Most people would describe worship and prayer at The Table as “liturgical.” This means that we pray or sing the same words together as a community. Often these prayers are very old, coming to us from our ancestors in the faith.
For people from an evangelical or charismatic background, this is sometimes difficult to participate in, because it feels “ritualistic,” or like we’re going back to “dead religion.”
So why do we pray old prayers that other people wrote a long time ago? Here are four thoughts:
1) Spontaneity is not the same thing as authenticity
For a host of reasons, it’s very natural for us to think that prayers that arise spontaneously “from the heart” are somehow more “authentic” than prayers that are read from a page or screen.
But the truth is that there is no dichotomy between written prayers and “praying from the heart.” Think about this in other areas of your life: How many times have you sung a favorite song? It’s the same lyrics every time! Does that make it rote? Does that mean it’s not “from the heart”? Of course not.
There’s really no such thing as “dead liturgy.” That’s a category mistake. Liturgy is neither dead nor alive. Liturgy can be good or bad, but it’s the worshipers who are either dead or alive.
Seek to be an alive worshiper praying good liturgy, and you’ll be on your way.
2) We’re part of something together
We do not follow Christ as individuals who happen to occasionally gather on Sundays when it’s convenient for our schedules. Rather, we are a spiritual family in Christ, being shaped together by God.
Church isn’t like a college class, where students come together to learn something as individuals that they then take into their various goals, careers, and life paths. Church is more like a family at the Thanksgiving table: we all participate in the meal together.
To be a member of the Body of Christ means that we learn to move and flow together with one another. This means we submit together to the shaping power of ancient words of prayer and praise, instead of just “doing our own thing.”
3) We need to learn how to pray
Prayer is something we must learn to do. It’s not an inborn instinct that we simply express. It’s a practice we must grow into.
Not everything that flows spontaneously from our hearts is a good prayer. We need to learn to let God shape and form our desires in prayer, not just pray from our already-formed desires. Good prayers do this: they shape our desires toward the kingdom as we submit to them (by praying them).
So we need the words of others who have gone before us in faith. We need to pray prayers that are wiser than we are, so we can become wise.
I was introduced to the power of written liturgical prayers in the aftermath of my father dying suddenly when I was 25 years old. I felt a longing to reach out to God in prayer, but didn’t have any energy to think up something to say in prayer, so I was left mute.
The prayers and Scripture selections I found in the Book of Common Prayer gave voice to my prayer in that season, and I found that I could pray if I just submitted myself to the prayers the Church was offering me in the liturgy. I didn’t know how to pray as one grieving, and the liturgy taught me.
It’s okay to pray spontaneously when we feel the need, of course, but it’s also important to learn to “say our prayers” when we don’t feel the need, so we can learn to feel the need more!
4) We’re part of something bigger than ourselves
Not only are we more than just a collection of individuals, the family we are part of is bigger than just our local church: we are part of a family that transcends time and space!
Being part of the Body of Christ is a mystical reality that connects us organically not just to Christ our head, but also to all his members throughout salvation history. So when we worship together, we are worshiping in the presence of a great cloud of witnesses. We are connected organically to those who have gone before us.
G.K. Chesterton said that tradition is “the democracy of the dead.” It’s simply allowing our ancestors to have a voice in how we do things, because they literally do have a voice and we are part of them and they are part of us. We are praying with the whole church when we gather for worship, so it makes sense to use the prayers of the church.
So this Sunday, if you join us for worship, you’ll be given prayers to pray, both spoken and sung. I encourage you to experiment with simply surrendering to the prayers as you pray them, and see what happens in your heart and soul as you do so!
Praying should feel like playing, in that sense. That’s why we pray old prayers that other people wrote.