I see that Tony Jones has posted something critical of small/cell groups (I don’t know where and I can’t find it now. You’re welcome to post a link in the comments). Perhaps now that a leader in the Emergent Village has suggested that they’re not very useful maybe it’s okay for an Old Side confessionalist to say it too. The last time I re-published this on the web the reaction was pretty heated but now I can say, “Hey, I’m just agreeing with Tony Jones.”
Caveat: I since this first appeared and since I first re-published it on my old website I’ve come to disagree with this essay on one point. I don’t think it’s necessary to juxtapose Shorter Catechism 88 with the Berkhof and the Heidelberg on prayer as a means of grace. Still, this essay articulated something I had thought for a long time but had, to my shame, been afraid to say.
Reprinted from the Nicotine Theological Journal 3 (October, 1999): 1-4, by permission of the publishers.
The NTJ is sponsored by the Old Life Theological Society and published quarterly (sort of) and edited by that redoubtable duo of Orthodox Presbyterians, John Muether and Darryl Hart.
By Henry M. Lewis
Why is it that when Presbyterians gather for prayer they look more like Quakers than heirs of the magisterial Reformation? To be sure, Presbyterian prayer meetings possess a little less spontaneity than the Quaker service since someone is assigned the opening and concluding prayer. But in between Presbyterians rely on the Spirit to lead them in the fashion of Quakers, with one person praying for this request another for that, until the length of the silence becomes unbearable and the designated supplicant utters the concluding prayer. Whatever allowances we might want to make for informal gatherings of the saints, surely the inheritors of a theological tradition that stresses decency and order might want to reconsider a spiritual discipline (the trendy way of putting it) that is inherently indecent and disorderly. Strong words those, but the pattern of informal gatherings of the saints for prolonged times of petitions has become so familiar to conservative Presbyterians that they seldom see how inappropriate it is to their beliefs (or they are afraid to voice objections because of the charges of impiety that will surely follow). So vituperative language may be in order to rouse contemporary Calvinists from their Spirit-led slumbers.
OF COURSE, SOME OF THE animus expressed here toward prayer meetings is simply the product of having grown up in an evangelical home. I can remember, with much pain, those gatherings of teenagers in the basement of our church, where each pimply-faced kid was expected to be vulnerable and reveal something fairly juicy that demanded prayer. If you offered no request, others could not only assume that you were not sufficiently spiritual to be thinking about those in need or your own dependence on God. These small groups of prayer were good preparation for my senior year sociology class in high school, where forced intimacy also prevailed and charges of cynicism and insensitivity also followed my choked snickering at another person’s self-disclosure of failure or woe. Rather than making me more sensitive, prayer meetings only made me more aware of how forced and fake “sharing” is outside the normal bonds of friendship and family, whether religious or secular. My insensitivity was so pronounced that instead of revealing something truly personal during sociology class’ warm-up exercises, I commented on the cereal I had eaten that morning. For some reason, the gals didn’t think that my precious nugget about Life cereal compared with the problems they were having at home.
The Funny thing about small group prayer is how little intimacy actually prevails. Most of the requests center on the body and its ailments – someone suffering from cancer, upcoming surgery for another church member, a parent afflicted with Alzheimer’s, troubles with digestion. Heaven forbid that anyone would actually pray about two of the things for which Christ prayed in the Lord’s Prayer, namely the forgiveness of sins and withstanding temptation. (Yes, he did mention daily bread, but modern day request for the body make up much more than one-third of the total number of petitions, which means that we may be concerned with physical needs than our Lord was.) In fact, what would be really intimate and personal would be asking for prayer n coping with the attractive new church member who makes you wish you were ten years younger, or mentioning a recent binge on the pint of New York Super Fudge that is no longer in the freezer. Which is only to say that we like requests that require some vulnerability, but nothing as messy as real sin and temptation.
BUT THE AGONY OF SMALL group prayer only begins with the time of taking requests, which can last longer than the actual time allotted for addressing God. If, like me, you would like to pray quietly during this time, you are frozen stiff when it comes time to pick someone to open and close the meeting. Some, like myself, especially dread having to open, since in the space of fifteen seconds, you have to compose your thoughts, scan all the items for prayer and group them around certain themes (e.g., ear, nose and throat; joints; hearts and lungs,) and craft a glibly reverent prayer. And since Presbyterians avoid using set forms, we have no guides for launching into this sea of material like that supplied in the simple form of the collect. Far better is it to be chosen the closer – that way you can hear everything else that has been prayed, tie up loose ends, and best of all, gain time to compose your thoughts. But the process of constructing your own prayer while others are engaging in free prayer raises real questions about the value of those meetings.
STILL, YOU WANT TO PRAY IN A way that keeps you from sounding stupid or unspiritual, which means you have to think about what you are going to say to the Lord of the universe in front of these fervent Christians (providentially, since they are more enthusiastic than confessional they won’t likely care if you sound stupid as long as you sound zealous). At the same time, you need to make sure you don’t pray for the exact same thing as someone else. Nor would it be good to contradict another supplicant. But if you are thinking about your turn to pray, you are not exactly praying along with the other people as they pray. In fact, small group prayer appears to be self-defeating, since the whole point these gatherings is to engage in a prolonged time of corporate prayer. And if each person is worried about what he is going to say, then the sense of corporateness is lost, and the meeting is really only a series of individual prayers. In effect, small group prayer provides a corporate setting for prayers that should really be part of private devotion. Which means that small group prayer—to use the vernacular—is far more horizontal than vertical. It’s a way to help us be close to others, not a very fitting environment for directing prayers to God. It’s therapy not piety.
IF, HOWEVER, PRAYER IS NOT about making ourselves vulnerable to others or displaying in spontaneous fashion our heartfelt trust in God, if it is actually, as the Shorter Catechism has it, “the offering up to God for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ,” then perhaps a better version of small group prayer would be to read Scripture and then pray on the basis of what God’s word reveals. Instead of acting like Quakers and letting the Spirit lead, Presbyterians should be relying upon the inscripturated word that is supposed to govern all things Reformed. A prayer meeting, Reformed style, should be a dialogue between God and his people, with Scripture reading, and then a prayer in response, another Scripture reading, and another prayer, and so on. At least this way, God would get some say in what his people are praying, and the requests might actually be for things revealed in the Bible – like perseverance, not health.
But even a truly Reformed prayer meeting would not permit enough time for preparation. It still relies on spontaneity and assumes that truly spiritual people should be able to pray publicly at the drop of a hat. This kind of thinking even haunts Presbyterians when they gather for corporate worship. Presbyterians in the pews want their ministers to pray a good and moving prayer extemporaneously. If he uses a written prayer then lots of people get jumpy. That’s because a minister should be a real man of God, and real men of God don’t need crutches when they pray. Thus well intended, well constructed, and theologically sound prayers are supposed to proceed organically from the godly heart (even though these same ministers could never be entrusted to write a new creed or revise existing ones—”ours is not a creed-writing age”). Preparation, notes, or prayer books are telltale signs of the lukewarm heart.
THIS EXPLAINS, IN PART, THE Presbyterian attitude toward liturgies. Liturgy here refers to the regular or repeated use of forms, prayers, and readings in corporate worship. At the simplest level, of course, everyone in corporate worship uses a liturgy in the sense that they follow an order of worship rather habitually. In the purest sense of free worship, only Quakers and Pentecostals qualify since they wait upon the apparently unpredictable movement of the Spirit. But if an assembly of believers uses some set order, even if it is only ten praise songs followed by a sermon and prayer, then they are following a liturgy in the most general sense. Presbyterians do not oppose liturgies in this broad sense because if they did it would mean having to retype the entire bulletin every week, instead of simply inserting the selected hymns, Scripture readings, and sermon title. But they do oppose liturgies in the narrow sense and here they generally follow the argument developed by Charles Hodge. “The great objections to the use of liturgies are,” he wrote, “that the authoritative imposition of them is inconsistent with Christian liberty; that they never can be made to answer all the varieties of experience and occasions; and that they tend to formality, and cannot be an adequate substitute for the warm outgoings of the heart moved by the spirit of genuine devotion.”
Since the NTJ is on record in favor of the regulative principle of worship, it would be hard to quarrel with Hodge’s first reason that bishops or higher assemblies would be tyrannical in requiring all congregations to use the same forms and order of worship And historically, this objection has carried the day, even when Presbyterian denominations have produced good liturgies and recommended them to ministers and sessions. Liberty of conscience has legitimately permitted Presbyterian congregations to follow their own patterns and customs.
BUT HODGE’S OTHER REASONS need further scrutiny. His second argument – that liturgies cannot meet the variety of circumstances requiring prayer – is actually disproved by the practice of small group prayer meetings (not to mention the assumption about specificity in prayer that makes the Lord’s Prayer unusable). Most of the requests made at such gatherings are almost always included in any number of the prayers that Reformed and Presbyterian ministers composed. For instance, the older Psalter Hymnal includes a prayer for the sick and spiritually distressed. It starts as follows:
Eternal and merciful God and Father, the eternal salvation of the living and the eternal life of the dying. You alone have life and death in your hands, You do continually care for us in such a way that neither health nor sickness, neither good nor evil can befall us; yes, not even a hair can fall from our heads without your will, You order all things for the good of believers.
We beseech you to grant us the grace of the Holy Spirit that he may teach us to know truly our miseries and to bear patiently your chastisements, which as far as our merits are concerned might have been ten thousand time more severe. We know that they are not tokens of your wrath but of your fatherly love towards us, that we might not be condemned with the world…
Space prevents reprinting this prayer in its entirety. But since the majority of requests at small group gatherings are health related, this prayer would actually apply in most situations. What is more, it includes petitions for spiritual ailments as well, thus covering all those gathered who are unwilling to bare their souls.
STILL, SOME MAY OBJECT WITH Hodge that prayers should be specific. But the dangers of specificity are rarely evident to its proponents. For instance, there is the pastoral practice of using the pastoral prayer to announce an accident or birth that happened in the hours just before worship and so is unknown to most of the congregation. It runs something like this: “Lord, we pray for brother Harry, who now lies in a coma at the Bucks County Memorial Hospital, room 215, owing to an auto accident late last night. We hold up his family, who request that church members not visit Harry, and ask that you would be merciful to them in your providence.” As much as a spate of announcements mid-service destroys the natural rhythm of worship, such praying can be equally disruptive. And what about when the pastor forgets to pray from the pulpit for the request made by one member even though he mentioned all the requests of others? Of course, prayer is not something that should be manipulated to soothe wounded feelings or maintain good relations.
But what is the neglected person to think, that their request is chopped liver? And what does it say if a request goes unmentioned? Does it mean that God won’t superintend and bless that situation’? At the same time, why should petitions be more specific than praise and thanksgiving? If we thank God for forgiveness from sin, for his adopting love, for his sanctifying grace, why can’t request be equally general’? God is supposed to answer all kinds of prayer, even the undecipherable groaning of our hearts. Could it be that the demand for specific prayer goes beyond what God
The most enduring of Hodge’s objections is the notion that read prayers are not “an adequate substitute for the warm outgoings of the heart moved by the spirit of genuine devotion.” Here is the clincher for low church Protestants. A read prayer cannot be a sincere prayer, and that’s because sincerity has to be conveyed in one’s own words; it cannot rely on the language of others. The folly of this idea is practically self-evident and calls to mind the alliance between Presbyterians and Quakers mentioned at the outset. Carried to its logical conclusion, as it is, with the left side of the liturgical/piety spectrum, this notion means that to express our deepest feelings for God we should not use English, or Latin, or any other known tongue; instead, we should devise our very own language. The problem is what happens when Pentecostals speak in tongues. So in some cases using inherited words is a good thing. What is more, some of the best prayers are ones that depend heavily on the language of Scripture or the rich idiom of the Shorter Catechism.
IN CONTRAST TO HODGE, JOHN Calvin taught that using forms for prayer was a fitting way to address God. He even constructed prayers to that end, many of which were used in Dutch Reformed family and corporate worship until the 1960s. Calvin wrote,
I highly approve of it that there be a certain form, from which the ministers be not allowed to vary: that first, some provision be made to help the simplicity and unskillfuness of some; secondly, that the consent and harmony of the churches one with another may appear; and lastly, that the capricious giddiness and levity of such as affect innovations may be prevented. To which end I have showed that a catechism will be very useful. Therefore there ought to be a stated catechism, a stated form of prayer, and administration of the sacraments.”
CALVIN’S REASONS STAND IN marked contrast to contemporary Presbyterian attitudes toward prayer. They imply, in a politically incorrect way, that not everyone is equal when it comes to praying well. Even the idea that some prayers are better than others comes as a shock to folks who think sincerity matters more than quality of expression. And if not everyone is equal, then praying in public may be legitimately limited to those who pray well. Calvin also thought liturgical uniformity was desirable. Observing the diversity of “styles” within the Presbyterian fold only confirms Calvin’s point. Any common Presbyterian liturgy would be an improvement upon the diversity that prevails under the “leading” of the Spirit or better, the idiosyncrasies of taste. Finally, Calvin thought prayers could actually be silly and that good forms would prevent such silliness. Of course, if sincerity is the sole standard, dignity and beauty don’t matter. But if prayers may actually displease God, then attention to proper form may be just as important as zeal.
Calvin stands in opposition to almost three centuries of Presbyterian practice under the influence of revivalism. Despite keen attention to precise doctrine and theological nuance, Presbyterians tolerate all manner of poor theology and spiritual vulgarity in prayer. But blaming evangelicals, a long and honorable tradition at the NTJ, will not explain everything since within the Westminster Standards themselves lurk doctrines that encourage subjective attitudes toward prayer. According to the Shorter Catechism, prayer is a means of grace, right along side preaching and the sacraments (88). But in the Heidelberg Catechism, prayer comes in the Third Part, Man’s Gratitude (Q&A’s 86-129), while preaching and the sacraments are in the Second Part, Man’s Deliverance (Q&A’s 12-85). Louis Berkhof explained the significance of this difference between Westminster and Heidelberg in his discussion of the means of grace. “Faith, conversion, and prayer,” he wrote, “are first of all fruits of the grace of God, though they may in turn become instrumental in strengthening the spiritual life. They are not objective ordinances, but subjective conditions for the possession and enjoyment of the blessings of the covenant.” For this reason, Berkhof corrected Presbyterians for adding prayer to preaching and sacraments as a means of grace. “Strictly speaking, only the Word and the sacraments can be regarded as means of grace, that is, as objective channels through which Christ has instituted in the Church, and to which He ordinarily binds Himself in the communication of His grace.” (This may explain why the Westminster divines did not include a question and answer on how prayer becomes effectual the way they did for Word and sacrament.)
COULD IT BE, THEN, THAT THE, Westminster divines were showing the affects of pietism? That’s not entirely a stretch if English Puritanism itself -~ was a parallel development to German pietism, even if far more tolerant of scholastic thought. Whatever the reason, the difference between the Shorter Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism on prayer shows a movement among Puritans away from the sixteenth-century and Continental Reformed habit of identifying grace with the objective work of God, rather than the later pietistic and evangelical custom of blurring the distinctions between subjective experience and holy ordinances. Prayer becomes a means of grace in the middle of the seventeenth century, and by the late nineteenth century it takes on, a life of its own, receiving far more attention than the Lord’s Supper (received at best once a month) and the Word preached (heard probably once a week).
THE POINT IS NOT THAT PRAYER is a bad thing, though small group prayer meetings may be. Instead, it is to restore what is a genuine privilege to its rightful place, alongside Word and sacrament. Prayer is a good thing. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, prayer “is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us” (Q&A 116). But it does not open the kingdom of heaven (preaching). Nor does it signify and seal God’s promise to forgive our sins (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper). As important as prayer is, participation in a prayer meeting may be less revealing than Word and sacrament about the piety of Christian persons. And if Presbyterians can come to their senses about prayer, they might abandon the Quaker practice of waiting for the Spirit, give up sitting in circles with their heads bowed, and thereby regain the stiffness and seriousness for which they are legendary.
[This essay first appeared online in the in 1999 or 2000 and on the HB in 2008.]