Most who pray publicly do so extemporaneously.
As an example and one from whom we can learn much, I commend Thomas Cranmer’s collected and written prayers known as Collects.
Though I am not mandating we move towards written prayers, I am encouraging us to think about the form and content of what we pray corporately. We not only manifest what we believe but we model our response to God through prayer. There is something to the statement: “lex orandi, lex credenda,” What we pray reflects what we believe. (Some add lex vivendi, so that it means, “how we worship reflects what we believe and how we live”.)
A Collect is both a “gathering of the people together” and also “‘collecting up’ of the petitions of individual members of the congregation into one prayer.” More specifically, “A Collect is a short prayer that asks ‘for one thing only’ and is peculiar to the liturgies of the Western Churches. It is also a literary form (an art comparable to the sonnet) usually, but not always, consisting of five parts.” (From C. Frederick Barbee and Paul F. M. Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], ix-xi).
- The Address: The invocation is primarily addressed to the Father.
- The Acknowledgement: This gives ‘the foundation of doctrine upon which our request is made.’ It reflects some quality of God related to that which we shall be asking Him in the Petition: His power, His grace, His transcendence, His mercy. In a few cases, however, what is acknowledged is our weakness or frailty or sinfulness.
- The Petition: Here is the actual prayer concerning basic needs: cleansing, forgiveness, protection, guidance, comfort, holiness, love.
- The Aspiration: Though not appearing in all Collects, this is introduced by the conjunction ‘that.’ As an example, pardon and peace are desired so that we may be better fitted for God’s service. Pardon and peace are not an end in themselves but there is an even higher aspiration.
- The Pleading: ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Christ is our only mediator and advocate. Through Jesus alone we draw near to the Father. The pleading historically contained the doxological words, “who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.’
For an example, consider the Collect for Purity (Communion).
- Almighty God,
- unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid,
- cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit,
- that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name,
- through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Tim Keller learned a great deal about praying publicly from reading Thomas Cranmer’s collected written prayers known as Collects. In fact, from the form/structure used by Cranmer, Keller began to follow a similar format as he considered his own public praying, which generally consists of the five parts listed above.
Evangelicals often conclude that extemporaneous prayers are more godly and spiritual than written prayers. There certainly is a place for extemporaneous praying. But it is not the only kind/type of prayer. In particular, when the people of God gather during a corporate worship service, it is worthwhile to give careful thought and prayer to the corporate prayer during the service. Written prayers can be dead, but so can extemporaneous prayers. Both can also be living and full of life and truth. The written prayer helps you to be purposeful and intentional in your praying. We certainly don’t expect the pastor to preach the sermon extemporaneously, neither should be approach corporate prayer any differently.
One of the ways I helped pastoral interns in this area is that I asked them to write out their prayers when they would pray corporately during the worship service. It was not a discipline that was necessary/required to do always for the rest of one’s pastoral ministry days. But it is a good discipline to learn to think through the prayer so that it is centered on God in all his Trinitarian fullness, faithful to the Scriptures, and pastorally sensitive to the people. That ought to remain central in one’s pastoral prayers, whether or not they are written out.
Cranmer’s outline/structure for prayer has been instructive and helpful for me personally, and in how I think through modelling for others corporate prayer.
A few questions:
- What does your corporate praying communicate about prayer?
- How do you approach corporate prayer?
- How do you teach/instruct elders and/or others to pray corporately?