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Objection: Why Do You Pray Using A Book?

I.e., Why Do You Use Written Prayers?

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This is a common objection those in non-liturgical churches direct at those who worship in liturgical churches. When a Christian who is used to worshipping spontaneously walks into a liturgical church, the use of mostly written prayers seems foreign, "canned," and even probably non-Christian. "Why does a person need a book to pray anyway?" many ask. "Why do you need pre-written prayers?" Praying from a book seems like a cop-out to certain Christians, since they assume that God wants extemporaneous prayers. Before we explain why written prayers are actually good things, let's examine the written aids that non-liturgical Christians unknowingly use all the time, thus showing that it is not just liturgical Christians who use "canned" materials:

The Bible: Written during a span of over 1000 years, the Bible is an old, written document that cannot be added to with spontaneity. It always stays the same!

Hymns: Unless we spontaneously make up hymns on the spot, we have to rely on the written words someone else gave us, whether in a hymnal, power-point projected on a screen, or even memorized.

Bulletins and Predefined Service Structure: Every week many churches hand out a bulletin, or follow a general order of worship. Why? They do this because they believe that they have a form/order of worship that is especially suitable for worshipping God. Even if a church does not have a written bulletin, the order of services is generally the same from week-to-week.

Thus, all Christians use some written and non-extemporaneous elements in their church services. Every pastor integrates stories into his sermons that someone else made up. In fact if you really paid attention some week, even in spontaneous churches, you'd see a lot of the same type of "spontaneity" happening every week, at around the same time.

I have just shown that even non-liturgical Christians use some set forms, including written ones, on a regular basis. Of course, this is a good thing. Why should a person alter a bulletin if the worship order contained therein is Godly? Are forms and patterns themselves evil? Certainly not! Now, let me discuss why using traditional, written prayers, like the kind many Catholics often use, is a good idea.

1. Written Prayers Provide a Solid Structure for Worship
The original intention of using written prayers was to provide a basic order for worship and prayer. This basic order can be traced back to the earliest church, and the words and phrases of most written prayers and liturgies (such as you may encounter in a Catholic or Orthodox Church) are practically lifted verbatim from the Bible or the writings of saints. The traditional order of worship includes the spiritually necessary parts of a worship service: confession, thanksgiving, communion, etc.

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2. Written Prayers Allow for Common Prayer
The early Church was a tight-knit community. Today, thanks to Western enlightenment values, many tend to view Christianity as a highly personal matter. The early Church did not. Therefore, they often prayed many prayers together, and always would offer an "amen" after the presider said his words. The idea that everybody comes to worship to sing a few songs, hear a sermon, and pray their own spontaneous prayers that do not include the entire assembly is foreign to early Christian ideals, and was not a generally accepted way of worshipping until the latter half of the 20th century.

3. Written Prayers Allow For Real Freedom of Worship
(See # 1) I remember trying to piece together something for morning devotions, asking myself continually, "where in the heck do I start?" This became a bigger problem as I would spend more and more time just wandering during my private prayer time. Once I discovered the written forms of Morning and Evening Prayer, I found that having the structure actually gave me more freedom. Instead of wandering aimlessly, lacking any focus, I had a structure to work within. Keep in mind, written prayer forms allow for plenty of spontaneity, if not more, than structure-less prayer. Think of it like a football game. There are structures and rules...but...think of how much excitement is allowed within the structures! If we showed up to a field every Sunday and just acted spontaneously, we would rarely have as much fun as playing football, because the form of football is a proven, fun game. In the same way, liturgical form worship is proven, meaningful, and biblical worship, where a whole lot of cool things happen.

4. Written Prayers Connect Us to the Past and to the Wider Church
When we pray written prayers together, we are doing so with billions of past and present Christians. Thus, when praying written prayers we are not spiritually isolated within our own region or time period. Instead we are saying prayers that have been faithfully said throughout history. We are praying with Africans, Asians, Europeans, etc, and not just those of our same culture. Think of how many people have recited the Lord's prayer, or the Agnes Dei, or the Sanctus. The number is certainly in the billions and includes peoples of all races and classes.

5. Written Prayers Are Time-Tested
Most well-known written prayers, including those used during Mass by Catholics, Orthodox, and some Protestants, are time-tested because of their theological orthodoxy and clearly-stated themes. I have been in many non-liturgical churches, and sometimes the spontaneous prayers are so long and rambling that I wish the pastor had written down something! Sometimes they are so theologically thin that they seem so sickly and superficial when compared to great prayers of the past.

6. Jesus Gave Us a Set Form For Prayer
When Jesus taught us to pray, he gave us what has been traditionally called "The Lord's Prayer" or, more commonly in Catholic circles, the "Our Father." When Jesus gave his disciples this prayer, he gave them a useful form, which they could use and build from. He did not say, "when you pray, simply speak to God like you're his best buddy, and say whatever comes from your heart." While spontaneously speaking to God from the heart is very important, Jesus' model for prayer is a form, showing the value of this type of prayer.

7. Written Prayers are Scriptural
Liturgical prayer, that is, prayer mixed with ritual, is firmly rooted in ancient Jewish worship. Ancient Jewish worship was not only strikingly ritualistic, but relied heavily on written prayers (for example, the Psalms). Christian worship follows in this pattern. Catholic worship even regularly integrates a Psalm (or similar canticle) into daily and weekly prayer services and Masses, usually sung, as in ancient Hebrew worship. This shows that many written prayers used in Catholic worship are taken directly from the Bible! Thus, written prayers allow a person to "pray Scripture." Many written prayers that are not directly taken from the Bible are nonetheless full of biblical themes and symbols. Thus, far from being unbiblical, written prayers are probably the most biblical prayers available.

Does this mean there is no value to spontaneous prayers? Of course not! While written prayers are good for a variety of reasons, their use does not exclude made-up prayers. In fact, having a written form as a basic structure allows one real freedom to be spontaneous. Yes, written prayers can be misused, and are often said by people who don't believe them, but this is hardly the fault of the prayers themselves. Spontaneous prayers can be misused as well. So why not give written prayers a try? While not ceasing to pray spontaneously, try adding some written prayers to your normal prayer routine, and see if you can't make these classic prayers your own as millions of faithful Christians have already done. I tend to think of written prayers like singing a favorite song. How many times do you crank up the radio and sing along to your favorite songs? Sometimes these songs are pretty old, yet we still sing them. I still sing along to Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" with the same gusto as I did when I first heard it 10 years ago. It is even the ring-tone for my mobile phone. Ultimately good songs' ages don't matter, so long as they are good, solid, songs. The same is true of written prayers.

Last Updated 05-28-2009

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