Historically, the Christian church has a tradition of public prayer. Here are some examples of what I mean—taken from the Book of Common Prayer:
(For the Human Family)
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
(For Peace Among the Nations)
Almighty God our heavenly Father, guide the nations of the world into the way of justice and truth, and establish among them that peace which is the fruit of righteousness, that they may become the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
(For our Enemies)
O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(For the Church)
Gracious Father, we pray for they holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.
(For the Unity of the Church)
O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(For Social Justice)
Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Yes, I know. The 1979 edition of the BCP presents an easy target, what with its touchy-feely ecumenism, psychobabble, unisex circumlocutions, and Pepsi-generation pieties. It often reads like a UN resolution or soda pop commercial.
I'd like to build the world a home
And furnish it with love;
Grow apple trees and honey bees,
And snow white turtledoves.
I'd like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony;
I'd like to hold it in my arms
And keep it company.
I'd like to see the world for once
All standing hand in hand;
And hear them echo through the hills
For peace throughout the land.
I'd like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony;
A song of peace that echoes on
And never goes away.
But I think it illustrates one of the potential dangers of public prayer. Indeed, I think that, unless we’re very alert to the danger, the practice of public prayer will naturally end up sounding like the various prayers and collects in the 1979 BCP.
What I mean is this. Unlike private prayer, which is inherently personal and particular, public prayer tends to be generic. It’s not talking to, for, by, or about any individual or individual situation.
And that is because public prayer presumes to speak on behalf of the many. It can’t be too specific, so it stays on a plane of general platitudes.
Put another way, public prayer is characterized by its unremitting anonymity. It is not by anyone in particular, to anyone in particular, for anyone in particular, or about anyone in particular.
And here’s where the danger comes in. Because public prayer is so vague and general, it falls into the inveterate habit of overgeneralizing.
And what’s the danger of that, you ask? The danger is that it prays for things that will never happen. For things which were never promised.
It’s a recipe for unanswered prayer. God will never answer these prayers because they are so sweeping and indiscriminate that they overstep the promises of Scripture.
Public prayer unconsciously conditions the worshipper to pray without any expectation that God will answer his prayers.
He prays the same formula prayers year after year, and nothing ever happens. Nothing ever changes.
Prayers like these never make a dent in world affairs. Public prayer is such a broad-toothed comb that it allows every knot and burl to slip through the cracks, for the prayer is all cracks and no teeth.
Year after year, the same worshipers pray the same prayers about world peace, social justice, and church unity.
And to what effect? Zero effect?
Prayers like this don’t make a dimes’ worth of difference. Flicking pebbles against a brick wall.
It’s spiritually corrosive to fall into the habit of praying prayers that never made a difference. Never affect the outcome.
For, at that point, there’s no difference between a prayerful life and a prayerless life. Whether you pray or refrain from prayer, it’s all the same.
This is made worse by the fact that I’m sure many Christians learn the art of private prayer from the art of public prayer.
The public prayers of the church supply the model for their private prayer life.
I suspect that this accounts for a certain amount of apostasy. There are men and women brought up in the church who learn to prayer for themselves and others by reciting the public prayers of the church.
And this, in turn, fosters a false expectation. They get used to praying for things that God will never give them, because such things were never promised in his word.
And, after a while, some nominal believers begin to notice that prayer is profoundly irrelevant to the practicalities of life. Life goes on just the same whether they pray every day, or skip a day, or drop the habit entirely.
Here we need to draw a basic distinction: Even if you pray a Biblical prayer, there is no guarantee that your prayer will be answered in any particular case.
But if you pray an unbiblical prayer, there is a guarantee that your prayer will go unanswered every single time. You will rack up an unbroken losing streak.
Some biblical prayers are answered, but unbiblical prayers are never answered.
Yet, someone will interject, don’t we have public prayers in the Bible? What about Dan 9? Ezr 9? Neh 9? And isn’t the entirety of the Psalter a public prayer book?
Indeed so, but notice the difference. The public prayers of scripture are individualized in a way that BCP petitions are not.
The public prayers of Scripture begin life as prayers by individuals about individuals or individual circumstances. They are very concrete. Very specific.
Biblical prayers move from the particular to the general, whereas BCP prayers move from the general to the particular.
That’s the difference, and what a difference it makes. BCP prayers are empty abstractions. Like a fairy godmother giving a four-year old three wishes.
Should the church continue the tradition of public prayer? Certainly!
But it needs to think about what it’s saying. Feel-good prayers about universal love and brotherhood are worse than useless.
The church needs to model its prayer life on the prayer life of Scripture.