Spontaneity vs. Intentionality in Spirituality

When evangelicals consider spirituality, they place a high priority on spontaneity, equating it with authenticity.  Especially when it comes to prayer we are largely resistant to anything planned or intentional.  “Ritual” in prayer and worship is something of a four-letter word for us, usually preceded by the adjective “dead.”

I once asked an undergraduate class how they might react in chapel if a person said, “let’s pray,” and then proceeded to reach into his jacket pocket, pull out a piece of paper, unfold it, and read his prayer.  The response was overwhelmingly negative.  They said it wouldn’t be genuine or authentic.  It wouldn’t be “from the heart,” which is how we should pray.

I then asked them what they would do if they were told that Barack Obama planned to visit our university for a day.  In addition to a campus tour, he asked to meet with one student for five minutes to conclude his visit.  “If you were selected to meet with the President of the United States,” I asked, “how would you approach that encounter?”

“Would you think,” I continued, “‘well, I really do want to be authentic and genuine, so I’m going to just put it out of my head until the very last minute and when I meet him I’ll just say whatever comes to mind?'”

I gave another example.  I asked our female students how they’d respond if, in the midst of a 6 month-long dating relationship, their boyfriend took them on a very special date and said the following: “Well, I’ve wanted to tell you how much you mean to me, and I really wanted it to be genuine, so I didn’t plan anything.  I just wanted to spontaneously express my appreciation for you.  So, here goes: Your eyes are like . . . waterfalls that . . . no wait, they’re like birds that fly . . . okay, let me start over.  Your soft skin is like silk when you . . . okay, there’s a deer, and he’s . . .”

After a few minutes of awkward stumbling and bumbling, you’d probably say, “uh, let’s just look at the menu, shall we?”

Intentionality doesn’t necessarily work against genuineness and authenticity.  Just the other day, I was in a gathering to discuss a certain topic.  The person leading the discussion introduced the topic and then said, “now, before we begin, I’ve composed a prayer for this occasion in order to orient our time and to set it in the context of worship and service to God.”  He then read it and we all said, “amen” in order to make it our own. 

The prayer was thoughtfully written just for that occasion.  It was very direct, carefully worded, wonderfully simple, and functioned to both focus our minds and orient us rightly toward one another and toward God.

If we knew we were going to meet with Barack Obama, I think we’d plan carefully what we’d say.  And it seems to me that we truly honor those we love when we give careful thought to the specific ways they are precious to us and to how much we appreciate them. 

To then do the hard work of carefully expressing this does not at all diminish authenticity and genuineness.

We ought to approach prayer in the same way.  This might open up the prospect of learning to pray from our fathers and mothers in the faith, from the Psalms through to contemporary prayer books, such as those of Phyllis Tickle and others.

I’ve enjoyed the exercise of writing prayers and reading the thoughtful prayers of others.  Anyone else discover the joys of thoughtfully intentional prayer and worship?

13 thoughts on “Spontaneity vs. Intentionality in Spirituality

    1. timgombis

      I didn’t mention it, Allen, but we could also point out the “formal” character of so many “spontaneous” prayers. All speaking is constrained by traditions, however implicit they may be, and praying is no exception. Certain standard features populate even “spontaneous” praying and their absence usually invites comment.

  1. Tom Sizer

    I think you make great points Tim – certainly we use traditions in our ‘spontaneous’ prayers anyways – i.e. “Put a hedge around them”, “give them traveling mercies”, etc. 🙂

    1. timgombis

      Yeah, Tom, there are LOADS of these common features: the tendency to begin with “Lord, we just wanna…” Or, “we just want to thank for this opportunity to…” Or, “we thank you for this time that we can just…” Or, “give the doctors wisdom,” as if doctors have no clue what they’re doing in their medical practice until someone prays that prayer. The list could go on!!

      I remember one time John Mortensen led our prayer time and had everyone pray one-sentence prayers. As if for the first time, we were all thinking about what we were going to say in praying for one another!

  2. Wes Vander Lugt

    Great post!

    As Tom Wright says in After You Believe, “Spontaneity, left to itself, can begin by excusing bad behavior and end by congratulating vice.” I think this goes just as much for bad prayers as it does for bad behavior.

    Also, I think it may be helpful to think of prayer as both personal and corporate improvisation, which does not mean jettisoning all tradition (this is impossible) but working within tradition to express a second-order spontaneity. Again, Wright has some excellent observations:

    “Actually, as with all virtues, once you begin to learn the language, and especially once you begin to speak it in groups where other people are learning it too, it doesn’t seem so impossible, but actually begins to acquire its own sense of “second nature,” of a second-order spontaneity, as with skilled actors, footballers, or jazz players who have learned the high art of true corporate improvisation.”

    1. timgombis

      Well-put, Wes. I was thinking earlier that spontaneity isn’t bad at all, but when it’s a traditioned spontaneity, it meets the moment with greater effect.

      It seems that evangelical spirituality has been affected greatly by the romanticism of the late 19th cent., but without an awareness that the spontaneity of the romantics was heavily traditioned and learned.

  3. Daniel Hanlon

    Recently I’ve seen deep spirituality in the collects in the Book of Common Prayer. I think David DeSilva points out that sometimes prayers like these help us to know how we should pray or to orient our prayers (Sacramental Life: Spiritual Formation Through the Book of Common Prayer). Thanks for the post, I’m encouraged.

  4. athanasius96

    Your romance example is perfect. Writing in general is another good parallel. The fact that we edit blog post, books and other writings does not make them less heart-felt or authentic. In fact the more we pour into them, the more invested we are.

  5. Craig Benno

    Paul led the example of saying he was praying and how he was praying. I have found that meditating on others prayers has helped shape my own prayer life. Journaling my prayers forces me to think about what it is I am praying, why I am praying it and whether it glorifies God.

    Though I’m hesitant about any idea of reading prayers…I’d much rather the attitude to be one of praying prayers; whether they are written or spontaneous.

  6. Peter

    I’ve really enjoyed your prayers and translated them for my wife. Forty years ago, I started out on my Christian pilgrimage as a free evangelical, spent many years as a Pentecostal and in recent years have returned to my (childhood) Anglican roots. I now appreciate liturgy. I bought my wife (a lifelong Pente) the Book of Common Prayer in Spanish and she reads it every day. So with God’s Spirit there is room for everything.

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