Prayers: Carefully Written or Spontaneous

Imagine how it must have appeared from heaven. Members of the congregation seemed to be competing with one another when one had a hymn to sing, another a word of instruction, another a revelation, another a tongue or an interpretation. In his first letter to these Corinthian Christians Paul rebuked them: "God is not a God of disorder but of peace" (1 Cor. 14:33). Spontaneity had apparently brought chaos to these worship services in Corinth.

Hundreds of years earlier the people of Judah were also rebuked for their worship—not because it was chaotic but rather because it had become empty and routine ritual. We know from Isaiah 1:15 how Judah's regular but insincere observance of Sabbaths, New Moon festivals, and appointed feasts appeared to the Lord: "When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen."

It seems that neither extreme—spontaneous outpourings from ecstatic spirits or prepared worship according to established tradition—assures corporate worship that is pleasing to God. Worship pleases God only when it is genuine and "done in a fitting and orderly way" (1 Cor. 14:40). As the Lord responded to the Samaritan woman's evasive reference to form: "Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for

they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks" (John 4:23).

Set or Free?

Within this discussion of worship comes a frequently debated question: which are more appropriate in the worship service—set prayers or free prayers? And again the Scriptures point to a place for both. In fact, one of the most mysterious examples of corporate prayer in the New Testament (Acts 4:23-31) appears to be a blend of well-learned traditional phrases, including Scripture quotations, and spontaneous additions to the tradition. All that the passage indicates is that the people "raised their voices together in prayer to God" with the beautiful and specifically appropriate words that follow. How the reader interprets those words depends on his or her bias. Some will imagine James composing such a prayer and then offering it up on behalf of the congregation. Others will assume that individual after individual, each led by the Holy Spirit, added sentences to the prayer, all joining together on the amen.

A person's preference for either spontaneous or formal prayer in worship often has roots in the worship tradition in which he or she was raised. Most American evangelical churches, for example, emphasize spontaneity. They would probably benefit from more formality. But they would not do well to move to the opposite extreme: a church that uses set prayers alone runs the risk of losing genuine worship. A look at both Scripture and the Reformed tradition reveals that true worship should incorporate a blend of set prayers and spontaneous expressions.

Prayer in Scripture

One would expect the virgin Mary's praise of God to be unique, expressing the most individual of experiences. Yet her "magnificat" (Luke 1:46—55) is clearly modeled on the prayer of Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1-10). Evidently, expecting a child who would be significant in God's redemptive plan caused Mary to meditate on this prayer of Samuel's mother after his unusual birth.

When we turn to Hannah's prayer, we again see heavy "borrowing." She says very little about her own situation and the birth of Samuel. Instead, we find allusions in verses 2 and 6 to the songs of Moses in Exodus 15 and Deuteronomy 32. Apparently Hannah used a traditional prayer, drawing on scriptural materials already at hand to express gratitude for the fulfillment of the vow she had made earlier. On that earlier occasion Hannah's visible bitterness of soul had attracted the attention of Eli the priest as she prayed freely "in her heart." But now, after receiving what she requested, Hannah expresses her praise through forms already available. And her prayer in turn becomes a model for Mary's.

Zechariah's prayer at the naming of his son John was also a blend of form and spontaneity. Intertwined with his exuberant expression of personal joy are references to numerous Old Testament passages that fit the explicit circumstances and yet go far beyond (Luke 1:68—79). Zechariah's prayer reveals not only that he is filled with the Holy Spirit but also that he has spent nine months silently meditating on God's Word.

When Jesus gave his disciples the Lord's Prayer, he was encouraging them to pray as Mary, Hannah, and Zechariah did— using a combination of the set and the free. The Lord's Prayer is not intended, as we often assume, as a word-for-word formula; in fact, we find slightly different wording in Matthew 6:9—13 and in the shorter version of Luke 11:2—4. What Jesus was teaching his disciples and us is a pattern of priorities in prayer. It would be entirely appropriate, then, for the leader of a corporate worship service to expand on each petition in the prayer or provide opportunity for the congregation to add its individual prayers to each petition. Such a practice—at least the former—was not unknown in the synagogue worship of Jesus' day. 1

The apostles followed their Master's example in avoiding the extremes of total freedom or set forms in the guidelines they offered for prayer. Thus, the church in Ephesus had the model of Paul's beautiful prayer (Eph. 3:14-21) to shape its thoughts for worship and also the instruction given in 1 Timothy 2:1—2: "I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness."

Without such guidelines we might easily forget to pray for the government, our first priority, and might also neglect the admonition of Jesus in Matthew 9:37—38: "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field."

Examples from Reformed Tradition

As the Reformers and Puritans searched through the Scriptures to overcome the abuses and distortions of medieval tradition, they too concluded that both set and free prayers had a place in worship. Martin Bucer's Strasbourg Psalter of 1537 included two basic prayers for corporate worship, the General Confession and the Prayer of Intercession, both modeled upon Scripture. These two core prayers passed into John Calvin's liturgy of the Genevan Psalter of 1542 and into John Knox's Scottish Book of Common Order.

From the earliest Strasbourg Psalters there is evidence that the Evangelical pastors wanted to allow for the developing of the gift of some sort of free or extemporaneous prayer. At the same time they recognized that prayer forms were needed as well. What developed was that the two core prayers were used pretty much as they appeared in the printed text of the psalter, but then there were other prayers in the service which were supposed to be formulated by the minister. 2

One also should not forget that most of the sung psalms and hymns of Reformed worship are set prayers. After discussing these sung prayers, James H. Nichols comments, "Such was the congregational song liturgy in Calvin's service. The other prayers were spoken by the minister. Most of them were set prayers, although there was more freedom for variation than in any other major liturgical tradition of the time."3 Later Nichols concludes, "Calvin did not believe in permitting great freedom to the individual minister or congregation on these matters, but he left great freedom to the church authorities of a given region. He actually suggested that liturgical variety was desirable in order to show that the unity of the churches does not consist in such things." 4

By the 1640s, however, the Puritans of England and Scotland had found fault with the set prayers in the Reformed liturgy of the Church of England. As the preface to the Westminster Assembly's Directory for the Publick Worship of God claimed, the liturgy of the Church of England had become a cause for spiritual laziness. Part of the problem lay in a failure to exercise the gifts for the ministry:

The Liturgy hath been a great means, as on the one hand to make and increase an idle and unedifying ministry, which contented itself with set forms made to their hands by others, without putting forth themselves to exercise the gift of prayer, with which our Lord Jesus Christ pleaseth to furnish all his servants whom he calls to that office. . . .

Hughes O. Old points out that it was not the Presbyterians but the Congregationalists who influenced the Westminster Directory away from the two basic prayers of the General Confession and the Prayer of Intercession in the Genevan service to one comprehensive prayer, or "Pastoral Prayer," between the Scripture reading and the sermon. This tended to have the effect of diminishing the intercessory character of the prayer. It was no longer so much a prayer for the peace of the world, the progress of the gospel, and the salvation of all the people, but rather a general all-purpose prayer. Finally, because the prayer was supposed to be "framed" by the minister in his own words, it was very much dependent upon the gifts of the minister leading the prayer. Unfortunately too many ministers neglected developing this gift, and in the popular imagination the minister's long prayer was apt to be a rather tedious part of the service. 5

A Blend and a Balance

Reformed worship, then, has tended to move back and forth between set prayers and free prayers, sometimes failing to see the place for both. Perhaps our use of psalms and hymns for singing best illustrates the blend and balance that can be attained. As Paul says in both Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, as we sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs—which are set forms—we both teach and admonish one another and we also sing in our hearts to the Lord. The more we have been exposed to such expressions of the saints, the freer we become in our prayers. Like Hannah and Mary and Zechariah, we will have absorbed so much of God's inspired praise that it will have become our own free expression.

It's natural for a parent to desire that her child will be able to spontaneously and freely express feelings of familiarity and intimacy. But a maturing child also knows that sometimes it's better to express his feelings or petitions to his parents with care and in writing. Our communication with God is similar: at times we speak freely and spontaneously; at other times we speak with words we have learned and meditated on, thus uniting ourselves with God's people of different times and places. And always we worship in spirit and in truth.


1 Hughes O. Old, Worship That Is Reformed According to Scripture (Atlanta: John Knox Press), pp. 92-94.

2 Old, Worship, p. 99

3 James H. Nichols, "The Intent of the Calvinistic Liturgy" in John Bratt, ed., The Heritage of John Calvin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1973), p. 100.

4 Nichols, "The Intent of the Calvinistic Liturgy," p. 108.

5 Old, Worship, pp. 101-102.



Neighter extreme assures corporate worship that is pleasing to God.

A look at both Scripture and the Reformed tradition reveals that true worship should incorporate a blend . . .


The swing from set prayer to free prayer that occurred in so many Protestant churches is dramatically illustrated by these two quotes—one from a Dutch synod in the sixteenth century and the other from a Dutch pietist more than one hundred and fifty years later.

"We deem it entirely necessary that everyone abide by the form of prayers both before and after the semon as it is given in the Catechism and that no one utter or compose prayers of his own." —Synod of Dort, 1580

"No liturgical prayer is used in respectable congregations except by a few of the older ministers out of attachment to the old form or from laziness—and then only at Catechism services."

—Ravestein, 1743

(from Pulpit and Table, p. 47, by Howard Hageman)

Reformed Worship 1 © September 1986, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.