing a few songs, hear a sermon, and pray their own spontaneous prayers that do not include the entire assembly is foreign to early Christian ideals, and was not a generally accepted way of worshipping until the latter half of the 20th century.

3. Written Prayers Allow For Real Freedom of Worship
(See # 1) I remember trying to piece together something for morning devotions, asking myself continually, “where in the heck do I start?” This became a bigger problem as I would spend more and more time just wandering during my private prayer time. Once I discovered the written forms of Morning and Evening Prayer, I found that having the structure actually gave me more freedom. Instead of wandering aimlessly, lacking any focus, I had a structure to work within. Keep in mind, written prayer forms allow for plenty of spontaneity, if not more, than structure-less prayer. Think of it like a football game. There are structures and rules…but…think of how much excitement is allowed within the structures! If we showed up to a field every Sunday and just acted spontaneously, we would rarely have as much fun as playing football, because the form of football is a proven, fun game. In the same way, liturgical form worship is proven, meaningful, and biblical worship, where a whole lot of cool things happen.

4. Written Prayers Connect Us to the Past and to the Wider Church
When we pray written prayers together, we are doing so with billions of past and present Christians. Thus, when praying written prayers we are not spiritually isolated within our own region or time period. Instead we are saying prayers that have been faithfully said throughout history. We are praying with Africans, Asians, Europeans, etc, and not just those of our same culture. Think of how many people have recited the Lord’s prayer, or the Agnes Dei, or the Sanctus. The number is certainly in the billions and includes peoples of all races and classes.

5. Written Prayers Are Time-Tested
Most well-known written prayers, including those used during Mass by Catholics, Orthodox, and some Protestants, are time-tested because of their theological orthodoxy and clearly-stated themes. I have been in many non-liturgical churches, and sometimes the spontaneous prayers are so long and rambling that I wish the pastor had written down something! Sometimes they are so theologically thin that they seem so sickly and superficial when compared to great prayers of the past.

6. Jesus Gave Us a Set Form For Prayer
When Jesus taught us to pray, he gave us what has been traditionally called “The Lord’s Prayer” or, more commonly in Catholic circles, the “Our Father.” When Jesus gave his disciples this prayer, he gave them a useful form, which they could use and build from. He did not say, “when you pray, simply speak to God like you’re his best buddy, and say whatever comes from your heart.” While spontaneously speaking to God from the heart is very important, Jesus’ model for prayer is a form, showing the value of this type of prayer.

7. Written Prayers are Scriptural
Liturgical prayer, that is, prayer mixed with ritual, is firmly rooted in ancient Jewish worship. Ancient Jewish worship was not only strikingly ritualistic, but relied heavily on written prayers (for example, the Psalms). Christian worship follows in this pattern. Catholic worship even regularly integrates a Psalm (or similar canticle) into daily and weekly prayer services and Masses, usually sung, as in ancient Hebrew worship. This shows that many written prayers used in Catholic worship are taken directly from the Bible! Thus, written prayers allow a person to “pray Scripture.” Many written prayers that are not directly taken from the Bible are nonetheless full of biblical themes and symbols. Thus, far from being unbiblical, written prayers are probably the most biblical prayers available.

Does this mean there is no value to spontaneous prayers? Of course not! While written prayers are good for a variety of reasons, their use does not exclude made-up prayers. In fact, having a written form as a basic structure allows one real freedom to be spontaneous. Yes, written prayers can be misused, and are often said by people who don’t believe them, but this is hardly the fault of the prayers themselves. Spontaneous prayers can be misused as well. So why not give written prayers a try?

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