Podcast listener Mackenzie writes in to ask, “Pastor John, is it okay for me to plan, or even write out word for word, a prayer that I will read before a group? Or is this practice of scripting out a prayer somehow less spiritual?” Pastor John, what would you say?
There are many spontaneous prayers that sound empty because of the language that is so overworked and worn out and thoughtless. You can tell they are simply repeating tired phrases that they have used a thousand times and their minds are not engaged, but they are on automatic pilot. So no cheers for spontaneous prayers at that moment.
On the other hand, there are well prepared prayers that sound utterly authentic and from the heart and are rich with biblical truth and show careful thought about what should be prayed at this moment in this worship service, in this small group. And it is not wrong to think that way, by the way, because Paul said that if you don’t speak in intelligible languages, who will they say amen to your prayer? In other words, Paul wants us to be aware that people are listening to our prayers. If we pray out loud we want an amen. And then amen means they have understood it. They have agreed with it. It has some substance. That is the way one ought to pray. So thinking this way is biblical.
McKenzie asks if it is less spiritual to prepare a prayer ahead of time. And my answer is it could be less spiritual and it could be more spiritual. The issue of how spiritual it is does not depend on prepared or unprepared. It depends on three questions: 1) Is the prayer created for the glory of Jesus Christ, for the hallowing of God’s name? 2) Is the prayer created in reliance on the help of the Holy Spirit or is it just created out of our own minds with no conscience reliance on the Spirit’s help at all? 3) Is the prayer guided in its substance, biblical substance by the activity of the Holy Spirit? That is what it means for something to be spiritual. Does it exalt Christ? That is what the Spirit does. Does it depend on the work of the Spirit? Is it guided and shaped in content by the Spirit himself? And my belief is that those three questions may be fulfilled by a spontaneous prayer or by a prepared prayer. So both may be spiritual or both may be unspiritual.
And here is a caution. Beware of two temptations. One is to confuse spontaneous with inarticulate and careless. I think a lot of people do this. They think for this to be spontaneous and real it has got to sound inarticulate and careless, lots of “you knows” and “just reallys” and half-finished sentences and super casual conversation. I have heard people pray like this. It is all of this because it sounds more real and more intimate. That is part of the cultural thing we live in right now. None of those things is spiritual. Lots of “you knows,” lots of “just reallys,” lots of half sentences, lots of super casual tones. None of that is spiritual. And none of them proves authenticity or intimacy.
They are culturally learned just like liturgies are. You know this because you walk into some churches or some small groups everybody prays the same. They pray sloppy. That is what you do here. You don’t finish your sentences. You use language that is just kind of grunted out because if you sound like you just put your sentence together with a subject and an object people will think you are fake. That is just a learned behavior. People are allergic to good grammar or anything hanging together because in order to be real you have to be careless.
The other mistake is the opposite. If you prepare your prayer, beware of sounding distant and mechanical and literary. Very few people have the gift of delivering a prepared word in a natural, heart felt way, very few people. But that is what is needed if you are going to prepare your prayer. What is needed is reality, intensity, joy. In other words, there is no reason to think, is there, that if you thought about something yesterday you can’t feel it today. That is ridiculous.
So my answer is: do both. Pray spontaneously and pray things you have thought about. The more you do both and do them well, the more real and the more natural will be in both. And, God willing, the more spiritual.