Spontaneous vs. Intentional Prayer

In light of commending A Book of Prayers earlier, I thought I’d reflect a bit on intentionality when it comes to prayer.

Typically, 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 dirty word for us–it is usually accompanied 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 campus for a day.  In addition to a 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 rule out authenticity.  On the contrary, it can enhance it.

Recently, 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 our task, toward one another, and toward God.

If we knew we were going to meet with President 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 the particular reasons we appreciate them.

To 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.

The Northumbria Community has a page for the daily office, containing prayers for use throughout the day.  Also, you can find the Lectionary from the Revised Common Lectionary here, containing the liturgical calendar with its text selections and prayers.

I’ve enjoyed the exercise of writing prayers for public settings and reading the thoughtful prayers of others.

What other resources have you found helpful for thoughtfully intentional prayer?

11 thoughts on “Spontaneous vs. Intentional Prayer

  1. Bobby Nemeth

    This is a great post!

    I have been in the Pentecostal/Charismatic church circles for years but recently I was hired to work for a United Methodist Church. It was a dramatic shift because in Pentecostalism spontaneous=spiritual, and that of spiritual maturity. So my only connection previously to this type of worship, where prayers were read, was my uncle who was a holiness pastor in the Pillar of Fire. At first, it was a little different, getting used to reading prayers and performing a Call to Worship, but now there are certain things I like about it a lot. It can at times elevate the service! Though, I haven’t even thought of using it for personal devotion.

    Thanks for the reminder!

    1. timgombis

      Bobby, I find using the prayers of others helpful for both personal use and public use. That is, there’s nothing like reading through the Psalms prayerfully, thinking of current stresses or blessings as I read. And I’ve woven in the words of Psalms as I’ve written prayers for use in public worship. Same with the prayers of others. I find it especially helpful in the early morning, when my mind is initially dull–it’s a sweet experience to be “invited” into prayer by the words of others.

  2. Andrew

    Agreed. This is a great post.

    You ask “<b?What other resources have you found helpful for thoughtfully intentional prayer?”

    I frequently dissect “the Lord’s prayer”, and think about its parts. I try to model my prayer on it. I am intellectually convinced it is the the perfect prayer. Beyond that, I look at prayers recorded in the bible as examples. Some of them, so structured, so complete, make me aware of how immaturely I pray.

    Two of my favourite prayers, apart from ‘the Lords Prayer’ is Solomon’s prayer at the temple dedication [1 Kings 8:22-61][2 Chron 6], and Daniels Prayer [Dan 9:1-27].

    Thanks again for your insight.

  3. Philip Shimer

    This was perfect timing for me. I just received “Valley of Vision” in the mail yesterday! I meditated on a couple of the prayers this AM and found them to be incredibly enriching. The words have stuck with me all day which I believe is a result of having seen them written down. On a somewhat side note, I started to attend a church recently that has about 800-900 attenders with the average age being maybe 25-30. It is a very young crowd to say the least. I found this very interesting because they have a liturgical structure to their gatherings. Is this return to a liturgical structure something you see as a growing trend? I see great benefits of it. What would you say are some of the dangers. Thanks for the post and book recommendation Tim!

    1. timgombis

      Hey Phil, great to hear from you! I do think that the rediscovery by evangelicals of various aspects the Great Tradition is a recent trend, probably over the last 10-15 years, but certainly more recently. Many churches are adopting liturgies from various quarters, which can be very healthy and life-giving. Dangers? Not sure–perhaps others can weigh in. Perhaps there’s the danger of pastors using resources without knowledge of the wider frames of thought that go with their use. Evangelical pastors who adopt some of these resources ought to be aware of the traditions that give rise to them and how they’re used in those churches. That can only make their use more life-giving, it seems to me.

  4. Haddon Anderson (@HaddonAnderson)

    Great stuff. I really appreciate the analogies.

    Question, how do you view spontaneous and intentional prayer in terms of our time? I once heard, “Try to make your thought life your prayer life.” This doesn’t imply that intentional prayer is unnecessary, but it does elevate a sense of spontaneous prayer that seemingly “flows” in the course of the day. What I’ve found is that I’m so darn bad at this. I’ll attempt to plunge into a prayerful thought and in a matter of 30 seconds be lost daydreaming about some thing I heard on the radio an hour ago.

    This has revealed to me that intentional prayer must be valued in terms of my time. I still long to develop more spontaneous reflection during the day, but my prayer life is so wavering when intentional time (i.e. writing out prayers, going on a walk just to pray) isn’t given to it.

    As you’ve alluded to, it’s hard to know what to encourage my generation in. Intentional prayer (or the thought of doing “devotions”) can sound dutiful and unappealing, but spontaneous prayer, while it may carry a sense of refreshment, seems limited and often results in giving God leftovers.

    Perhaps a blend of both intentional and spontaneous prayer is the simple answer to this, but I’m curious to hear any thoughts you have…

  5. Jerry Goodman

    I have done both – on the cuff and have written prayers. I have found that my writing often slows me down so that I can “think” what I am writing. After recovery from depression I could express my heart more so. I believe what is important is where my heart is, whether vocal or written. My problem is that I don’t pray enough. I believe such a book of prayer can help one in a difficult place to guide our thoughts upon God’s amazing grace. And to guide us to be what God wants us to be for the other person without “stomping” their pain or need

  6. Wesman

    Great post. This is one reason, among many others, I moved from a free church tradition to an Anglican one. The richness of the liturgy and common prayers continually overwhelms and nourishes me.

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  8. Christina

    Thank you for sharing this. I’m always learning to pray better, and have often been called to pray for people off the cuff. I think reading more prayers (and praying them) will be helpful to me.

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