Q. I worry that when I lead the congregation in prayer I often use language that sounds like cliché. My skills with words don’t match my desire to lead people with imagination and fervor. What can I do?
A. Here are three modest suggestions. First, prepare to lead in prayer by writing your prayers out. Extemporaneous or spontaneous prayers often leave us to rely on the same phrases and expressions. For example, we might pray, “Be with our missionaries. Be with our friends. Be with our families.” Writing a prayer out forces us to think about our language and avoid language that is nearly meaningless because of overuse. Even if you leave your script behind and offer the prayer without notes, this exercise will challenge you to use fresh language. Second, rather than starting from scratch, prepare for prayer by adapting a prayer from the Psalms or from a classic source like The Book of Common Worship (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993; also available from CRC Publications, 1-800-333-8300). Make the prayer fit your situation by personalizing the language and referring to particular needs and concerns in your congregation. This will provide you with both the strength of time-tested language and direct relevance to your congregation. Third, use word pictures in your prayer rather than just abstract language. For example, instead of “Lord God, you are great and loving,” try “Lord God, you are greater than the tallest mountain, more caring than the truest friend.” Vivid images engage the imagination of worshipers and help to move them out of what one worshiper called “worship on automatic pilot.”
Q. I notice that a lot of our songs are prayers. Yet I don’t think that most worshipers see them that way. What can we do about this?
A. Good point. First, make sure that any spoken introductions or labels in a printed order of service call attention to the function of the music. Change labels like “hymn” or “anthem” to “sung prayer of confession” or “sung prayer of intercession” to indicate how that music functions in worship. Second, pair spoken and sung prayers. For example, you might say, “Our congregational prayer today will begin with a spoken prayer led by Deacon Smith and conclude with our singing ‘Be Thou My Vision,’” or “Our prayer of confession will begin with silence and continue as we sing quietly ‘Create In Me A Clean Heart.’” This will help worshipers experience these songs and hymns as prayers.
Q. What in the world is a “collect”?
A. A collect, often pronounced COL-lect, is a short form for prayer that has historically been used to conclude a time of individual prayer. In other words, it is a prayer to gather together or ‘collect’ individual prayers into one unified prayer of the church. Its name comes from its function.
But the name is more often associated with a particular form for prayer. The collect features a tight logical structure that includes these parts: a name for God, praise for an attribute or past action of God, a petition, and a concluding doxology and Amen. The best collects feature the apt pairing of praise and intercession. Before any petition that asks God to act in a particular way in the present and future, the collect form names a specific way in which God has acted in the past. Consider this ancient prayer:
Eternal God, you have called us to be members of one body.
Join us with those who in all times and places have praised your name, that, with one heart and mind, we may show the unity of your church and bring honor to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Here, the acknowledgment of God’s act of gathering the church is the ground for a petition concerning the unity of the church. This tight logical structure is a testimony to the fact that God’s actions are consistent, that we trust that God will act in ways similar to past actions.
Interestingly, this form of prayer is ideal for teaching children about prayer. Ask a third-grade church school class what they want to pray for (for example, “Please heal our sick friend”). Then ask them to find a reason for praise that matches their request (“You, Lord, are the divine Healer”). The result—with a little help—is a beautiful prayer: “Lord God, we praise you as the divine Healer, who heals us from sin and sickness. Please heal our friend in the same way that you healed the lepers in our Bible story today. Amen.” If your class comes up with a reason for prayer (for example, “Help us beat that other softball team”) for which they can’t find a fitting reason for praise, then it may be that their prayer is not the kind of thing that is proper to ask!
We hope you find Q&A stimulating. We also hope that you’ll join in the dialogue. Send your questions about worship to Reformed Worship Q&A by mail (2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SE Grand Rapids, MI 49560), fax (616-224-0803) or e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).