Why Use Written Prayers? A Personal Reflection

Scruples Over Written Prayers

Several years ago, my wife Lindsay and I were asked to lead Sunday morning prayer at a church we had only recently joined. The worship leader’s instructions were short and sweet: follow the usual pattern of the church that we had seen over the past several months. We were honored to lead our new church family in such a significant way. This, after all, was the main time in our service where our entire congregation collectively gathered before our God with praise and petition.

Lindsay and I worked hard over the next several days to consider the sermon passage, the various needs of the congregation, any pertinent personal concerns, and the struggles facing the broader community. We crafted separate prayers, and then we worked together to provide a singular written text that we could use during the service. I still remember walking into church that Sunday morning a bit nervous. Leading a service was not new for me. I had been preaching and leading services for several years, and I had a seminary degree under my belt. But something about this moment felt different—even uniquely important.

Cloud of Witnesses

Jonathan W. Arnold, Zachariah M. Carter

This comprehensive anthology combines prayers and petitions of the greatest figures throughout history to bolster the reader’s knowledge of prayer and develop their walk with Christ.

There was nothing particularly special about our prayer. It was thoughtfully written and was personal to our congregation, but for the most part, it followed the model of so many other prayers that had been voiced both in our church and in the numerous congregations across the globe and throughout time. The negative response we received from several in the church caught me completely off guard.

Our incredibly nice fellow congregants were disturbed by the fact that Lindsay and I would read a prayer. They were shocked that we would have written out our thoughts, crafted a prayer with interwoven Scriptures, and (especially) that we edited that prayer over several drafts.

I, on the other hand, had not given that practice a second thought. Nothing about the lead-up to the Sunday morning gathering felt unusual. I had come to faith in a tradition that did not necessarily use written prayers but that also did not find them offensive. In my naiveté, I assumed that because our new church held similar beliefs about “the important” theological issues and came from a similar tradition that we would all be on the same page regarding congregational prayer. It never occurred to me to think differently.

I was wrong.

Thankfully, my fellow congregants were gracious in their critique and even willing to listen to our reasoning for the plan we had followed. Something small but wonderful came from the resulting Christian, grace-filled conversations. But the response never left my mind.

Not long after that Sunday morning service, I came across some historical research I had previously conducted and set aside. There, in the photographs of a church minute book from the seventeenth century, I found a similar response from another Baptist congregation. Separated in time by more than three centuries, that congregation dealt with the same issue—though their discussions were far less friendly. The Baptists in the seventeenth century were concerned about separating from a national church they saw as hopelessly corrupted. Their fears about written prayers fell into two categories: spiritual and personal.

On the spiritual side, they longed for a purity of doctrine that would allow for their particular brand of theology to be taught within the congregation and without obstruction from the government that had demonstrated an all-too-eager willingness to enforce conformity. For those Baptists, written prayers provided by the state church reeked of government overreach and control of matters of conscience. The use of prayers even written by congregational leaders often felt a bit too close for comfort.

On the personal side, the early Baptists were conditioned to be cautious of the individuals they allowed to teach the church. The still-nascent congregational polity called for the church members to name their own pastors (rather than have them assigned by an external authority) and to be responsible for the catechizing of their own people. The early Baptists produced multiple resources—including confessional statements, catechisms, abecedaries (educational primers with clear biblical-theological slants), and sermon collections—that both helped in the spiritual formation process and demonstrated their willingness to use written, or prescribed, forms for theological development. Something about the written prayer, however, stood out in the collective thought of these churches. The reasons for this reticence were myriad, ranging from a desire for authentic (i.e., extemporaneous) interaction with the Holy Spirit to an unwillingness to be unnecessarily hamstrung by previous preparations.

The specifics of these arguments deserve more pointed historical study and can be the subject of other conversations on other days. Whether one agrees with the reasoning or not, the fact that this particular seventeenth century congregation (along with many others) scrupled over the use of written prayers should have alerted me (a student of that era) to the different viewpoint.

In an interesting coincidence, I had been spending my daytime hours reading and transcribing that church minute book only to go home in the evenings to work on that Sunday prayer with my wife. A wiser student of history would have been able to see the warning signs. I, on the other hand, had to learn “the hard way.”

I hope a collection of prayers can be a means for joining the global church throughout time in approaching the throne of grace.

In the years of ministry and (hopefully) spiritual development that have followed, I have returned to both of those scenarios—the seventeenth century church that stood against written prayers and the twenty-first century church that had similar (though less-heated) concerns. I have not dealt with the same concerns personally. Even as I began collecting prayers for use in public settings, I found much comfort in the written prayers of God’s people—whether they be contained in the divinely-inspired texts of Scripture or captured by the pens of fellow disciples who have traveled their journey ahead of me. I still craft written prayers for congregational services—not to be a distraction for others but precisely to help me and those listening to stay focused, to avoid distractions. But I have also experienced the companionship of those throughout church history who, in leaving behind written prayers, have provided words for my thoughts, expression for my feelings, and clarity in the midst of my confusion.

I understand and respect the hesitations that some believers have regarding the use of written prayers—either privately or publicly. I have close friends who fall on both sides of this discussion. My hope in spending the last several years gathering prayers from various ages of the church is simply to provide helpful insight into the life of the church over the several millennia since the closing of the canon. I do not suggest that any of these prayers rise to the level of authority that should rightly be reserved for the God-breathed text of Scripture, nor do I consider disagreements over this issue to be worthy of separation.

For those who can, in good conscience, pray alongside the earlier church, I hope a collection of prayers can be a means for joining the global church throughout time in approaching the throne of grace. For those who, according to their conscience, cannot pray the prayers of the earlier church (whether they be animated in their opposition like that seventeenth century congregation or more calm in their stance like my twenty-first century congregation), I hope that the prayers of the past can still be instructive about the spiritual journeys of others. At the very least, they can provide the reader with a companionship in the midst of life’s struggles.

For believers on any side of that discussion, the prayers of the past constantly remind the believer that they have joined a great cloud of witnesses.

Jonathan W. Arnold is coeditor with Zachariah M. Carter of Cloud of Witnesses: A Treasury of Prayers and Petitions through the Ages.

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