In the free worship tradition, almost nothing is as frowned upon as the idea of prayers that are read or planned. These are seen as the embodiment of vain repetitions, and a clear sign of dead formalism and mindless liturgicalism. For years, I thought that unrehearsed, spontaneous, off-the-cuff prayers demonstrated how very real our connection with God was. We spoke with Him as we would anyone else in the assembly. The thought of planning a prayer seemed to me to be some form of fakery, like a boy who finds out what the topic of his impromptu speech is to be and prepares beforehand.
For all my pride in our spontaneity, Tozer’s words did seem to represent my experience.
“We of the nonliturgical churches tend to look with some disdain upon those churches that follow a carefully prescribed form of service, and certainly there must be a good deal in such services that has little or no meaning for the average participant—this not because it is carefully prescribed but because the average participant is what he is. But I have observed that our familiar impromptu service, planned by the leader twenty minutes before, often tends to follow a ragged and tired order almost as standardized as the Mass. The liturgical service is at least beautiful; ours is often ugly. (A.W. Tozer, God Tells the Man Who Cares.)
Tozer’s words resonated with me, partly because of how empty most public prayers that I heard were. The typical recipe was: a few stock phrases, some effusive words of praise, the Lord’s name repeated like a verbal hiccup, plenty of “we just wanna” and “I pray that” and finished off with the mumbled evangelical incantation, “injeeznameamen”. No wonder then that minds wander during prayer, when there is little to interest or grip the hearers.
When I first heard public prayers with some thought and planning involved, I was tremendously challenged. My impiety in prayer was exposed to my own heart. My slovenliness in addressing God during public worship was revealed. I was gripped by the importance of leaders modelling right responses to God in their prayers. I began to see that preparing to pray might be a serous task. R. Kent Hughes got my attention when he wrote, “Next to preaching, I spend most of my preparation time on prayer.” (R. Kent Hughes, “Free Church Worship: The Challenge of Freedom,” in Worship by the Book, D.A Carson, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 175.)
At the same time, I seldom lean towards reading a prayer. Spontaneity in prayer is important, because worship must involve responses to God’s revelation, not all of which can (or should be) rehearsed. Reading another man’s prayer may work for some, but it can feel like reading another man’s sermon. All true, but not part of the man who reads it, and the lifelessness is often apparent to the ones listening. As Horton Davies said, “Free prayers, under the guidance of a devout and beloved minister who knows well both his Bible and his people, have a moving immediacy and relevance that set prayers seldom attain.” How do we strike a balance between soulless reading and mind-numbing informality?
Several writers have given good advice on the topic. Many of them encourage familiarizing oneself with prayers contained in books like Valley of Vision, Book of Common Prayer, and Hughes Oliphant Old’s Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Ministers. Unless your conscience is troubled at the idea of listening to recorded prayers, there can be value in listening to the prayers of another, from time to time.
The best ‘practice’ for public prayer is private prayer. Praying intelligently in secret will certainly show up in public. Being full of Scripture and Scriptural prayers is crucial. For an extended pastoral prayer, it can be useful to outline some points for the prayer.
Since corporate prayer is said into the ears of both God and the congregation, we have a responsibility to both worship and teach. That requires some thought and planning.