In 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.