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Crafting Liturgical Prayers: Part I, Finding the Right Language

I have the opportunity to visit many churches and participate in worship across many traditions. In non-prayerbook churches, prayers in worship are either crafted extemporaneously during worship, or crafted ahead of time before worship. This places tremendous responsibility on the worship leader who has to understand at least four things:

1) the kind of language that is appropriate for public prayer as opposed to private, devotional prayer

2) the forms of prayer that are possible for offering public prayer (collect, bidding prayers, litanies, etc.)

3) the genre of prayer that is being offered at a particular moment in public worship (adoration, confession, petition, thanksgiving, intercession, etc.).

4) the theological elements that go into each genre of prayer.

Over the course of the next few posts, I will address these questions.

Finding the Right Language

The goal with liturgical English is to preserve richness, dignity, and aesthetic power while also speaking of and to the realities of daily life in our world.  When we craft prayers for worship, therefore, we should use forms of speaking that arise from both the biblical and theological language widely used in our tradition, and the broad idiom of the community to which we belong.

Begin by listening.  When crafting prayer we listen to the heartbeat of the world around us: its pain, fears, joys, hopes, and celebrations.  This heartbeat is larger than our congregation. It is crucial that we read the newspapers, reflect deeply on current events, and know the pastoral concerns and issues that are present in our congregations.  As we reflect on all of this, we can ask questions that are relevant to the categories of prayer that we will be praying:

  •  What sins need to be confessed? (Prayers of confession)
  • What are the deepest supplications (desires) in our midst? (Prayers of                      supplication)
  • For what must we intercede? (Prayers of intercession)
  • For what can we offer thanksgiving? (Prayers of thanksgiving).
  • etc.

General vs. Specific Language.  This is one of the toughest issues for those crafting liturgical prayer. In our prayers, we need to find a way to be neither too general nor too specific.  In order to do this, we can begin by finding what Paul Brown calls “middle language.”  Middle language gathers our prayer into a very general category.  This is a helpful starting point. The language of public prayer, however, needs to go one small step further towards specificity, naming more specific concerns that are included in a larger category. These concerns are broad enough to include as many persons as possible, while narrow enough to focus the attention of those who are praying on specific concerns.

Example: “Save us from complacency and make us bearers of compassion, (general categories). Move us beyond the walls of our homes; tutoring, assisting the homeless, calling and visiting the lonely and forgotten.” (slight bit more specificity)

It is crucial to avoid too much specificity. This turns public prayer into a coercive ritual – forcing others to say things that may be common to our experience as crafters of prayer, but are not part of their experience or world view. For example:

“Free us from our twittering and texting and inspire us to teach ESL, drive the bus to the women’s shelter at Downtown Lutheran Church on Wednesday nights, and go to West End nursing home and see Bill, after his open heart surgery on Tuesday.”

Inclusive Language

God language. In order to achieve more richness in our awareness of the character and nature of God, it is a good idea to reserve father-language for God to the Lord’s Prayer and to prayers that are adapted to the Trinitarian form.

In other prayers, we can begin with an invocation of God that indicates the kind of prayer we are offering, and then follow that invocation with a relative clause that broadens our understanding of God beyond gender-specific terms. Remember the many symbols out of human experience that were used in the Bible when speaking of God:  Creator, Covenant Maker, Liberator, Judge, Redeemer, Shepherd, Comforter, Sovereign, Begetter, Bearer, Rock, Wellspring, Fire, Eagle, Hen, Lion, and Light.

When doing this, it is important to avoid stereotyping.  For instance, many common attempts to use feminine imagery for God represent only maternal, nurturing, soft and gentle, comforting pictures of God, and forget other images for women, notably women as agents of justice and judgment, who courageously use their power to challenge the mighty on behalf of the poor.

For example:  “God of all nations (invocation), who, like a mother hen fiercely protecting her children…(relative clause).”

People language: All of us will need to have a strategy for change in the area of inclusive language for the people in our church context. No matter what level of change we desire, we will need to be aware of the kinds of language that are problematic and the stereotypes that we should avoid. I can only mention a few in this brief post (see PCUSA website).

Avoid words that exclude:                              Choose words that include:

brothers, brotherhood (in the faith) Brothers and sisters, friends, kindred, family of faith, neighbors, humankind
man, men, mankind People, all people, men and women or women and men, humanity, persons, everyone, all of us, we, one
sons (of God) Daughters and sons, children of God, people of God, God’s people, heirs
forefathers Ancestors, forebears, forebearers
disabled person Person with a disability, differently abled
clergyman Clergy, minister
layman Laity, layperson, member of the congregation, congregant
fellowship Community, communion, friendship, “koinonia”
man-made Constructed, not natural, human-made, synthetic
stand as able Stand at your discretion
foreigner, alien Visitor from another country, immigrant
man and wife Husband and wife, woman and man
kingdom Kindom, realm
third world Developing nations

Stylistic Concerns:

Overuse of sentimental or figurative language.  One of the most common issues for those who craft liturgical prayer is the tendency to use books of devotional prayers as resources for crafting public prayer. At the same time, many books of prayers written supposedly with public worship in mind would be better used in the prayer closet. When crafting public prayer, it is best to use resources that have been carefully vetted by theologians and liturgical experts. There are many excellent resources available. Many are published by denominations. Here are a few pointers:

  • Avoid all artificial sentence structuresrhetorical flourishes and sentimental digressions.  Look for constantly recurring language about things like thunder, the earthquake, the ocean, the splendor of the solar beams, the mighty flood, the lofty mountain, the verdant meadows, the kaleidoscopic butterfly, etc.
  •  Avoid the use of amatory expressions  (expressions pertaining to intimacy or love-making):  “sweet Jesus”, “dear Jesus”, “Lovely Savior”, etc.  (our prayer is not to Jesus anyway)  Also look for “dear God”, “lovely and wonderful creator”, etc.  Any hug-fest language in addressing God should be carefully evaluated.  The familiarity of the humble child is different than the familiarity of the presumptuous sentimentalist.
  • Avoid lots of adjectives. Overuse of adjectives is a clue to sentimentality. Adjectives tend to move toward sentimentality and decoration and away from substance and energy.

Repetition:  The too frequent occurrence of favorite words or phrases:

  • favorite names or titles for God – “O God!,” “Great God!,” “Our Heavenly Father,” “Holy Father,””Father God,” “Creator God,” etc.
  • favorite petitionary formulas – “we just,” “we pray you,” “we beseech you,”etc.
  • the interjection “O” prefixed to almost every sentence.
  • the use of the diminutive endearing “we just.”
  • the use of “opportunity.”  “We just thank you for the opportunity to….”


Non-grammatical and archaic expressions.

“grant to give us….” ;”grant to impart to us…”; “we commit us to you…”; “solemnize our minds…”; “we resign us…”; “we pray you give us…”

Prayers that are too long 

There are no hard and fast rules on this. Length is context-specific.  It is important to conduct a proportional evaluation of each prayer in relation to the rest of the liturgy.

Making prayer a forum for party politics or church administration

Prayer is not the place for soapboxing, political debate, or church administration (“we just pray that someone will donate a new church van…”).  This does not mean that prayer is not worldly and concerned with political processes.  But it is concerned to open these processes up to God, not to present and defend party positions or manipulate church members into action.

Lack of appropriateness

Be aware of the liturgical, seasonal, and occasional aspects of prayer. For instance, we might avoid crafting a prayer bearing the structural pattern of the Last Words of the Cross on the first Sunday of Advent.  Or we might avoid praying that all may come to Christ and be saved at the interfaith prayer breakfast. Appropriateness!

Lack of linguistic energy

This is not the same things as “volume” or “flourish”.  Here we mean force … the strength of the language and the mental energy it conveys.  One of the keys here is clarity and precision in energy.  Look for dangling participles, pronouns that lack antecedents, main thoughts that end up in subordinate clauses, confusions of past, present and future tense, subjects that disagree with predicates. Look especially for long, complicated, rambling sentences. All these sap energy and promote confusion.

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