Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.
My goal in this series of articles is to equip the members of Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church to worship God intelligently on Sunday and also to help visitors understand the biblical and theological rationale for our form of corporate worship. In this article I will discuss set or fixed congregational prayers–that is, printed prayers prayed in unison by the congregation. The question I want to answer is a very common one: Why does the congregation sometimes use printed, pre-composed prayers? Isn’t spontaneous, free prayer more spiritual?
The Heavenly Pattern
Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying: "You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; For You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created" (Revelation 4:10, 11).
Jesus taught us to pray "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6:10). He thereby established heaven as the pattern for what is done on earth. (Actually, this pattern is symbolized in many places in the Old Testament, beginning in Genesis 1:1-2.) This is especially the case with regard to worship. Surely the manner in which worship is conducted in heaven functions as a model for the church on earth. When the Apostle John was privileged to observe heavenly worship, he saw an orderly, formal service performed by angels, living beings, and the twenty-four elders (the precise identity of each of these is not our concern here). They alternated responses antiphonally. They sang hymns in unison. They fell down together (no doubt, a prearranged liturgical action), and they jointly recited a prayer of praise and thanksgiving that must have been pre-composed and memorized. How else would they have all prayed simultaneously? Here, then, we have a biblical model for corporate Lord’s Day prayer in our worship services.
An Unwarranted Assumption
Consider the manner in which the question is often asked. Even though the question is often put in these terms, "Why does the congregation read these prayers?" as if they were merely reading them, it is important to note that the congregation does not merely read these prayers, they pray them. One could just as well question the manner of praying at another church where the pastor does all the praying from the pulpit: "Why does that congregation merely listen to the pastor pray throughout the service?" That would not be fair. The very way in which the question is put prejudices the case from the outset. Presumably, a congregation is able to pray with the pastor while he prays. The same ought to be true when the congregation recites prayers. Certainly the congregation is able to do more than merely recite these prayers. They can make the written prayer their own. They can pray sincerely. In fact, I believe, practically speaking, that it is easier to pray sincerely when one actually takes up a written prayer on one’s lips, than when one merely listens to another person pray. It’s much easier to daydream when one is listening to another pray than when one concentrates on praying a printed prayer.
The Road To Rome or Canterbury?
Isn’t this the kind of thing Roman Catholics do? All this talk about responses and printed prayers seems more Episcopal, Lutheran, and Catholic than Presbyterian. Yes, Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopals practice similar forms in their worship services. So what? Does that make it wrong? Roman Catholics and Episcopals kneel for prayer; does that make kneeling dangerous or wrong? I always chuckle a little inside whenever I call the congregation to worship on Sunday morning using Psalm 95: 6, "Oh, come let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our maker." And then, what do we do after I read these words? We stand up! Why don’t we kneel in worship like the Bible directs? I suspect that one of the reasons is that we are afraid that we might look like Roman Catholics or Episcopals. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a pitiful reason for not obeying the Bible. Reformation churches knelt for prayer. It would have been hard for them to conceive of any other posture for prayer (besides standing, of course). Nobody sat for prayer. Calvin and Luther would have been baffled at our arrogant refusal to practice what the Bible instructs merely to avoid being identified with another branch of the church, however wrong that church may be about other doctrinal matters.
The fact that Catholics and Episcopals practice congregational and responsive praying may indeed make such practices suspicious in our eyes, but we must be careful not to define how we ought to worship primarily in reaction to what Rome or Canterbury does. We might very well end up throwing out the baby with the bath water, which has been done all too often in the history of Protestant worship. It may be helpful to review briefly the liturgical renewal of the sixteenth century Reformation and the rationale behind it.
The Reformation and the Priesthood of All Believers
One of the central intentions of the sixteenth-century Reformers remains virtually unknown in many of our churches today. The reformers to a man, especially Luther and Calvin, sought to correct the late medieval distortions of worship by restoring congregational participation. The late medieval mass was hardly a congregational worship service at all. The service was said in Latin, which very few laymen understood. There was virtually no congregational participation in the service beyond watching the visual "performance" by the priest at the altar. The bread (supposedly) transformed into Christ’s real body held up for the people to adore was the climax of the mass. The people almost never partook of the communion elements; only the priest ate and drank. There were no congregational prayers or singing or recitation of the creeds. The congregation merely watched and listened. They were largely passive. As individuals they may have performed private devotions completely independent of what the priest was doing up front, but as a community they did not participate in the liturgy.
To the Reformers this was a gross distortion of biblical and early church (2rd-5th century) worship practices. One of their greatest achievements was to restore intelligent, unified participation by the body of Christ in worship. They transformed the people from uncomprehending observers of the worship of the sacrificing priests into an active royal priesthood. Calvin, echoing the early church fathers, insisted that each Christian bears the exalted title of sacrificer, and therefore has a rightful place in the offering of praise and prayer in the liturgy. It is not the priest alone who has access into the heavenly sanctuary, but rather every member of the body of Christ has heavenly access into God’s throne room on the Lord’s Day. In the New Covenant there are no degrees of nearness (as there were in the Old Covenant), but every worshiper is a "saint," that is, one who has sanctuary access.
This, of course, is the great Reformation principle of the priesthood of all believers. The principle manifestation and evidence of the reality of this fundamental truth takes place during corporate worship as the whole congregation participates in offering to God prayer and praise. The congregation prays, praises, and communes with God. The pastor does not worship for them as a proxy; the people worship as the pastor leads them. Thus, the Reformers restored many of the pre-medieval practices of the post-Apostolic church. They intentionally sought to recover what has been called "Old Catholic" forms of worship while bypassing the distortions of medieval Roman Catholic liturgical rites. The Reformers restored frequent communion. They all sought to reintroduce weekly communion at every Lord’s Day worship service. They all effectively revived preaching and teaching so that the people could be instructed by God’s Word at least every week. They all brought the recitation of the creeds by the congregation back into the worship service. They all rediscovered the inspired Psalms as the prayer- and hymnbook of the Church.
Moreover, congregational singing was resurrected and became one of the hallmarks of Reformation worship. Calvin discusses music and singing under the heading of prayer. The people were taught to sing the Psalms in corporate worship, since the Psalter is the prayer book of the Bible. All the Reformers wrote model liturgies and prayers for use in the churches. This revival of congregational prayer was based squarely on the priesthood of all believers, which demanded that the people participate in the prayers and not just listen to them. In fact, the liturgies of the Reformers, Calvin included, were much more fixed than we modern Americans would feel comfortable with. The point I am trying to make here, though, is that congregational praying of pre-composed prayers, either spoken or sung, has a long and venerable history in Reformation churches and ought not to be jettisoned merely because they are not familiar forms to twentieth century American Presbyterians.
Exposing an Absurd Objection
Back to the main issue: What about pre-composed prayers recited by the congregation? I often hear a complaint that runs like this: "How can I pray what someone else wrote? These words are being ‘forced’ on me. They are not coming from my heart and so I should not be made to pray them. I am against all forms of liturgies that are imposed on the congregation. They put the Spirit in a straight jacket." This kind of objection is often sincere and well meaning, but (to be frank) it is easily reduced to absurdity.
If the only prayer that a participant in the congregation can pray during a worship service is one which comes spontaneously from the individual worshiper’s heart, then, first of all, congregational worship as such is ruled out. People must do things together in congregational worship. The people of God gather together as a community, to offer unified prayer and praise to the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. If all prearranged liturgies and prayers per se are impositions on the individual worshiper’s freedom, then the only thing left is for everyone to gather and worship the Lord spontaneously as individuals. (This radical "free" worship is fundamental to Quaker worship.) But even then you run into trouble. If worship must be free in the sense that no external forms are allowed whatsoever, then no one, not the pastor, nor anyone in the congregation could ever be allowed to impose any form on anyone in congregation, except possibly if a unanimous vote was taken each time a suggestion was made. To press a little more, someone would have to determine the time to begin the service and this would be an artificially imposed regulation that would shackle the Spirit’s freedom. Some people many not be ready to worship at 9:00 A.M.! Why restrict their freedom in the Spirit?
We must be clear on this point. If one objects to pre-composed prayers because one believes they unnecessarily bind the conscience of the believer to a particular form, then logically one must also reject all hymns, all prayers spoken by the pastor, and, indeed, any order of service whatsoever. If pre-composed spoken prayers are a hindrance to the spontaneity of the Spirit, then so are pre-composed sung hymns! After all, hymns are prayers, pre-composed prayers. Singing is just a heightened form of speech, glorified and beautified speech. Not many people ever really think clearly about this. There is really no fundamental difference between a congregational prayer recited in unison by the people and one that is sung in unison by the people. Make no mistake about it, hymns are pre-composed prayers of praise or petition written (usually) by someone outside of the congregation and "imposed" on the people by whoever prepares the bulletin. These hymns (to continue our reductio ad absurdum argument) then become an imposed, alien form which stifles the freedom of the Spirit and hinders all heartfelt spontaneity. Logically, one would also be forced to reject all prayers by the pastor as well, since the pastor’s prayers are nothing but an external form of prayer imposed on the congregation. I think you get the point now. Formal prayer is not necessarily the same as formalism.
Corporate Prayer in the Bible
Pre-composed prayers are Biblical. This practice is not merely some leftover from Roman Catholicism. Our use of set prayers is very self-conscious. The historical church got the idea from the Bible, particularly the Psalms and the book of Revelation, but not exclusively so. The Old Testament is filled with examples of how the saints used set forms of prayer to confess and praise God (Ezra 3:10; Neh. 12:24; Psalm 136). David appointed Levites to compose prayers and songs to be used in the corporate worship of Israel (I Chron. 6:31-48; 15:16-24; 16:4-6; 25:1-5). These prayers and songs were then preserved for corporate use by the Israelites during their weekly and annual worship services (Lev. 23). Moved by the Holy Spirit, David himself composed prayers for corporate and individual use (I Chron. 16:7). Do not miss my point. The Holy Spirit moved David to compose and preserve for posterity a corporate prayer book for the saints. David in his Spirit-guided wisdom appointed Spirit-filled men to compose a songbook / prayer book for the people to aid them in their public as well as private worship.
The Psalm titles, contents, and structure all witness to the fact that they were used primarily by the community of faith in corporate worship. Just scanning through the Psalms one finds that many of them begin with words like "A Psalm for the Sabbath Day" (Ps. 92) or "To the Chief Musician: A Psalm of the sons of Korah" (Ps. 47.) The content of many of the Psalms also witnesses to their intended use in public worship: hymns of praise (Ps. 95, 145-150), community confessions (Ps. 78, 105, 106, 135) and psalms to be sung as the people ascend to Jerusalem for worship (Ps. 120-134).
Notice the many references to specific postures of worship within the Psalms (Ps. 5:7, Ps. 63:2-3, Ps. 95: 6, "O come let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker"). Even the very structure of the poetry supports its appropriateness for responsive and antiphonal recitation and singing in worship. They were written for congregational recitation and singing. Their structure testifies to the fact that the Spirit composed them to be recited and sung responsively or antiphonally in congregational worship (Neh. 12:24). Psalm 136 is an obvious example, cast as it is in the form of a litany.
So, when we use the Psalms in worship, whether we are reciting them in unison, reciting them antiphonally or responsively, or whether we are praying them by singing them, by so doing we are following God’s appointed forms of worship. Furthermore, when we include in the service Psalm-like prayers to be said by the congregation in unison, we are seeking to follow biblical guidelines that enable the congregation to participate together as a community in the activity of worshiping the Lord.
These kinds of prayers also help to guide and train the congregation in the art of biblical praying. We don’t "naturally" know how to pray. The fact that one is a Christian does not guarantee that he will know how to pray. There is a silly myth that goes pretty much unchallenged in American Evangelicalism that worship comes "naturally." As someone has nicely put it: "Christians have to be taught everything from how to study the Bible to how to love their wives, husbands, and children. But when it comes to worship, evangelicals are nervous about someone teaching them prayers, chants, and even a set form of worship. Worship is supposedly the one thing that every living, breathing Christian automatically does the right way." This is a myth, a dangerous myth. When I look at the Bible I see all kinds of instruction and forms given to help us learn how to approach the King of Kings properly. Coming into God’s presence is different from anything else we do, and it is one of the most difficult activities we do.
Consider what we discover when we look into heaven and see how worship is conducted there. Lo and behold, we hear prayers spoken or sung in unison by great throngs of people and angels (Rev. 4 &5). Notice that heavenly worship is conducted with set prayers and responses. How else would they all know what to say and when to say it? The saints triumphant pray responsively and antiphonally in concert with the angels. Remember that Jesus taught us to pray "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Earthly congregational praying ought to be modeled on heavenly congregational praying!
The Usefulness of Congregational Prayers
Finally, summing up our argument so far, pre-composed, congregational prayers are a very valuable aid to worship. How so? First, we don’t know how to pray, and pre-composed prayers can help train our minds to pray biblically. Good prayers guide us and assist us in composing our own prayers, both with respect to content and structure. Almost all the phrases from all the prayers that we use in our worship come right out of the Bible. Thus, ultimately, we are praying God’s Word. There are biblical ways to pray, and these pre-composed prayers, used consistently, will help you learn how to pray. Surely that’s the reason why so many prayers are recorded for us in the Bible. These prayers offer the worshiper guidance and direction, oftentimes by utilizing the language and structure (order of prayer) lifted right from the Bible itself.
Second, prayers sung or said in unison manifest the unity of the church in prayer. We all pray together as the corporate body of Christ, not just as a bunch of individuals. Corporate worship is not designed merely as an aid to each individual’s devotions. We don’t come into church to worship merely as individuals with our own private tubes to God. We come together as the body of Christ, and as the body of Christ we confess our sins, pray, and praise God together. The Spirit re-creates us into a community.
Third, printed prayers insure congregational participation in the prayers. Remember worship ought not to be something you come to watch or hear, rather you come to perform worship yourself. Think about this: it is very difficult to get distracted when you are saying a prayer out loud. It’s hard to do anything else but pray the prayer. A set prayer insures your participation and guards against your mind wandering.
Now, sure, someone could merely read the prayer. It is possible that a recited prayer could become rote (= a reading mechanically recited from memory without understanding). This kind of routine, rote reading of prayers would happen much more readily if we used the same prayers over and over again; but we don’t. We vary the prayers from Sunday to Sunday. In fact, there is very little danger of mechanical, unthinking routine or rote recitation in our church. Not only do we vary the printed prayers we use from week to week, we don’t even use pre-composed prayers every Sunday! Nevertheless, when everything is said and done, I submit to you that it is much more difficult for your mind to wander when your attention is focused on reading and saying a prayer that you are holding in front of you than it is when you have your eyes closed and are merely listening to the pastor pray. Let’s face it: it’s very difficult to concentrate on praying when someone else is saying a long prayer.
Fourth, no church can avoid prayer rituals altogether. You either have good prayer rituals or you have bad ones, helpful or dangerous ones, but it’s impossible to be free from all forms in a church’s corporate prayer life. Congregations that never use prayer books or set prayers, nevertheless, do develop, sometimes unknowingly (which is unfortunate), certain habits with respect to praying. You know very well what happens when there is no guidance or direction to the prayers. Prayers become tedious: "I just want to thank you, Lord. . . and I just want to ask. . . and I just want. . ." Or they become trivial and down right silly: "O Lord, help us to be all that we can be" (the Army Prayer) or "Lord, help us to reach out and touch somebody this week" (the AT&T prayer).
Now, of course, we don’t have to use all kinds of pretentious words and grandiose phrases in order for our prayers to be acceptable to God. I’m not trying to put down anyone’s prayer merely because it is not as well structured and manicured as someone else’s. God is pleased with the meager and unsophisticated prayers of his people, just as he is pleased with a young child’s. But here’s the important point: if the child never grows up and learns how to pray biblically, if the content of his prayers remain the same, then it’s not so cute anymore. God may be pleased with a childlike prayer, but he is not satisfied with it either. He expects us to grow up and learn how to pray like adults, to conform our prayers more and more to the models He has given us in the Scriptures.
Some churches never get beyond praying for sick people and saying grace at the table. That’s fine as far as it goes, but have you ever noticed that the Bible doesn’t contain a whole lot of prayers for sick people and pretty much assumes that we know how to give thanks for our food? Again, I’m not talking here about a fancy, flowing style. My concern centers on the content of the prayers: confession of sin; thanking God for creation and providence; thanking God for the person and work of Christ; praying for strength in the midst of temptation; praying that His kingdom would be protected from all its enemies and extended throughout the world. These are petitions that do not come "naturally" to us. We need to be trained. Printed, set prayers help to discipline and educate us. They help us to grow up and pray like mature Christians.
Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.
Jeff Meyers [contact him] is the pastor of Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church in Saint Louis, Missorri. He has been ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America since 1988. After college and serving as an officer in the U.S. Army, Jeff attended Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Jeff later earned his Master of Sacred Theology (S.T.M) and is currently completing his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary. He has a personal blog page called Corrigenda.
Jeff is also the author of The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenantal Worship, a practical pastoral guide to worship that introduces readers to the application of Old Testament sacrificial liturgics, biblical typology, and covenant theology.