Saturday, September 05, 2015

High Impact Worship: Does It Matter How We Pray?

This article is a revised and updated version of an article that I originally posted in 2010. 

By Robin G. Jordan

One argument I have heard in favor of so-called non-liturgical worship is that same prayers are not used week after week. They are different every week. Since the Episcopal Church put me off the bus thirteen years ago, I have been worshiping most Sundays with what are sometimes described as non-liturgical churches. All of these churches have been new church plants in different stages of development. They included an Assembly of God church, a United Methodist church, a Southern Baptist church, and a non-denominational church. I have been exposed to a variety of supposedly non-liturgical services. They have ranged from what may be regarded as moderately traditional to very contemporary.

One thing that I have observed that has been lacking in these services has been prayer. The Assembly of God service began with what is known as a “worship set,” a medley of contemporary Christian and praise and worship songs. During this worship set or at its conclusion a worship leader sometimes offered a brief prayer. While there were some variations in wording, this prayer generally followed the same pattern week after week. The opening songs set up the focus of the service—the sermon. At the conclusion of the sermon the preacher usually gave an invitation, followed by a brief prayer for those who might be giving their lives to Christ. Here again there were some variations in wording but this prayer also generally followed the same pattern every week. Soft instrumental music was sometimes played under the prayer and the prayer was sometimes followed by a special song. After a final song the preacher dismissed the congregation. He sometimes offered a brief prayer or gave a benediction or just told the congregation, “Have a great week. See you all next Sunday.” Like the two other prayers the closing prayer or parting benediction showed some variation in wording but they followed an invariable pattern. This was also true of the whole service. There occasionally were variations in its format but it pretty well followed the same pattern week after week.

The United Methodist service incorporated several liturgical elements and traditional hymns and contemporary Christian and praise and worship songs were interspersed between these elements. Consequently, the service was classifiable as moderately traditional. The liturgical elements included the Gloria Patria, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and sometimes a general confession, Scripture reading, a unison reading, or a responsive reading. The United Methodist service had two focuses—the sermon and Holy Communion. The church had regular weekly communion except when the pastor was absent. As for prayer the Word part of the service included a pastoral prayer. This prayer generally followed the same pattern every week, incorporating the weekly prayer requests and concerns of the congregation. An invitation followed the sermon and after the invitation the pastor prayed for those who might be making a decision for Christ. This prayer was brief. Like the pastoral prayer, it followed a regular pattern.

The Sacrament part of the service included a prayer before the Communion, a brief thanksgiving after the Communion, and a closing prayer or parting benediction. What I describe as “a prayer before the Communion” might on occasion be a prayer for worthy reception. It might be a Prayer of Consecration. It might be an exhortation of self-examination. It might be what the Lutherans call the “verbum”—the Words of Institution with a brief introduction. This was the most variable part of the service. The post-Communion thanksgiving and the closing prayer or parting benediction followed a regular pattern with minor variations in wording from week to week.

This service was well attended, young folks as well as older people. The hymns that were sung were largely traditional and were not modern English versions of traditional hymns but the traditional hymns themselves. Contemporary Christian and praise and worship songs were also popular with the congregation. The congregation sung the hymns and the songs with equal enthusiasm. The Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer were traditional. The Psalms that formed the bulk of the responsive readings were traditional. The service convinced me that a traditional Prayer Book service, if it was pared back to its essential elements and combined with an eclectic blend of the best of traditional and contemporary music, inspiring preaching, readings from a contemporary translation of the Bible, a friendly, welcoming congregation, and a creative Children’s Ministry, would not necessarily be a liability to a new church plant.

Among the factors that should be considered in any decision to use a traditional Prayer Book service is how great a disconnection with the community would its use create. The congregation’s preference for a traditional Prayer Book service should be the last consideration if it is a consideration at all.

A traditional Prayer Book service is more likely to put off first time worship visitors when it was overly-long due to extraneous prayers and devotions and fussy ceremonial. The readings come from an older translation of the Bible. The quality of the music, preaching, and Children’s Ministry is poor. The congregation is standoffish and does not gladly receive visitors.

The service of the Southern Baptist church began with an opening song, followed by a brief prayer and the worship set. The latter put the congregation in the right frame of mind for the service’s focus—the sermon. An invitation followed the sermon, after which the pastor prayed briefly for those who had accepted Jesus as their Savior and Lord. He then prayed quietly with those who had come forward to kneel on a prayer bench at the front of the worship area. During this time a soloist usually sung a special song. The pastor then invited any announcements, praise reports, and prayer requests from the congregation. He either offered a brief prayer or he called upon someone in the congregation or the worship team to offer a prayer. He usually called upon someone from the same small group of people. A final song, usually a reprise of an earlier song, was sometimes sung, and then the pastor dismissed the congregation. The prayers followed a regular pattern that varied with the individual offering them. There was some variation in wording.

The worship gatherings of the non-denominational church with which I am presently sojourning are very contemporary. They usually begin with a worship set, which may include a brief prayer offered by the worship leader. The worship set and sometimes a video clip, an interview, or a dramatization set-up the focus of each gathering—the sermon. The sermon is followed by an invitation, which combines an invitation, mini-sermon, and a prayer. A gathering may close with a final song and a simple dismissal or the pastor may dismiss the congregation after the invitation. Here again the prayers follow a regular pattern with some variation in wording.

The kind of ex tempore prayers that I have heard during my sojourn in the last two churches, not only in the services but also at other gatherings such ministry team ”circle-ups” and small group meetings have followed a regular pattern with each individual pray-er having his own distinctive pattern. Some prayers have obviously been heartfelt. Many have been perfunctory. Many contain frequent repetitions, for example, “Father God…., Father God….., Father God…..” A few are long-winded. The pray-er goes on and on and on. Some prayers come out in a breathless rush and then the person runs out of words. Others are marked by hesitancy and pauses, as the pray-er struggles to find the right words.

The pattern of worship that I observed in the supposedly non-liturgical churches has been described as the “new Protestant liturgy.” Liturgy, after all, is any particular form according to which Christian worship is conducted. It need not include set prayers. The origin of this worship pattern is traceable to two sources. One is the revivals and camp meetings of the nineteenth century. The other source is far older: it is the ancient cathedral office of Lauds from which the Anglican service of Morning Prayer is derived. This may surprise readers.

The ancient cathedral office of Lauds consisted of praise, followed by prayer and in some communities a homily. At the Reformation Scripture readings were added to the morning office. Eventually a sermon would also be added.

While Scripture reading and prayer is largely absent, the “new Protestant liturgy” basically follows the same pattern. Contemporary praise and worship songs and rearranged hymns and gospel songs have replaced the canticles, office hymns, and Psalms.

A similar worship pattern was discernible in charismatic praise and prayer meetings in the 1970s and 1980s.

The “new Protestant liturgy” is not as far removed from Prayer Book worship as we might think.

A number of the more recent service books, for example, the Anglican Church of Canada’s Book of Alternative Services (1985), the Church of England’s Common Worship (2000), the Church of Ireland’s The Book of Common Prayer (2004), and the Diocese of Sydney’s Common Prayer: Resources for Gospel-Shaped Gatherings (2012) make provision for alternative patterns of worship for the use of congregations when the services of Morning and Evening Prayer and Holy Communion do not meet their needs in their particular circumstances. These alternative patterns of worship basically follow the order of Morning Prayer—praise, proclamation, and prayer. This is also in essence the pattern of the “new Protestant liturgy.” These service books essentially permit the development of localized liturgies and provide guidelines for their development. The worship that I described earlier in this article is also a form of localized liturgy.

My point is that while we may view this worship as non-liturgical and the congregations and pastors of the churches worshiping in this way may view it as non-liturgical, it may be classified as liturgical because it involves a repeated pattern from worship gathering to worship gathering. The distinction between liturgical and non-liturgical worship is an artificial one.

I have yet to run into a church that changes its worship pattern completely for every gathering. People are able to tolerate a repetitive pattern with variations far better than they are a different pattern at every gathering.

While the congregations and pastors of the churches whose worship I have described do not view their worship as ritualistic, they are actually engaging in a ritual, doing the same thing in a particular situation and in the same way with permissible variations each time. Where it differs from the ritualism observable in Anglo-Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches is that it is not associated with a particular formula and ceremony. Attention is not focused upon the performance of the ritual in a particular way with implication that if it was done differently or improperly, the result would be a negative outcome. It is ritualistic in so far as it involves a repetitive way of doing things. It is not ritualistic in the sense that how something done is what brings about the desired outcome. The latter has a close affinity with magic and witchcraft.

Far from being a recent innovation the pattern of worship that is observable in these churches has roots not only in the worship of the New Testament Church and the post-apostolic Church but also the worship of the Old Testament. The pattern of praising the deity, recounting stories related to the deity, and offering petitions, sacrifices, and supplications to the deity is also discernible in the other religions of the ancient world. It may be an archetypal way in which human beings have approached the divine. At least one recent study suggests that human beings are hardwired for worship.

Does ex tempore prayer in so-called non-liturgical worship offer more variety—a different prayer every week? I believe that is highly debatable. There has been a sameness to the prayers week after week in the so-called non-liturgical services that I have attended even though they may not be exactly the same prayer.

Is ex tempore prayer more “spiritual”? This is also debatable. The Holy Spirit inspired the set prayers used in liturgical services. If the reader of the prayer is a believer and has the Holy Spirit and dips the prayer into the prayer of his heart and reads it from the heart, the Holy Spirit is speaking through that prayer. Even if he does not, the Holy Spirit is not prevented from speaking through the prayer.

Are the hymns and songs that we sing in a service less spiritual because they have set lyrics? They, after all, are prayers (albeit some may take the form of exhortations or professions of faith).

Do our stumbling efforts to pray extemporaneously mean more to God as some pastors argue in support of ex tempore prayer? The same pastors are quick to point out that God looks at the heart, not outward appearances. What matters to God are not the words of the prayer but the attitude of the heart.

This biblical truth is also applicable to those who pray with set prayers. It must also be pointed out that our Lord participated in the worship of the Temple and the synagogue. This included the singing of Psalms and the recitation of prayers. Both the Psalms and the prayers had set words.

Whether ex tempore prayers or set prayers should be used in our worship ultimately boils down to personal preference. A number of the traditional Prayer Books make provision for ex tempore prayer in addition to the texts of the services, as do most of the more recent service books. They also make provision for silent prayer.

To make liturgical worship more meaningful in the twenty-first century, we need to strip away all the clutter—the extraneous prayers and devotions—that has accumulated in the order of service that we use each Sunday and reduce it to its briefest essentials. We need to take advantage of any provisions for ex tempore and silent prayer but at the same time not let this prayer replace the clutter that we have removed. We need to do away with the fussy ceremonial and strive for a “noble simplicity” in our worship.

What makes a real difference in Prayer Book worship is a congregation that prays outside of Sunday worship and which prays the liturgy from the heart. The congregation does not go perfunctorily through the motions of worshiping God but uses the liturgy to voice its own prayer. Other key ingredients are enthusiastic congregational singing and Biblically-sound, inspiring preaching. Together they will breathe new life into Prayer Book worship. Liturgical services need not be dull and lifeless. In future articles in this series we will examine in depth the various ways that Prayer Book worship can be made more vibrant. 

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