During a Facebook discussion on Monday about ways to introduce unison prayers (“Let us pray” vs. “Will you join me in prayer?”), one astute pastor wrote me to say that in her congregation folks don’t ‘do’ unison prayer very well, especially when it comes to prayers that have a certain literary quality to them (think Book of Common Prayer, UCC Book of Worship, etc.).
She thinks that their reluctance is owing in part to the fact that they are not a highly educated group. They’re not stupid, by any stretch of the imagination; they’re just not oriented to reading in the way some other congregations are. For them, reading a composed prayer aloud in unison has no appeal; she notices that whenever she invites them to pray the prayer printed in the bulletin, there’s little energy in the reading, no real engagement with the prayer.
This discomfort with unison prayer is also found in traditions that are more Spirit-oriented. They prize spontaneous prayer over composed prayer; reading a prayer aloud together is not highly valued. It’s often associated with a perceived ‘high church’ tendency to stifle the freedom of the Spirit through the imposition of unnecessary order on Her movements. To put a written prayer in front of these folks and ask them to read it in unison won’t work very well no matter what words you use to invite them to do it! Unison prayer works best, it seems, in more literate communities in which people are accustomed to reading and have a strong appreciation for the crafted word.
So, what’s the poor worship leader to do if you’re in a tradition that normally uses composed prayers, but your congregation responds poorly to them (for whatever reason) when asked to recite them in unison? Stop using them?
Maybe yes, maybe no.
Before abandoning such prayers, I would first try examining, and maybe revising, the unison prayers you’ve been printing in your bulletins (or projecting on your screens) to be sure that the problem isn’t the prayers you’re writing or borrowing from liturgical sources. Test to see if they are well-written prayers, brief, clear, easy to read, and beautiful, but not too cute or impossibly allusive, and not so jargon-y and weird that people internally object to them. Do they flow in a pleasing rhythm? Do they fall naturally into ‘breathing lines’ that people can manage and not stumble over unwieldy constructions? Are there words in them that are hard to say, or maybe even hard to understand? In other words, first be sure the words you put in other people’s mouths are worthy of being put there, and that they can be spoken without physical or mental effort. I have been guilty of making prayers that no one can pray, for many of the reason alluded to here, and am now feeling a need to rethink the way I compose prayers for unsion ‘consumption.’
But if after reflecting and maybe revising, you remain convinced unison prayer is not helping people to pray in worship, here are some other ideas.
1. Use short responses
The colleague who put the question to me is using more short responses in worship instead of blocks of unison prayers. She says she’s noted a much greater connection to these briefer prayers than to the standard unison prayer. People respond more wholeheartedly when, for example, they’re invited to say “Thanks be to God” to an expressed joy or thanksgiving, or “We ask for God’s comfort and strength” to a concern or need during the prayer time. They’ve pretty much memorized these responses as well, and rarely need either a bulletin prompt or a verbal cue to pray them.
So what if instead of relying heavily on blocks of printed unison prayer, or using elaborate litanies that are full of ideas and go on and on, we were to make more liberal use of short responses? The time for ‘Joys and Concerns,” or prayers of the people, is one obvious ‘slot’ for a short response or refrain, but these forms could be used effectively in many other places in the service as well:
An invocation or payer of praise at the start of the service might be prayed by a worship leader singly on behalf of all, using either composed prayer or spontaneous prayer, and people might respond with set refrains and responses—sometimes punctuating the prayer, sometimes at the conclusion of the prayer. The same might be done with the confession and assurance, or with statements or affirmations of faith. (I once used short responses as a refrain during the communion prayer to good effect.) The responses could vary from season to season to keep a certain freshness in the people’s prayer, but not changed up so often that people cannot learn them by heart.
There are many virtues in this method of helping people pray without forcing them to read composed prayers with which they may have little facility or affinity:
First, it involves them. They may not be reading prayers together, but they are still raising their common voice in public prayer (which is more or less what we mean when we say that ‘liturgy is the people’s work’—i. e., it is proper of God’s people to pray together, it is their calling or common ‘work’); they are still being heard (giving testimony to their faith); and they are still hearing each other (a classic edifying act, building up the Body of Christ).
Second, it may allow people to be more truly responsive in prayer. If folks are not distracted by whatever it is that bothers them when they try to read in unison, they may be able to listen more deeply to a prayer offered in their name; and with more attentiveness to the spoken prayer of another, their responses might also be more attentive, more wholehearted, more prayerful.
Third, it encourages memorization. More on this below.
2. Restore the People’s Amen
A complementary idea is to work diligently to restore the ‘amen’ as the people’s proper prayer. For millennia, this important and powerful word was reserved, we might say, for the assembly; it is not for the leader, although of course the leader is not precluded from saying it with the people. ‘Amen’ was and remains the people’s critically important assent, their stamp of approval, if you will, on prayers offered on their behalf.
When they pronounce the amen, the people not only affirm the sentiments of the leader’s prayer, they also show that they have ‘participated’ in it, that it is truly their own prayer, not just their representative’s. One could even say that no prayer offered in the public worship of God’s people is valid without the ‘amen’ of the assembly.
In many congregations of the ‘free church’ in which a fixed liturgy is not normative, the all-important ‘amen’ has fallen into disuse as the proper word of the people. What often happens in worship is that worship leaders speak it on their own as they end their prayers, and no one says it with them; or they come to the end of a spoken prayer and say ‘amen’ to finish it, and then the people echo the leader’s amen, sometimes after a second of hesitation and feebly, sometimes immediately and in a rousing way.
Most people don’t know that this word belongs quintessentially to them. Worship leaders who do understand this will sometimes try to coax a full-throated ‘amen’ out of people at the end of prayers by saying things like, “And the whole church says….” Or “And let the whole church say….” to which people eventually learn to respond. In free church worship, this is a substitute for the ‘formulas’ of fixed liturgies with which many prayers end (e. g., “Through Jesus Christ, our Lord…” etc.) to which the second nature reflex response of the assembly is ‘Amen.’
I am not personally fond of the phrase, “And let the whole church say…..”, but I think it is a useful way to help people assume their duty and claim their right to participate actively and assent in faith to the prayers that are offered on their behalf. Many other prompts could be used, including some of the ancient ‘ending formulas,’ like the one mentioned above, which makes clear the traditional conviction that all Christian prayer is Trinitarian— i. e., offered through Jesus Christ to God (the ‘Father’) in the power of the Holy Spirit, One God forever… (Amen).
3. Expand congregational song
Sung responses are even better than spoken ones because, as Augustine aptly noted, ‘when we sing we pray twice.’ If worship shapers decide to rely more heavily on responses and refrains in worship, they should consider having some of them sung.
I am not by any stretch of the imagination an enemy of choirs and anthems, much less do I disdain traditional congregational hymns; but I believe we have fallen into some patterns in their usage that are not conducive to helping the congregation sing their prayer—e. g., the automatic use of just 3 hymns a Sunday, the so-called ‘hymn sandwich,’ the ‘big’ showy anthem, the infrequency (and in many cases the complete disappearance) of sung responses like Gloria, Kyrie, Alleluia, and Amen; and the rarity of the sung or chanted weekly psalm, once so important in and characteristic of Reformed worship.
This subject is way too big for today; suffice it to say that were we to construct worship in such a way that it flowed from beginning to end on the song on the people, we might find ourselves worshipping together in deep ways we never imagined were possible. To get there would require a re-thinking of worship order, the collaboration of really great and flexible musicians and congregational song leaders, choirs that are willing to accept a vocation as leaders and instigators of congregational song as well as (and maybe more than) performers of specialized music, worship leaders who are able to shape worship more fluidly and who are willing themselves to be a lot less gabby and prominent in the service, and time—plenty of it, as well as much patient planning and even more perseverance through the congregation’s initial discomfort with novelty, complaints that it’s too Catholic, and other forms of foot-dragging. But over time, with patience and perseverance and a godly imagination, encouraging and restoring the full range of possibilities for congregational song could make worship more prayerful—or better said, could make the worship service itself a prayer.
4. Encourage memorization
Free church people will often claim that doing the same thing over and over every week leads to the kind of routinized worship that is anathema to our tradition. We don’t pray in such rote ways. That’s what ‘they’ do, not us. But just try to change up the words or melody of the Doxology or omit the Lord’s Prayer some Sunday, and you’ll know that people do value (for both the right and the wrong reasons) things they know by heart—thing they learned by heart because they were repeated regularly over time and have become reflexive, lodging in the body as well as the mind.
People may be uncomfortable reading composed printed unison prayers, but most are demonstrably not uncomfortable with reciting some things from memory. This memorization happens ‘naturally’ through the repeated use of some key elements of worship. Worship leaders can encourage memorization by keeping certain printed prayers and responses stable week after week, changing them seasonally perhaps, so that eventually regular worship participants will become so familiar with them that they won’t need to read them off the page (or screen). And if the prayers and responses are scriptural (either actual passages or scriptural in tone and sentiment), all the better.
Memorization helps practically with the issue of unison prayer we began with, but it has other virtues too. To lodge things in the memory is an ancient practice of formation, a widely valued one among many religious traditions. It is not a matter of mere rote learning (we’re not talking about Bible verse contests here—although that old practice was not such a bad thing!), but a kind of ‘habit-forming,’ a way to convey to the inner person the syntax, sentiments, rhythms, and vocabulary of a particular faith, to give people ‘material’ for their inner lives, resources for prayer that can be called on for service outside worship as well as in. Again, this is too big a subject for today. But you get the drift…
5. Keep quiet
Silence in the presence of God is prayer—attentiveness, listening, resting, self-offering—all good, all prayer, all silently accomplished. Many worship planners in the free church tradition have lately come to appreciate the value of such times of silence in worship; and the judicious use of short periods of silence is another way to deal with the issue of congregations that find reading unison prayers difficult. (Of course, they may find silence difficult too! But at least they don’t have to read!)
Some silence during the confessional moment is always appropriate. Silence can also be inserted after a particularly affecting reading or sermon, or before (or at then end of) the pastoral prayer or prayers of the people. For me, however, the ideal way to use silence in worship is to make it a regular element in the overall rhythm of the service, such that there is a skillful oscillation throughout among spoken word, song, action/ritual and short silences—an oscillation that feels natural, like breathing.
I always urge some caution about inserting silence into regular Sunday worship. Silent periods ought not be too long. We probably shouldn’t ask people to sit quietly for longer than a couple of minutes at a time at any point in the service. Not because of inability, unwillingness, or discomfort (over time this is not hard to overcome), but because Silent periods that are too long break the natural flow of worship. We are not assembled on Sundays to engage in extended personal devotion, but to worship communally and ‘publicly.’
Everything I’ve suggested above is offered in view of my colleague’s question about what to do in her non-literary congregation, but all of it could just as well be employed in congregations where people do have affinity for reading prayers together. Unison prayer is only one form of congregational prayer, and it’s salutary to encourage many other forms in addition to it. Over-reliance on composed printed prayers, often of a ‘literary’ quality, means that the people are not being taught/learning other forms. And this is one f the factors lin the widespread feeling among laypeople that they don’t know how to pray–that they can’t pray ‘like that’ (meaning the highly crafted prayers of the pros). Worship can easily teach folks how to pray in a variety of ways—and teach them that they are more than capable of ‘real‘ prayer—if we are willing to use more varied forms to construct our weekly worship.
So what happens to the composed printed prayer meant to be read aloud in unison? Granting that we need always to be wary of imposing our own aesthetic on a congregation that has its own sense of what ‘works’ and what ‘counts’ as prayer, I still think there’s a place for crafted prayes in every community’s worship, and would hate to see us abandon it altogether. The trick may be to keep such unison prayers relatively short, make them beautiful, easy to grasp and easy to recall, then use them routinely until perhaps they come to be ‘known by heart,’ and until they become thereby ‘spontaneous,’ truly owned by all. And to use them sparingly, as one among many other options, some of which we have considered here, and others that you have thought about and experimented with in your own settings.
That’s all I have…. For what it’s worth…and for now.
See also: http://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/how-to-make-congregational-prayer-more-participatory/
Perhaps this is discussed elsewhere, but one important component of common/unison prayer is the worship leader: is the leader bored or uninvolved or hostile to the unison prayer? If yes, monkey see; monkey do. I’ve seen enough worship leaders to know that when the leader leads a unison prayer in an attitude that proclaims the prayer has meaning and is important, at least half the congregation, no matter how jaded, will respond to that, and over time the percentage of the congregation will increase. I’ve seen The Lord’s Prayer lead in such a blasé fashion is flops in the air like a dying fish — and that prayer transcends literacy and style boundaries. It also speaks to the point about putting something worthwhile in front of people to pray. I am a fan of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, and I’ve seen English PHDs stumble over some of that syntax.
Good observation! Although I believe somehow God works through (or is able to work through) even the least talented worship leaders, humanly speaking, a really engaged leader can make all the difference, a person transparent to God leading prayer… All the same, some communities can be excellently led, but simply not be a ‘literary’ culture, and not be able to fully appreciate the crafted word. They’re not jaded or bored–This just have less facility with this form of prayer.