Prayers in Worship

Dear Reader,

While on vacation this summer, we visited a couple of churches which are not so very different from our own but do have some different practices. One of the big ones my kids and I noticed is that they tend to say, sing or read a lot aloud together. Things like the doxology, responsive psalm reading, creeds, and corporate prayers.

It can be very tedious and tiring in a church one is not used to. Since we knew none of their usual things by heart (except the Lord’s Prayer), we were constantly flipping around in bulletins and hymn books to find what we needed. But beyond this, I wonder about the value of a lot of these things.

Reading the psalms responsively does not bother me. I am very pro-Psalm. In our church, we sing only the psalms (i.e. not hymns or praise choruses) and that a capella. [See more on that here.] And I believe that many of the psalms may have originally been sung responsively so I have no problem with this practice.

I have no real problem also with reciting the Lord’s Prayer together. It is biblical and that is good. Though I do question the value of saying it over and over every week. Such things tend to become mindless and it is mindless repetition that Jesus is arguing against when He teaches His disciples how to pray.

The doxology and creeds I usually am willing to  say. There is nothing in the usual ones that I would disagree with. And certainly they have stood the test of time in the history of Christianity. Though I do kind of wonder what the point is. A creed or confessional statement of some kind is a great thing to have on your church website or even in your bulletin for the sake of those who are visiting (something along the lines of “This church adheres to the doctrines of the Westminster Confession” or “the Apostles’ Creed”).  Do we gain much by saying it together weekly though? I hope that if a church does so that there is at least regular teaching on what those things we are saying mean. I suppose we humans are weak and we want things boiled down for us to essentials, but I am struck by the fact that when God gave us what He wanted us to know of Himself, we were left with 66 books, not one concise paragraph.

But of all these things that one that bothered me most was the corporate prayers that are neither taken directly from the Bible nor historic creeds of the church. These tend to be from popular  (not necessarily modern, but ones that have been popular in the church over decades or centuries) books of prayers written by some famous person. They maybe taken directly or edited to suit the context. Either way, they are of human origin. No matter how lovely, no matter if I can’t find anything wrong in them, they are not inspired as the Bible is. They are not God’s words but man’s. So a lot of the problem I have with them is that they are like hymns. They are our words and not God’s and so are fallible. When we say the Lord’s Prayer or recite a psalm, that is God’s word. But this is not true of these prayers. As human creations, they are open to error and criticism. There may be one that I think is wonderful that you find in error or vice-versa. Who is to say which we are to recite or how we are to edit them? (Practically speaking, I would presume the elders of the church do.) What is there is a line in one I disagree with? Should I say it? Skip it? Skip the whole thing? Should the congregation as a whole not say it in the future so as to not offend those who disagree? Just as with hymns, some are lovely and fine and seem to draw me to God. But there are others I don’t like and refuse to sing because they seem to me to contain error or wrong ways of speaking of or addressing God. So who decides? When we sing or speak God’s word, we do not have these problems. I may still disagree but it is my Lord I am disagreeing with and I who needs to change and learn.

With regard to the specific prayers we encountered, I found that they were often used as prayers of confession. I suppose our church too follows a kind of pattern in which every week, sin is confessed, and salvation is proclaimed. In our church, I do not think it is so obvious. But these churches we attended did make it obvious. The congregation would recite one of these prayers lamenting and confessing our sinfulness and then the pastor would proclaim God’s salvation. On the surface, it doesn’t sound bad, does it? But then I wonder if this is how we should be approaching God every week. Do we always need to go back to our sin? The way these prayers were phrased they seem to force us every week to go back to an almost pre-saved state. To speak as one who has not been saved and is still in the midst of binding sin and then once again to be proclaimed free. But though we are still sinners and still need to confess our sins to our Lord, I do not think we need always to be thrown back to our spiritual origins every week. Isn’t that wonder of the gospel, that we are saved forevermore? That we don’t have to go back?

I said that our church does follow a similar pattern. What happens in our service of that our pastor prays early in the service along the lines of “Lord,we confess that we have not done as we ought this week . . . ” And then later in the service he will pray again for specific needs of the congregation and still later will read and expound God’s word. And I will say he is very good to always include the basic message of the gospel call in his sermons though they also contain meat for more mature believers. So there is some sort of movement from sin to redemption. But the sin part is more about lapses this week and does not seem to take us back to that pre-saved place again. We err as Christians if we deny we have sin. But we also err and dishonor our Savior when we focus too much on our sin and not enough on the fact that He has freed us from it.

I don’t know if I am making the distinction very clear here. The churches I was visiting may argue that this is not at all what they meant to communicate in their prayers. But I would counter that this is how it came across to me. And this is why I did not like to say these prayers. And we are back to the hymn problem again. It may mean one thing to me and  another to you. Why should I feel obligated to say words that to me  are incorrect?

You may say that my pastor still prays in service and he is fallible and perhaps what he says may be incorrect. I agree. But when he prays, it is him praying. I am not asked to say the exact words along with him, and to me that makes a big difference. I suppose too I find an inherent difference between a person’s spontaneous prayer and one that is determined ahead of time and printed up in the bulletin.

What do you think? Am I overreacting? What if anything does your church say aloud together?



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