2004 header issue 15

Leading in Public Prayer

By Andrew Blackwood (1958)

Abingdon Press (207 pages)

This may be a quaint little book – published in 1958 [in a bygone era when the publication year is printed in Roman numerals, MCMLVIII (!)].  But a good book on worship it really is.  I came across the book in our BGST library while scouting for a suitable textbook on training leaders in public prayer, and the book fits like a glove for most of the issues I wanted to address.

The book’s most useful feature is that it comes in two parts.  Part One deals with the actual business of leading in public prayer.  It is concerned with what we might call form and technique.  Part Two looks at the process of preparation.  And it is now focussed not so much on the “how” as on the “who”.  In other words, it addresses the issue of character and spirituality.  I personally feel that this is the issue about leading in worship that most instruction on worship does not dwell on enough.

Still, the book in its entirety is brimming with invaluable suggestions about the business of leading in worship (or public prayer).  The terms “worship” and “prayer” are often used interchangeably as they [be it general (worship), or particular (prayer)] are both concerned with bowing before the majesty of God.  For the author, the central issue, as spelt out in his “Foreword”, is that of the “beauty of holiness” (p. 7).  In other words, the central issue in worship or public prayer is one of aesthetics – spiritual aesthetics, if you like.  But aesthetics nonetheless.

Going by that definition, much of the cacophony of some of our modern day services would be hard put to justify as worship.

The book opens with a debate about form, not the modern one between “traditional” and “contemporary” – but its precursor, or the debate about the merits of “free” worship as against liturgical worship.  Blackwood nimbly skirts the issues, and then zeroes in on the crux of whether we are worshipping “in spirit and in truth” (p. 17).  What matters then is whether we help people connect with God.  What then are some useful suggestions for us as worship or prayer leaders?

In more than one place, Blackwood underscores the importance of preparation – not preparation in terms of “practice time”, but in the amount of time the leader invests into shaping the sequence of events that would draw people to God.  He insists that worship leaders must have a sense of the broad movements inherent in the spiritual exercise of worship – from adoration and confession in the opening moments, through thanksgiving and supplication in the prayers, to submission and dedication at the end or climax (Chapter 2).

He also has very practical suggestions about the mechanics of worship.  How long should a prayer be?  Blackwood’s prescription: 3-5 minutes (p. 51)!  He also tells ministers to vary their benediction formulae to eliminate monotony and predictability (p. 54).  He even suggests that preachers who don’t plan their closing prayer (i.e., writing it out verbatim) might negate all the previous effort they have put into ministry.

“In cases more than a few [translation: very often!], the Lord’s representative has not prayed aright after he has preached effectively.” (p. 73-74)

Part One ends with tips on how to prepare for special occasions, such as weddings and funerals.  In this chapter (Chapter 9), he has a touching story of how a minister who appropriately echoed the sentiments of mourners at a funeral service became an instrument of God’s grace in drawing back lapsed members into His fold (p. 100).

In Part Two, the focus is very much on the worship leader or prayer leader.  Blackwood’s first requirement is that we practise “the presence of God”.  If we ourselves did not bow before the presence of God, we could hardly minister grace to other worshippers (Chapter 10).

Next, he recommends what he calls the “literature of the heart”.  To lead others in prayer and worship, our knowledge base of things spiritual have to be widened.  He recommends reading devotional material, including poetry and hymnals as well as published prayers (p. 122-123).  This makes good sense.  Unless we are exposed to new words and ideas, we cannot help but swim in the putrefying pools of tired and tiresome verbiage and of outworn cliches.

Pushing this theme harder yet, he has an entire chapter devoted to it (Chapter 16).  “Only the best words can be good enough for the worship of God.” (p. 160)  By this, he does not mean using “flowery” language.  To Blackwood, “artistic showmanship” is not better than the “crudity of form” to which we are more often exposed.  What we need in prayer is a sense of “quiet beauty” (p. 163) – using language with that sense of veneration different from the prosaic functionality of our daily “shop-talk” (p. 169)

How we might achieve this has actually been hinted at in the previous chapter (Chapter 15).  Blackwood calls for being immersed in the prayers of the Bible.  Look at how the saints of God in Holy Scripture prayed.  Apart from the psalms, there are the extended passages of prayer on the lips of the likes of Nehemiah and Paul.

Blackwood also points out that many of the hymns are couched in the language of prayer.  They are an unburdening of the praying hearts of the hymn writers, veritable worthies from whom we desperately need to learn in the school of prayer.  What is so tragic is that most of us who lead in prayer do not drink or drink deeply enough from this fount of spirituality.  We revel more in the pride of our spontaneity than think of prayer as a learned behaviour whose effectiveness we might harness.  Blackwood’s observation (quoting John Henry Jowett), is both sharp and incisive.

“There is nothing mightier than the utterance of spontaneous prayer when it is born in the depths of the soul.  But there is nothing more dreadfully unimpressive than  the extemporary prayer which leaps about on the surface of things, a disorderly dance  of empty words carrying no blood, bearing no secret of the soul, a whirl of insignificant expressions, behind which there is no vital pulse, no cry from lone and desolate depths.” (p. 159)

We might ask, “How is it possible to do that in prayer?”  Perhaps this degeneration takes place because in prayer, (yes, even in prayer) we think more of ourselves than of others.  In an attempt to address this, Blackwood has a chapter on “Sensing the Needs of People Now” (Chapter 13).  In other words, prayer is a form of pastoral ministry.  We cannot pray very meaningfully in public for people if we don’t get to know them! (p. 135-136).  Of all the ministries in the church, this is surely the place where we need to be “people-centered” (p. 134).  Praying for missions, for example, is not saying a prayer for with a passing reference to some missionary work.  It is to be so knowledgeable about both people and missions that we can voice their concerns (even if they are not interested!) as we pray for missions.

I could go on.  There are 18 helpful chapters in all, plus an appendix of “Faults in Public Prayer” which any leader would surely want to check out!  There are yet more interesting issues we have not touched on in this review – such as how your voice can give the game away as to where you are spiritually or what you really think about God.  You will understand how intriguing this is to me as a speech teacher!  (Sorry, no reference.  This one you have to sweat to locate yourself!  Helpful clue: it’s in Part Two!).

I think we would all willingly pay lip service to Blackwood’s description of leading in public prayer – that it is “a privilege second to none on earth” (p. 171).  Our challenge is now to make our commitment to it match our conviction.

  

(Reviewed by Rev Ng Seng Chuan)  

CHAPEL NOTES

Faithfulness

 

Chapel speaker last week was Chng Joo Ching. Joo Ching has taken several courses at BGST and is currently pursuing a full-time programme of studies at the Assemblies Mission, where he is also chairman of the board.

The Speaker began by explaining the background to the custom of the Levirate marriage spelt out in Ruth 3, as well as the scenario concerning the harvest celebration. And then he went on to highlight the major lessons offered by the character of Ruth.

First, Ruth was faithful, and unselfish. She did everything she could to protect the name and property of Elimelech’s family. Then the speaker asked if we would remain as true and faithful to another.

Second, Ruth was not only faithful, but faithful in a caring sort of way. She consistently remained by her mother-in-law’s side. She practically  nursed Naomi back to health with the joy of her first-born, Obed.

Finally, Ruth’s faithfulness is demonstrated by her chastity. In spite of being a foreigner, she kept faith with Naomi’s God (Yahweh), and this is involved in her not making a commitment until approval had been given by Naomi.

The Speaker ended with a reminder that Ruth’s greatness lay  not in her being ancestress to Israel ’s greatest king, but in that trait of being faithful to the very end.

 

Chapel Speaker on 5th May will be Dr Quek Swee Hwa.

NEWS BITS

  1. Study Skills Orientation, 2004.  During the next three weeks BGST will hold three sessions designed to help students develop study skills.
    The topics and dates for the three sessions are:

¨      Note Taking and Essay Writing (Friday 14th May, 7.30–9.00 p.m. ), to be conducted by Dr. Philip Satterthwaite. This session will discuss techniques for summarising the arguments of a piece of writing in the form of clear notes, and also how to plan and produce essays. There will be a section on the various forms of plagiarism.

¨      Use of the Library (Friday 21st May, 7.30–9.00 p.m. ), to be conducted by Mr. Leong Kok Weng in the Library. A ‘hands-on’ guided tour of the resources of BGST Library and how you can make use of them.

¨      Skim-Reading and Speed-Reading (Friday 28th May, 7.30–9.00 p.m. ), to be conducted by Dr. Quek Swee Hwa. If you find yourself struggling to keep up with the reading loads for your courses this session should be helpful for you.

These three sessions are designed to take the place of the course GS 114 (The Art of Critical Analysis) and part of what used to be covered in GS 117 (Critical Analysis, Research and Writing). These used to be required courses for the MCS and the M.Div, but it was decided to cover the topics in the form of ‘extra’ lectures and leave room for a further 1.5-credit elective in both the MCS and M.Div programmes.

The first and the third session will be video-taped, and copies made available free of charge for the use of BGST students only.

These sessions are offered free to all BGST students. If you would like to attend, please notify the Admin. You can attend one, two or all three of the sessions as you wish.  

  1. Better Speech for Leadership & Ministry (AT231) by Rev Ng Seng Chuan will be commencing on 7th May.

Building Fund 22

A BLESSED 
BIRTHDAY TO ...


Ms Lau Shuh Huey  28/4

Mr Francis Yong  29/4

Mr Ryan Loveday  30/4

Mr Ng Kee Seng  30/4

Ms Orchid chua  1/5

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