A few weeks back I made the suggestion that I was looking for something meaty to post about. But it had to be something that wouldn’t in any way disqualify me from future Presbyterian ministry. Simone suggested I write about prayer in church. I’m sure this was mostly prompted by a comment I made on her blog about a frustration I have about the “quality control” some churches employ when it comes to prayer time.
So here goes.
I think prayer is important in church. That’s obvious. I am in no way diminishing the fact that talking to our heavenly father is an integral part of church life – and must be part of the church service.
Public prayer is an interesting creature. Done well it can be encouraging and uplifting. Done very well it can spur people on to Godly thinking and concern for others – not to mention that faithful prayer is important to the spiritual life of a church community.
Done badly prayer can appear to be nothing more than a press release about the upcoming activities of a church. “We pray for the upcoming dinner socials, we pray for the car wash, etc…”. When prayer points are pulled straight out of the church notices they’re neither informative or insightful – it’s fair enough to pray for the fruit of an evangelistic event, or for an important training event, or in fact to pray for any ministry or event being run by the church in question. But to do it from the notice sheet verbatim is an easy trap for the nervous prayer – and serves nobody.
The other trap I think churches can fall into is forcing (or teaching or instructing) prayers to write down their prayers. Unless you’re a trained reader reading will always sound like reading not like natural speech. It’s unavoidable. Inevitable even. If you’ve got someone reading their prayer it doesn’t matter how well prepared they are – it will sound read. And things that sound read don’t sound like they’re from the heart – and prayer should be (and public prayer should sound) from the heart, not from a script. Especially not from a script that sounds overly honed for the benefit of keeping tight and presentable.
But… I hear you say. “But if people don’t write their prayers down they ramble and umm and ahh and that sounds so ungainly”… well I say “so what”. And if that’s really a problem train people in public speaking rather than get them to write down their prayers. Nobody wants to hear ramble – so train people to pray from points.
When Jesus was teaching his disciples how to pray (ie when he taught them the Lord’s Prayer), and later when he was in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to the crucifixion, there was no mention of putting your thoughts to paper first. He prayed from the heart and with purpose, and subject to God’s will. Those should be the criteria by which we judge church prayers.
I struggle to come to terms with the idea that prayer is like music – and that those serving the body of Christ through prayer should be as prepared as the musician or the preacher. I know where the intention comes from. I too am a pragmatist. But I don’t think there’s anything worse for outsiders than praying to our living God in a stilted, unfeeling manner – a manner I think is encouraged by insisting on scripted prayer.
That is all. Next time I feel the need to write something that will make people angry I’m going to pick on church music. Sacred cows are fun topics.