September 21, 2020

The Evangelical Liturgy 19: The Pastoral Prayer

pprayerIn his excellent book, Mother Kirk, Douglas Wilson makes a marvelous defense of the ministry of the written pastoral prayer. The average reader will say “What is he talking about?” And that is the problem: an important area of worship that is the responsibility of the pastor has been very neglected. So much so that the suggestion of doing the work of restoration sounds almost bizarre.

Protestantism has plenty of tradition in this area, from the lengthy prayers of the Puritans to the published prayers of Charles Spurgeon to the collected prayers of Walter Brueggemann.

It should be obvious by this point that the evangelical liturgy requires more than just an understanding of liturgy. It requires a work ethic; a workmanlike approach to the liturgical aspect of creating a congregational worship experience.

It is in this area of workmanship that many evangelicals have failed, and the evidence is obvious in thousands of lifeless, repetitive, ad libed worship services. If any evangelical can fault liturgical churches as being “repetitive,” they are either in an exceptional situation or they are ignoring the obvious. The needless “sameness” of elements like the pastoral prayer suggest that much improvement can be made in simply taking the time to…

-key pastoral prayer to the overall themes of the Christian year.
-pay attention to the lectionary texts, particularly those that aren’t being used elsewhere.
-creatively address ongoing issues from a pastoral perspective.
-speak tenderly and compassionately to the broken and discouraged.

At the same time, the pastoral prayer should avoid familiar pitfalls:

1) Being entirely too long.
2) Becoming a second sermon.
3) Engaging in argumentation with the congregation.
4) Indulging in cliches and overworn phrases. (There are few places the language of Zion takes over with such unchecked enthusiasm as the pastoral prayer.)
5) Attempting comprehensiveness for the sake of church politics. (Mention one person in the hospital….then I must mention them all.)
6) Phony sentiment, especially the pretense of high spirituality. (You aren’t The Valley of Vision. It’s OK.)

The pastoral prayer should call the pastor to appropriate labor in wordcrafting, but the pastoral prayer should not- with all due respect to the Puritans- become the second service.

I find the pastoral prayer to be an area of liturgy that I have neglected and often offered prayers off the cuff and from much the same template as many before. I would like to do better.

Anyone else?


  1. Starting to preach while praying is one that bugs me. I can understand that a pastor perhaps wants to clarify and explain what he’s thinking, but still—he’s supposed to be talking to God who doesn’t need that extra explanation. Not a big pet peeve, but just something I know some ministers have a tendency to do.

    • I once had our Hispanic Ministries pastor pray for me. It was all in Spanish. How’s that for a lesson on who we’re suppose to be praying to.

      • I’d say that’s a lesson in insensitivity and ethnocentrism. Didn’t you have any desire to actually understand what he was saying??

    • Heh, that reminds me of a time at a conference when my roomate and I had bowed our heads as the speaker prayed. About 5 minutes later, we thought something was wrong. We tentatively looked at each other, realized that we were thinking the same thing, glanced at the rest of the congregation, and realized none of them were bowed anymore. Turns out the speaker had shifted into his sermon without so much as an Amen! He started by talking to God, gradually began talking to us and just went with it! We still laugh about that.

  2. If you’ve never read Mark Twain’s “Some Rambling Notes of an Idle Excursion”, specifically the section where Captain Hurricane Jones is discussing the combat on Mt Carmel and how “pastoral prayer” plays an integral role in the outcome, it’s worth looking at for a good laugh, but also for some realistic feedback on what the average member of the congregation thinks about pastoral prayer at times.

  3. Scott Miller says

    It is funny that most evangelical pastors will take the time to write the anti-abortion-political-sermon-in-a-prayer prayer but other times see writing prayers as being “not led by the spirit”.

  4. When I pray at Navy functions, whether at night for the evening prayer, or at ceremonies, I always write my prayer out. It allows me to say exactly what I want to say and make sure I don’t ramble. I have to be very careful with what I say as well because I’m in the military, so this makes sense to me. Thanks!

  5. I once heard a pastor start making announcements as he was praying for upcoming events…thanks for calling this aspect of worship to mind.

  6. Carlton Quattlebaum says

    I appreciate our pastor in this regard. As an Assembly of God church, we aren’t particularly steeped in a formal liturgy. However, at each service, an individual, carefully selected for their articulation and expressiveness, will read a scripture passage of some length. The alternate to this would be a congregational responsive reading. And, we actually do frequently sing the Doxology after the offertory.

    Our pastor does an excellent job of being the spoken voice of the community, confessing our need of Him, and petitioning for specific needs, with those not overshadowing the themes of submission, thankfulness, and a sense of awe and wonder.

    Certainly, his own intellect supports the strength of the expression, but his pastoral heart shines through.

    And – mind you, an Assembly of God church – he routinely pronounces an inspiring benediction at service’s end.

    So, in most points cited about common flaws in evangelical pastoral prayers, I feel quite blessed by our church and pastor. The prayer engages believers to listen (no expectation of cliches) and join silently in unison.

  7. Meh. I opened my eyes once during a “pastoral prayer” and it turned me off to the practice for good. People were picking their nose, people were writing shopping lists, people were flipping through the hymnal, people were asking other people for mints, people were doing everything BUT praying.

    It’s been replaced by the prayers of the people so we can all pray.

    • How does that work (the prayers of the people)?

      • I typically do it REAL simple – “Hi folks let’s share joys and concerns and we’ll do this refrain because we’re all called to pray as a people.”

        Ideally, it would be a guided prayer, covering not just the stuff that’s near us, but also things that are beyond personal concerns. There is a LOT of wisdom in this type of guided prayer, and I try to take a season every year to get people used to it. Eventually, the guided prayer will be what we do all the time.

  8. I come from a Baptist tradition and have really missed out on the liturgical aspects of worship enjoyed by my Lutheran, Presbyterian and Catholic brothers & sisters. Several years ago I started to become quite captivated by written prayers that touched my heart. So I’ve kind of made a habit of “collecting” them in my journal for future reference and encouragement.

  9. In my rock ‘n’ roll Bible semi-megachurch we hardly pray at all anymore. A couple of little prayers will be offered giving a total prayer time of way less than a minute. We spend half the service singing “praise and worship” songs, and it would be quite easy to eliminate just one song for prayer. Unfortunately doing so may be perceived as a drag on the worship (same could be said for Scripture reading, which is practically non-existent). We are pretty good about distributing prayer concerns through the bulletin and email. But praying itself is for individual quiet times, not something for congregational consumption. Mercy; I bet this is the rule in contemporary churches and not the exception.

    • A “drag on worship”? Really? This makes me wonder who, exactly is being worshipped – the congregation or God?

      It is way easier to talk about prayer, take prayer requests, even teach and preach about prayer, than actually pray. Prayer encounters God Himself on His terms, not ours. It is humbling, and therefore out of the contemporary comfort zone.

      My prayer life has grown by leaps and bounds by hearing others pray – especially my pastors and teachers. Prayer, for me, is where real engagement with God happens. It is the best, most spiritually active part of corporate worship. But, I agree, it doesn’t make good theater.

  10. I am just trying to get over the fact that you read Douglas Wilson. What else of his have you read?

  11. We do “Prayers of the People” in our congregation. When it is my duty, I like to use the Let Us Pray archives on the LCMS site: (Don’t let the word “archives” fool you. Prayers for upcoming weeks can be found there!) I often rewrite sections for various reasons. Recently, there was a prayer for the unemployed, and I expanded by adding the overemployed, the underemployed, and the misemployed. People really liked that, and told me so aftwerwards, as many with heavy employment struggles are not technically unemployed. In any case, this is one thing I read over the written petitions for. Are there any groups that are being systematically missed in the petitions? I want to include them.

    For the unusual weeks when the prayer from the archives just misses the mark, I will often take a Psalm or other appropriate passage of Scripture, and read a line, followed by a petition that the line brings to mind. It is often surprising just how relevant the prayer can inadvertently end up being. I wrote out one before the recent ELCA National Assembly, without having the upcoming assembly in mind. I used Psalm 1 as my template. After verse one, I ended up writing a petition including the line “We pray that we would not be found in groups that come together to plot wickedness.” I read this prayer the Sunday following the assembly and wondered if people would take it as direct commentary. When the pastor noted I had prayed based on Psalm 1, I added that I had written the prayer before the assembly ever convened.

  12. Jeremiah Lawson says

    I have only read a handful of them but John Donne’s written prayers are incredible. Of course I’m supremely prejudiced as John Donne was one of my favorite poets before I realized he ever did preaching (and I got into him through the work of T. S. Eliot). If you want to read written prayers that avoid the pitfalls iMonk mentioned it would be hard to do better than Donne in the English language.

  13. MOD: This comment really presents me with a quandary. If I edit or remove it because I believe it misrepresents Douglas Wilson, then “Molly” will say I am approving of the abuse of women. Having read Wilson, in my judgment his role in any abusive marriage is being misrepresented her, completely out of context. Every time I mention Wilson, this happens. Hes got a lot of people who blame him for what was done to them by abusive husbands. Wilson critics say he promotes abuse and slavery. Both are false claims, imo. Therefore I am going to let the comment stand only out of respect for Molly but NO OTHER COMMENTS engaging in characterization of Doug Wilson as somehow promoting wife abuse and racism will be allowed. Do not attempt to engage me on this because I’ve read Wilson and his critics and made up my own mind. This comment is not going to be the doorway to a Douglas Wilson debate here at IM.

    I really struggle with the promotion of Douglas Wilson here, too. As a woman, the things that he teaches are highly offensive. My abusive marriage was, in so many ways, modeled on his book, “Reforming Marriage.” My husband learned there that I was the garden and he was the “husbandman,” and he could do with me whatever he saw fit……and so he did….and the teachings of people like Wilson effectively stripped me of my power to have any boundaries, of any right to say no (unless I wanted to be in sin, that is).

    I have since learned much more about Wilson. Much of which is concerning.

    Does Wilson have a high IQ? Absolutely.

    Does Wilson have some good things to say? Absolutely.

    But the things that are not so good…? They are pretty *big* things. Not little things, not mere “differences of opinion,” but the kind of things that literally destroy lives, families, spirits, and even trust in Christ (see places like No Longer Quivering, where the “fruit” of Wilson and similar teachers doctrine results in many leaving the faith altogether). Further, when you promote a teacher like Douglas Wilson, it seems to me that you are making a statement about women and people like former US slaves (see Wilson on slavery, book reviews on Amazon)… As a woman who was deeply hurt by Wilson’s teachings, I would like to ask you to reconsider your promotion of such a man.

    Wilson teaches men that they are defined by the work they are called to, whereas women are defined by the man they are called to. Wilson teaches that the woman’s creation out of Adam was to establish the man’s authority in the home. Wilson teaches that the husband dominates the wife, period. It’s just up to the husband whether it will be a benevolent rule or a despotic rule. Wilson teaches wives that they must obey their husbands, and that wives should not go to others for instruction but to her husband. She is to be a disciple of her husband, not of other teachers. She is dependant on him for her spiritual nourishment…unless she wants to be disobedient to God. Wilson believes that ezer (helper) means a subordinant assistant. He teaches that men face the future and his calling, whereas the wife is to face the husband. Wilson teaches men that when they are with their wives, they have authority over their wives and must act like it. She is his—and Wilson encourages men to act like it, to be “lord of the garden,” (his wife), and see to it that “his garden” (his wife) bears much fruit.

    Wilson says things like, “This cannot be accomplished by ‘hanging around’ in the garden and being nice. The garden must be managed, and ruled, and kept, and tilled.”

    One page later, he adds, “…Wives need to be led with a firm hand. They will often test their husbands in some area, and be deeply disappointed and frustrated if he gives in to her…. So a godly husband is a godly lord. A woman who understands this biblical truth and calls a certain man her husband is also calling him her lord.”

    I lived that. I managed to survive it, by the grace of God. I cannot emphasize enough how destructive this kind of teaching is…living with a man who thinks of you as his “soil” to grow whatever he wants, whenever he wants, however he wants it…with God’s approval, as your earthly lord…..and to believe that you must bear it all cheerfully, sweetly, like a good Christian wife should…

    I love your blog. I come here often. I learn and I grow here. But I confess, it pains me to see Wilson on your side bar. And when I see a post that promotes Wilson in some way, I get sick to my stomach and find it difficult to come back for a while. I am just being honest, here. I don’t mean to be offensive. But I ask you to please have consideration for those of us who have been deeply hurt by Wilson’s teachings. I’m not trying to be petty. I know that many of us have “agree to disagree” areas, and that is as it should be…

    But this one…this guy…his “areas” are of the sort that deeply hurt the weak, the kind that strengthen those who hurt the weak. Is this the kind of teacher that should be promoted, that should have his “not-so-great areas” ignored for the sake of his good stuff? For me, absolutely not. You recently put up an excellent excellent post about spousal abuse in the Christian home and the teachings that help make it possible. In my experience, and I am not the only one badly hurt by him, promoting teachers like Wilson is a step backwards, not forwards.

    • Molly, I posted my little note on Wilson’s below before I saw your note, sorry. While I cannot feel all that you experienced, I can most certainly follow it. I have read lots of Wilson over the years and even benefited quite a bit from it, like you say, the good stuff. I actually think that Wilson and the leaders at his church would have come down very hard on the one who treated you so badly, but this takes nothing away from the way he took this teaching and applied it poorly. Still, it may be that more emphasis from Wilson on gentle, sacrificial, nourishing love from a husband to his wife would be helpful. I know its in there, but you would have been helped if it were highlighted more. Hang in there.

  14. I think its funny how Evangelicals will gripe about those liberal mainliners who unthinkingly recite empty words and prayers, and then they will say every Sunday, “Dear Lord, as we continue now before the throne of grace…”

  15. Wilson also has a very helpful book on the call to worship, I think it is called “Exhortations.”

  16. Thanks, IM. I hesitated to put my comment out…and am sorry to have veered the topic off track. It would not have offended me if you would have removed my comment (hey—your blog, your rules)…but at the same time, I appreciate you leaving it out there. I recognize that this will simply remain an area of disagreement. Such is life. I appreciate your willingness to listen, all the same.

  17. I know we’re talking about church services and pastoral leading, but I wonder about other gatherings, too. I grew up praying the “Lord, we just ask…” type of thing. Now, as a liturgical Christian, I have access to other prayers. I lead a moms’ group and am often opening and closing our time with prayer. I have to admit, this is a struggle (not a huge one, but it’s something I think about, nonetheless). I do often write out my prayers, if only so that I’m not repetitive and don’t say “um” too much. Most of the time, I’d prefer to simply pray the Lord’s Prayer, but I’m not sure how people would take it. (Everyone in the group is a Christian, but I am the only non-evangelical.) The fact that I’m concerned that praying the Lord’s Prayer might be off-putting and somehow not meaningful enough probably says a lot. It’s not that I never say spontaneous prayers, but that has become a much more private form of prayer for me. After many years of saying the same prayers over and over both in personal and in corporate prayer, they mean so much more to me than my own pathetic words because they remind of me of truth and direct my attention away from my feelings. I’d even be ok writing out prayers for opening and closing and simply praying the same things every week. Yes, I’m a creature of habit. Hey, I didn’t join a church that does the same thing every week for no reason!

    I guess I’m trying to say that I totally agree with you and think that public prayer is different from private prayer, especially when it comes from a leader and I think that pastors who understand this perform a great service to their congregations.

    • “Most of the time, I’d prefer to simply pray the Lord’s Prayer, but I’m not sure how people would take it. ”

      How on earth could anybody have a problem with a prayer following Christ’s specific, explicit instruction?

  18. As the informal, untitled leader of a simple/home church fellowship, I rarely engage in what you would call solo pastoral prayer. Almost all of our praying together is of the open and participatory variety. But I do often start the praying and conclude it — so, in that respect, I try to set an example of focusing my thoughts on God and praying genuinely from the heart with the aim that we all enter into intensive, worshipful prayer together. And I think most people can tell the difference between when a pastor or leader is merely reciting a well-crafted prayer and when he’s really entering into heart-felt, God-focused prayer himself — which I think naturally invites others to do the same, rather than just letting their thoughts wander until someone says “amen.”

  19. Don Johnson says

    One of my pastors does a very good job as such prayers and I have learned a lot from his prayers.

    P.S. Thanks for not deleting Molly’s post.

  20. Lucy’s “We just ask you Lord” reflection reminded me of the value of pastoral prayers, particularly ones that are liturgical in nature and “pre-arranged” (for lack of a better word).

    Am I the only one that gets absolutely driven nuts by the 100s times people say the word “just” in their prayers? “Lord we just ask…we just want to…we just…we just…we just…”

    That and when every other word is “God” or “Father” or “Jesus.” I mean, the guy upstairs knows his name and doesn’t have amnesia. Cm’on people. Hence, I like liturgical prayers (with the extemporaneous added for good measure I might add)

  21. wretchedsoul says

    People trust me when I say…We can never address Him by His Names enough…I do think that there are many other names/attributes that God can be addressed by that are never used; which would eliminate the redundancy. As far as saying “We just…” I understand it to be used as a form of humility. I don’t use it as much as others because I believe that when we are praying for those things that God has said he will we are to stand “boldly” before His throne and make our request.