I grew up surrounded by simple spoken prayers. My Southern Baptist grandfather still sprinkled his prayers with thy and thou, but there was a familiarity in his language. They sounded like the King James Bible because that was the Scripture in his heart. From an early age, I learned that God welcomes us to speak and listens to us in our own language—whether it be simple or complex words, poor or Oxford grammar.
Flies on the walls are likely to hear many extemporaneous prayers (spontaneous spoken prayers, like our regular speech) in the dining rooms, sanctuaries, and living rooms where evangelical Christians gather. But there is also a growing trend in evangelicalism of reaching back into the historic tradition to pray using form (or written) prayers.
For some Christians, form prayers (or what some may think of as “liturgical prayers”) may be unexplored territory. Concern about “vain repetitions” (from Matthew 6:7) is a key reason
(though we could probably each recount hearing vain repetition in extemporaneous prayers as well). On the surface, form prayers may appear insincere—as if they aren’t from the heart. Or we may wonder if we are essentially lying to God if we don’t completely feel what the prayer says. “After all,” we ask, “doesn’t God just want me to be myself?”
The Prayer Gym
While it is certainly good to emotionally agree with words in worship, worship also plays a role in forming us as believers into the likeness of Christ. Shauna Niequist is part of The Practice, a weekly gathering led by her husband, Aaron, and his team in the chapel of Willow Creek Community Church, where much of the service follows the Book of Common Prayer. “The driving idea behind The Practice is that the gathering together is not where we receive information,” Shauna Niequist says. “It’s where we actually do the formation.” This idea of worship as formative, as exercise or practice, draws upon the ideas of St. Ambrose, who described the formative nature of the Psalms as “a gymnasium for the soul, a stadium for all the virtues.” When we read, practice, and pray the words of others who have gone before us, we are learning to talk to God.
One helpful way to approach this idea is to imagine the household of faith, past and present, as an actual house. Imagine walking around, seeing the desert fathers and mothers, having tea with Amanda Berry Smith, and listening to Hildegard play the psaltery. This is our house of faith. We benefit from the practices of those who have gone before us because they’ve been there first, building the house. Of course Jesus is there, too, and the psalmists, those named and unnamed lovers of God who articulated so many aspects of the human experience in the 150 form prayers at the center of our Bibles. Ultimately, form prayer is not just a “liturgical,” “Catholic,” “Orthodox,” or “high church” practice. It’s our practice. And it started in Scripture.