Why Use Written Prayers?
Why Use Written Prayers?*
Why do you need prewritten prayers? Among Evangelical and Charismatic Christians, and most nonliturgical Churches, reactions to liturgical aspects of worship and prayer vary greatly from intrigue, to delight, to bewilderment, to straight-up scoffing. When someone who worships from these backgrounds attends a traditional liturgical worship service, where precomposed prayers are utilized, the general reaction is “Why? We have the Bible; we have the Spirit. Why do you need prewritten prayers? That’s kind of an old, outdated way to worship God.” The assumption is that only extemporaneous or spontaneous prayers are truly spiritual or genuinely from the heart.
Three Preliminary Considerations:
It is important to consider a few points at the outset.
First, the Bible itself is written and is old and cannot be altered via an extemporaneous or spontaneous urge or so-called spiritual impulse.
Second, the hymns we use in Church, which invariably have deep spiritual and emotional significance for individuals, are prewritten and not composed immediately during a worship service.
Third, churches will weekly distribute a bulletin that indicates what people will be doing at specific points during the service; this is essentially a prewritten order of worship. Spontaneity or extemporaneous involvement would create a chaotic scene. Regardless as to whether a particular church hands out a bulletin or not, the order of worship is going to be the same each week.
What one can see, then, is all Christians in all churches use prewritten, non-extemporaneous elements in their order of worship.
What one can see, then, is all Christians in all churches use prewritten, non-extemporaneous elements in their order of worship. As a matter of fact, if one is attentive while attending these nonliturgical churches that do not use prewritten material, one will notice much of the so-called spontaneous involvement is quite similar, identical in fact, from week to week.
19 Reasons Why We Use Written Prayers
The following will attempt to explain some of the reasons behind liturgical prayer aimed at people with little or no (positive) experience with it, though ideally it will also be an encouragement to those already versed in such tradition. I will give lists of reasons for various aspects with (hopefully) brief explanations. We will look first at written prayers or, that is, prewritten prayers. Many people have a hard time seeing why someone would ever want to repeat prewritten prayers as a significant part or any part of one’s devotional life.
Here are a few thoughts, though by no means exhaustive:
1. They teach us how to pray:
Most people learned to write by copying letters printed in a book or even tracing over them. We learned math by repeating times tables over and over until they were automatic. Using written prayers works in the same way. We “trace over” the prayers of the Saints, and over time, they become a part of us.
Written prayers solve the dilemma of what to say while praying
2. They prime the pump:
Written prayers solve the dilemma of what to say while praying. Instead of staring off into space or daydreaming during our prayer time, we can prime the pump using written prayers to get us started.
3. They remind us what we ought to pray:
When left to our own devices, we could easily pray only for that which immediately concerns us, kind of like a tyranny of the urgent, only in prayer. As C. S. Lewis says, “The crisis of the present moment will always loom largest. Isn’t there a danger that our great, permanent, objective necessities, often more important, may get crowded out?”
4. They infuse our prayer life with rich biblical and theological content:
My own spontaneous prayer can only possibly be filled with whatever biblical content I have in retrievable memory and am able to string together into coherent sentences on the fly. Praying on my own is then dependent upon the reservoir of the biblical knowledge I am able to recall, which is rather limited and, as C. S. Lewis remarked, in danger of quickly dispersing into “wide and shallow puddles.” Written prayers make instantly accessible a rich depth of content in prayer without requiring the least bit of ingenuity on my part.
Written prayers make instantly accessible a rich depth of content in prayer without requiring the least bit of ingenuity on my part.
5. They connect us to the wider church, both geographically and historically:
I can pray in unity with believers all over the world and throughout history by praying the same words with them.
6. They are time tested:
Of course, not all are, but many written prayers in historic liturgies are over a thousand years old. These have stuck around for reasons that are well worth exploring.
7. They are short and stay focused:
Precomposed prayers help people engage the mind with those prayers compared to the rambling or stream-of-consciousness extemporaneous praying that so often occurs when one person prays for a long time. So many topics are covered in no organized or coherent fashion that it is nearly impossible to stay connected. The other people attempting to pray often zone out because they cannot keep track of what is going on. Written prayers are shorter and to the point. They are unified around a coherent theme and with a specific objective. This helps either an individual or a group connect and agree with them.
8. They spare us from narcissism (i.e., idolatrous idiosyncrasy):
We naturally gravitate around our pet doctrines, ideas, passions, and concerns. We are certainly entitled to them. However, when we only entertain and accept our own premises, we are moving onto dangerous ground. If prayer only bears the mark of my uniqueness, it may keep me locked up in the bubble of that same uniqueness. Written prayers call us out beyond the confines of our limited understanding and perspective to a participation in the thoughts, issues, and concerns of the wider Church.
9. They are easy and accessible:
No spiritual acumen is needed, no special experience, talents, gifts, anointings, or education—simply the ability to read. You can be a complete novice in prayer or a veteran believer who is overwhelmed with frustration concerning their prayer life and instantly access an incredibly rich prayer life. Written prayers are for everyone and accessible immediately.
No spiritual acumen is needed, no special experience, talents, gifts, anointings, or education. . .
10. They are unifying:
Because they are so easy and accessible, they can be immediately unifying for people of all different levels in experience of prayer. Everyone is on an equal playing field. There are no prayer experts who must lead the way as the novices sit in befuddled silence. All engage, all participate, all are one.
11. They help us relax:
It is remarkable how much anxiety people have about what and how they pray and worship, especially in public. With written prayers, all you must do is say the words that are already given to you, with no other expectations. In other words, you can spend less time worrying about what you are going to say, what other people are going to think about it, how to have a really good prayer, and so on and focus your energy on actually praying and connecting with God.
12. They teach us grace:
This is ironic considering the frequent accusations of written prayers being stiff and too formally religious. Written prayers teach us that prayer is about God and not about our effort. Many people try so hard to have a prayer life and feel so defeated. The Church’s treasury of written and liturgical prayer is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. It is sheer grace that we can have such an easy entry point into prayer of unspeakable wealth and depth. Thus, prayer is not so much about how disciplined, spiritual, discerning, passionate, or contemplative we are; it is about God’s grace freely given to us, who are in such desperate need.
Written prayers teach us that prayer is about God and not about our effort. Many people try so hard to have a prayer life and feel so defeated. The Church’s treasury of written and liturgical prayer is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. It is sheer grace that we can have such an easy entry point into prayer of unspeakable wealth and depth.
If that is not compelling enough, specifically prewritten prayers:
13. Pre-Written Prayers Provide a Solid Structure for Worship:
Originally, the purpose of using written prayers was to create a basic order for worship and prayer. This can be seen as far back as the early Church, and the very terms and phraseology of the majority of written prayers and the liturgies of which they are a part are, for all intents and purposes, taken verbatim from the Bible. The traditional core elements of the order of worship, which are deemed spiritually essential, were confession, thanksgiving, communion, and so forth. Some contemporary Christians use the acronym CATS, which stands for confession, adoration, thanksgiving, and supplication.
Originally, the purpose of using written prayers was to create a basic order for worship and prayer.
14. Pre-Written Prayers Allow for Common Prayer:
The close-knit relationship of Christians in the early Church was predicated upon the concept of corporate unity or solidarity. Unfortunately, our Western culture is so fractured that religion in general and Christianity in particular are viewed as being highly personal and private matters. The early Church knew nothing of this mindset. In many instances, there were numerous prayers prayed collectively, together, and as the minister presiding would end the prayers specifically or the service as a whole, the congregation would jointly offer a resounding “amen.” To participate in a worship service where one would come to sing a few hymns or songs, sit for thirty to sixty minutes to listen to a sermon, and offer up their own individual “spontaneous” private prayers without including the entire congregation is completely and totally unknown in the early Church conception of worship. This understanding of worship was not accepted, for the most part, until the latter part of the twentieth century.
To participate in a worship service where one would come to sing a few hymns or songs, sit for thirty to sixty minutes to listen to a sermon, and offer up their own individual “spontaneous” private prayers without including the entire congregation is completely and totally unknown in the early Church conception of worship.
15. Pre-Written Prayers Allow for Real Freedom of Worship:
Often, one preparing for a worship service or even personal, private devotions will struggle to develop or create an appropriate prayer spontaneously. There is difficulty in knowing where or even how to begin, how to focus on specific cares or concerns, or how to even express what is in one’s heart. Prewritten prayers eliminate that lack of structure in one’s thinking. In practice, having this type of structure prevents aimless wandering and constant repetition of certain words or phrases because one has no idea what to truly say and provides more, not less, freedom.
If you are a parent, I am certain you have heard that children need structure. Structure sets guidelines and boundaries and allows the child the freedom to explore their individuality while knowing their limits. Or, if you prefer, think of a football game. You have rules, sidelines, the back of the end zone, yard and hash marks, yet look at all that takes place within those boundaries. What would happen if the teams simply showed up for a game on Sunday and spontaneously did whatever they felt like doing? Other than the comedic value of watching such a keystone cop routine, there would not be much real excitement or fun, if we happen to be on one of the teams. This is what liturgical, prewritten, established patterns allow. Within these confines, worship is, if one is truly worshiping from a heart-based faith and not merely going through the motions, incredibly meaningful, profoundly biblical, and deeply moving spiritually.
In practice, having this type of structure prevents aimless wandering and constant repetition of certain words or phrases because one has no idea what to truly say and provides more, not less, freedom.
16. Pre-Written Prayers Connect Us to the Past and to the Wider Church:
Traditional churches experience something that more contemporary devotees of nonliturgical worship experience, and that is transcendent connection through time and space. When we invoke prewritten prayers, and together, as a congregation, when we participate in these prewritten prayers, we are not only joining with our brethren in the pews around us, not only Christians all around the world (connection), not only with the historical Church throughout the centuries (time and space) who recited the very same prayers, but we are joining with the “cloud of witnesses” (transcendent) all around us in heaven.
When praying prewritten prayers, we are not being “lone ranger” Christians or spiritually isolating ourselves in our own private religious experience in the pew.
Imagine, you can pray the very same prayer that one of the early Church martyrs prayed when he worshiped, to say nothing of praying exactly what Jesus prayed. When praying prewritten prayers, we are not being “lone ranger” Christians or spiritually isolating ourselves in our own private religious experience in the pew. We are enjoying the true fellowship that Christians have, in Christ, exceeding our own specific time and place. We connect back and up and anticipate the forward connection that Christians will have with us in the future when they participate in these same rewritten prayers. And if that does not take your breath away, when you pray prewritten prayers, you are joining Christians in Africa, Asia, South America, Russia, and so on. You are joining billions of Christians reciting the Lord’s Prayer, Agnus Dei, or the Sanctus—Christians of all races and social classes.
17. Pre-Written Prayers Are Time Tested:
This almost falls under the category of ‘really, Captain Obvious?’ One of the reasons prewritten prayers are with us today is because their theology has stood the scrutiny of theological rigor. They are theologically orthodox. They succinctly present the theology of the Bible. How many times has one been to a nontraditional church that doesn’t use prewritten prayers and listened to someone go on and on and on and on with virtually no substantive theological content, repeating the same few phrases over and over, “Dear Lord, we, dear Lord, love You so much, dear Lord. Father God, you cannot, Father God, be contained in all the universe, Father God.” Well, you get the point. That is not meant to hurt anyone’s feelings as they attempt to sincerely express their devotion to the Triune God of the universe. It is simply to point out what many have experienced and one of the pitfalls of eschewing prewritten prayer.
One of the reasons prewritten prayers are with us today is because their theology has stood the scrutiny of theological rigor. They are theologically orthodox. They succinctly present the theology of the Bible.
18. Jesus Gave Us a Set Form for Prayer:
Jesus Himself gave us a prayer to pray. It came directly from the Temple/synagogue worship service (see below) when His disciples asked Him how they should pray. Notice Jesus did not say, “Hey, all that old, formal praying stuff is old hat. God is your copilot; He’s your friend, your buddy, ole pal. Just say whatever comes to your mind from your heart when you’re in a worship service.” Jesus’s model for prayer is a form, showing the value of this type of prayer, and though critically important for the devotional life of a Christian and the intent of the Christian in worship, spontaneous prayer from the heart is limited in its function in a worship service.
19. Pre-Written Prayers Are Scriptural:
Though last on the list, this point is probably the most crucial. . .
Though last on the list, this point is probably the most crucial; after all, who cares whether a prayer is spontaneous or prewritten if it is unbiblical or theologically in error? Prewritten prayer, as mentioned previously in point “17,” is time tested and comes to us, in the majority of instances, from centuries of the combination of use privately and in liturgical worship.
The liturgy of the Jewish community, the heritage of all Christianity, is steeped in a mixture of prewritten prayer tested, as it were, in liturgical worship. Jewish ritual was heavily dependent on prewritten prayers. The Aaronic Benediction (not to mention the Psalms) is said by many nonliturgical ministers:
The LORD bless you and keep you; The LORD make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; 26 The LORD lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace. (Num. 6:24–26, NKJ)
This benediction was to be recited verbatim as the blessing the priests were to give, a prewritten prayer directly from God.
This is the pattern Christian worship follows for the reasons mentioned earlier in the book. These prayers, taken directly from the Bible, allow the Christian to directly pray the Bible. And even when they are not taken directly from the Bible, they are based on biblical themes with biblical symbolism.
These prayers, taken directly from the Bible, allow the Christian to directly pray the Bible. And even when they are not taken directly from the Bible, they are based on biblical themes with biblical symbolism.
Once again, this is not to dismiss spontaneous prayer out of hand. Having experience with prewritten prayers, one will begin to think with a certain structure and cadence so that even when one prays spontaneously, it will sound as if it were prewritten. This gives rise to true spontaneity and freedom.
As stated, anything can be misused, spontaneous prayers or prewritten prayers, but the misuse of something does not negate the truth or original benefit of it. It is not the fault of prewritten prayers that they can and have been misused.
*The preceding material is taken from: Fr. Paul A. F. Castellano, As It Is in Heaven: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Introduction to the Traditional Church and Her Worship, Appendix C: 277-286.