Writing prayers for Alternative Worship

by Andii Bowsher 2002

The following questions may get somewhere near what you're looking for. Just click on whichever and you'll end up at the right bit of the page. Please feel free to email the originator with comments or questions. Who knows - it may even end up on this page!

  • Aren't there any sources of ready made prayers?
  • What are the usual mistakes in writing prayers?
  • What are the top tips for good habits in writing prayers?
  • How different is writing prayers for Alternative Worship?

Sources of ready made prayers

There are hundreds of books of prayers for all moods, tastes and styles. There are even websites. It is worth perusing a bookshop for prayers that you find useful and adopt or adapt them for your own use. A lot of Celtic-style prayers are good because their structure and poetry lends itself to the kind of scene and requirements the alternative worship setting evokes. Particularly recommended as inspiration books are Ray Simpson's "Celtic Worship through the year" (ISBN 0 340 68667 7) and David Adams' books can be useful.

Other suggestions gratefully received...

Usual mistakes in writing prayers

  • Going on too long! A case of do to others as you'd have them do to you. Short punchy prayers are better for people to concentrate on and make use of in their own praying.

  • Over-long sentences and/or too erudite phraseology (sic!). These lose people's attention very quickly and discriminate against the verbally less-able. It takes people longer to 'process' information if it is presented in such a way. 'Of the people, for the people' is a good principle.

  • Too literary: often we write in a very different way to how we speak. This can mean that a good written prayer really doesn't come over well as a spoken prayer. On the other hand a good phrase may come from a literary source, but may need to be isolated  and re-used to be useful in a non-literary setting such as this.

  • 'Lateral' praying: where our prayers become more preoccupied with other participants than the God we are supposed to be addressing. In other words when prayers, supposed to be addressed to God, become lectures to the people who are listening in. It's okay to give information in praying that enables participants to pray 'knowingly' but it can tip over into a form of gossip or a form of harangue. The value of writing prayers rather than extemporising is that it can help you to avoid this.

Top tips for good habits in writing prayers

  • Your attitude should be one of service: you are writing/producing something to serve other people by helping them to pray together with you. This means you are not there to impress with your verbal skills, theological perceptiveness or vocabulary. These things have their place but they should serve the main purpose as unobtrusively as possible.

  • Don't try to use more than one image or metaphor in each prayer; if you use more than one the overall thrust of the passage gets lost and the whole thing is more than likely going to be rather convoluted and hard to follow. In particular you need to watch out for 'dead' metaphors whose imagery has become lost and which are now simply the normal accepted way of expressing an idea. Because of this you may not be aware of using the image but may find that it can conjure up strange or unhelpful images in your fellow participants.

  • For example: I wrote a prayer which contained the line; "you weave our being from the dust of the earth". Later I changed it because it seemed to me that 'weave' is not really applicable to 'dust'. Either I could stick with the weaving metaphor and write something like; "You weave our being from strands of protein" or I could stick with the dust image and write; "you shape our being from the dust..." (which I did because the imagery of dust was important in that service and so need to be the controlling metaphor).

  • Make sure that the metaphors you do use are consistent with the theme of the service as far as possible. Written prayers should enable people to pray the theme/s of the service and help them to reflect on them. This means that we can include in them things that God will, obviously, already know but the other participants may not. Such things should not become the main substance of the prayer/s.

  • Be aware of the sound of what you are producing - say it out loud if necessary; tape it and play it back or get someone else to read it out so that you can hear it for yourself. It is best to leave it a few hours or a day or two before coming back to it because then it often comes to you with a degree of freshness and it is easier to hear or to see the problems.

  • 'Redundancy' needs to be built in. By this I mean phrases that are strictly-speaking unnecessary to convey the sense, usually repeated phrases, but are there to help the hearer by giving markers that help structure the 'information' as it is being heard. Because these prayers will often be in a multi-sensual environment (see below) it helps if there is repetition of key phrases and/or a structuring of prayers that can easily be discerned: a consistent response to a key phrase (e.g. "Lord in your mercy: Hear our prayer"), or a phrase that keeps coming up (e.g. "we dreamt of .... you dream of ..." c.f. the 'I have a dream' speech by Martin Luther King). Properly handled redundancy can be quite poetic and pleasing. Try also experimenting with three-part list phrases and contrast-phrases - a tip from rhetoric

  • Ask yourself if and how the other worshippers are to participate and if they can be enabled to join in more fully.

How different is writing prayers for Alternative Worship?

  • It's a lot harder to get away with 'Christianese' - or it should be! Part of the point is the recognition that much Christian language and imagery doesn't really connect with many people today. So you are looking for images that may help 'bring alive' the prayer of the Church for people's own praying and reflection. As part of doing this it may be helpful to keep a notebook of phrases you hear or see that grab your attention and imagination and could be prayed. You may also like to have a go at reading contemporary poetry to exercise your verbal imagination - TS Eliot is a good place to start and perhaps RS Thomas.

  • Alternative worship is usually a lot less textual than most post-Enlightenment 'prayer book' forms of common worship. It is also usually more 'liturgical' (ie it has more non-extempore praying) than 'free church' traditions. This means that you probably ought to write stuff that can be heard easily and can be understood quickly; so single clause sentences are to be preferred over long and convoluted phrasing. Long prayers where people are supposed to say them along with you are probably best avoided in favour of prayers which have responses, like litanies. This will allow for hands-free praying and movement in the rest of the service.

  • There is usually a lot of other stuff happening in an alternative worship service so prayers have to be able to blend with the ambience but still enable people to use the prayer - so intelligible and easily heard is important.

  • You will often be working with a more local and experimental group of people which means you can take a risk to step out of blandness... Think about it!