The first prayer that I remember praying was one I learned. It was a bedtime prayer. I don’t recall whether I learned it from my mother or someone else. It went like this:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
To be honest, this prayer disturbed me. Up to that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could die in my sleep. The possibility terrified me. The prayer sounded more like an invitation for God to take my life than a prayer for divine protection. But many people have found it helpful to pray using the words of others. Sometimes, these are rote prayers, like the bedtime prayer I learned to recite as a child. Others pray written prayers that are published.
My Christian experience began among people who looked down on written prayers and rituals in general. They believed that the best prayers were spontaneous, framed in one’s own words. Liturgical prayers (prayers that were memorized and repeated) were part of what they viewed as dead traditionalism, and written prayers were even worse.
Yet, it is just as easy for so-called extemporaneous prayer to be undeveloped and unreflective. Often, extemporaneous prayer is not spontaneous at all but a repetition of phrases and themes that we have learned from listening to the prayers of others. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Everyone learns to talk by listening to the conversations of others. The vocabulary of prayer is much the same. Indeed, plenty of evidence in the New Testament suggests that the early church learned to pray primarily by imitation. One prominent example of this is the form of prayer that Jesus taught when his disciples asked him to teach them how to pray. According to Luke 11:1, Jesus introduced his prayer with the words: “When you pray, say …” Matthew’s version begins with a similar command: “This is how you should pray …” (Matthew 6:9). The prayer’s petitions, which are voiced using the first-person plural, also imply that Jesus expected the church to recite it together (Luke 11:3–4; Matthew 6:11–13).
From its earliest days, the church has prayed in both modes—sometimes by praying the words of others verbatim and at others speaking to God using their own words. It does not have to be an either/or choice. We can pray the Lord’s Prayer word for word as Christ delivered it to the church, and we can also use it as a template by adding concerns that are specific to our lives.
One of the first pictures we have of the church is that of a church that prayed together. This is where we find the disciples immediately after Christ’s ascension. They returned to Jerusalem and went upstairs to the room where they were staying: “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers” (Acts 1:14). Two questions immediately come to mind. First, how could they pray constantly? Second, what did they say?
When some of us pray, our minds wander after only a few minutes! Did the first disciples really engage in a marathon prayer session that lasted seven weeks? Surely they had to take breaks for eating and sleeping. We know that they stopped at least once to conduct business. Acts 1:15–26 says that “in those days,” the disciples took time to choose someone to replace the traitor Judas. As for the content of these prayers, it seems likely that it was a mixture of praying based on tradition, quotes from the Psalms, and specific requests arising out of their circumstances.
Everyone who learns to pray begins by praying words they have heard from another.
James 5:13 declares, “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.” The specific mode of prayer that James recommends for the cheerful is song. The word that is translated “sing songs of praise” is a Greek term that literally means “to play on a harp.” It is related to the word for a psalm and is a reminder of the value of using the book of Psalms as a resource for our prayers and the vital role that singing plays in our overall prayer life. We are used to thinking of singing as an act of worship. Indeed, for many in the church, singing is worship. But singing is also a form of prayer.
Another revealing feature of the command of James 5:13 is the connection that it makes between music and emotion. We know from experience that music has an affective quality. Most of us do not choose our music based on its technical quality but because of the way it makes us feel. The same is true of the church. Today’s church uses music to create a mood and attract visitors. Worship and music are so identified that if someone says that we are going to worship, most people will assume they mean we are going to sing. Yet, when Acts 2:42 lists the priorities of the first disciples, it does not mention music or even worship. Instead, it says that they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
Nevertheless, the New Testament does show that music had an important place in the early church. Paul and Silas sang through the night while in prison (Acts 16:25). John’s vision of heaven’s worship includes singing with musical instruments (Revelation 5:9; 14:2–3). John does not describe the melody, only its overall effect. He says that it was “like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder” (Revelation 14:2).
When we sing, we express our emotions as well as our thoughts. Furthermore, there is a physical dimension to music-making. Its sonic nature resonates with us on our deepest level in the most literal sense. “Music is a very bodily business, whether or not the human voice is used,” Jeremy Begbie explains. “Our physical, physiological, and neurological makeup shapes the making and hearing of music to a high degree.” Singing enables us to pray with the whole person and not only with words.
The main thing that troubles those who are uncomfortable with memorized prayer is its liturgical nature. It bothers them that the words they pray are not their own words. Until they pray them so often that they become second nature, it feels as if they are speaking to God in someone else’s voice. But is this really such a bad thing? The fact that some forms of prayer are ritualized speech is not necessarily a condemning factor either. Dead rituals can indeed pose a danger, but in such cases, it is the deadness, not the fact that they are rituals, that poses the problem. Rituals are merely repeated actions that become meaningful to us by their repetition.
Some kind of rote praying is a feature of every Christian tradition, just as every church has its own liturgy, whether it is formal or informal. Everybody who learns to pray begins by praying words they have heard from others. In a way, none of us begins by praying in our own voice. We must first learn a vocabulary and a pattern of speech. It shows us what to ask for and how to ask. It enables us to put into words feelings and desires for which we previously had no name. Over time, what once sounded like an unfamiliar voice eventually becomes a way to find our own.
 Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 47.