Most pastors carefully prepare and deliver their sermons. They commit hours to study. They develop outlines, even manuscripts for each sermon. Some even practice delivering their sermons in empty sanctuaries.
Most worship leaders carefully prepare and deliver for their songs and sounds. They select and rehearse music. They craft visual components to accompany their songs. They complete thorough sound checks.
Yet, many of those same pastors and worship leaders choose to wing their prayers. Not all of them, of course. Some utilize the centuries old tradition of formed prayers. They borrow and read the prayers of others or write and read their prayers. Others prepare outlines for their prayers, documents that often include inspiring phrases borrowed from brothers and sisters in Christ.
Outside of those exceptions, the rest seemingly opt for impromptu or unprepared prayers.
Throughout my life of corporate worship I have heard three types of impromptu prayers, one of which is miraculous prayers of the Holy Spirit or glossolalia. Those prayers, accompanied by interpretation, are amazing. The second I can only describe as the prayer of those with the gift of prayer. When these gifted Christians pray, their words sound like intimate conversations with the Lord. They pray as friends of God. Their prayers bear marks of reverence and familiarity, sincerity and confidence. They are laced with Scripture. As I write those words I think of Pastor Arnold Dykhuizen. His prayers had a way of lifting you to heaven where you overheard a conversation between two great friends. Incredible. I wish I could pray like him and, perhaps, some day, with the help of the Holy Spirit, I will reach that goal.
The third and most popular type of impromptu prayer prompts this blog. Like all prayers, this type of impromptu prayer may be characterized by sincerity, humility and confidence. Unlike the first two types, these impromptu prayers are also characterized by one or more of the following: meaningless repetitions, biblical illiteracy, theological shallowness, poor grammar, and thematic confusion.
I am not writing to critique such prayers, though I find much in them to criticize, especially when offered by those invested with the incredible responsibility of leading God’s people in worship.
I write to ask with this question: Why do most pastors prepare their sermons and most worship leaders prepare their songs, but some of those same individuals choose not to prepare their prayers? Why do they opt for impromptu prayers marked by the maladies just listed?
One reason may be an assumption that impromptu prayers are more spiritual than prepared prayers. This conviction has roots in seventeenth-century England where an intense debate took place over worship. In short, the Free Church tradition protested the ecclesiastical mandate to use formed prayers in the Book of Common Prayer. Free Church proponents insisted, among other things, on the practice of free or impromptu prayer, believing that such prayers allowed for the free movement of the Holy Spirit.
The Welsh pastor-theologian Martin Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981), a more recent proponent of impromptu prayer, wrote these words in his commentary on Romans 8:15-17: “It is very interesting to notice that as men and women know less and less about a living spiritual experience, the more formal does their worship become… This is because of the low level of spirituality. Conversely, when people come to a living experience of God they rely less and less upon forms.”
The seventeenth century debate in England produced two distinct approaches to public or liturgical prayer, each of which is with us today: prepared or formed prayers and impromptu or free prayers. Surely one may list the benefits of both approaches to prayer but such an approach assumes the viability of both approaches – an assumption many in the free prayer tradition are unwilling to make. They simply assume that impromptu prayers are more spiritual than prepared prayers. Hence, they choose to wing their prayers.
Could it be that those among us who have intentionally chosen to offer impromptu prayers during our Sunday services believe that such prayers are more spiritual than prepared prayers? I hope not for if that be the case, many of our most respected saints are not too spiritual.
Like some in the formed prayer tradition, I write not to question the validity of the free or impromptu prayers. That’s the provenance of our Triune God. Plus, there is a time and place for impromptu prayers. Instead, I write in an effort to understand why so many pastors and worship leaders choose to prepare sermons and songs but also choose to offer impromptu prayers.
That choice seems inconsistent. Both pastors and worship leaders work hard to deliver biblically rooted and theologically sound sermons and songs. They seek poetic prose and memorable lyrics while minimizing meaningless repetition and grammatical lapses. Yet, their impromptu prayers often fall far short of those standards. Why this inconsistency? Shouldn’t we expect pastors and worship leaders to offer prayers that meet the same standards they establish for their sermons and songs?
Anticipating a resounding “Amen,” I propose an alternative to formed or impromptu prayers. I label this option “extemporaneous prayer.”
I credit Quinten Schultze for my use of the word “extemporaneous.” In his An Essential Guide to Public Speaking, Schultze notes that extemporaneous speeches combine “careful preparation with sensitive adjustments,… solidly organized content with flexibly expressive delivery.” The result of this preparatory work is “an extended sentence outline” (69).
Similarly, I suggest that extemporaneous prayers combine careful preparation with sensitive adjustments and that those who offer extemporaneous prayers prepare an extended sentence outline. This outline may include scriptural citations, key phrases, short quotations, and a list of intercessions and petitions. Such an outline will minimize meaningless repetitions and poor grammar, and maximize, biblical illiteracy, theological shallowness, poor grammar, and thematic confusion.
So, three options for those who have the great privilege of leading public prayers. We can go with formed prayers, impromptu prayers, or extemporaneous prayers – as well as any combination of the three. If you are a pastor who prepares your sermons, I encourage you, more often than that, to prepare extemporaneous prayers. If you are a worship leaders who rehearses your songs, I encourage you, more often than not, to prepare extemporaneous prayers.
In the end someone may ask, “What difference does it make?” On one hand, it doesn’t make any difference to the Lord, our High Priest. He is willing and able to forward our prayers to the throne of grace where we receive mercy and find help in our time of need. On the other hand, I believe it makes a difference to the gathered community who hears our prayers – and who long to deepen their prayer lives. In my experience, I have learned that those who pray for the people shape the prayers of the people. Public prayers tutor the faithful. When the apostles overheard Jesus prayers, they asked the Lord to teach them how to pray like he prayed. Wouldn’t it be great if the people who hear our prayers asked us to teach them how to pray?
Dr. Sam Hamstra, Jr. is an Affiliate Professor of Worship and Director of the Master of Arts in Worship program at Northern Seminary.