Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Worship, by Hughes Oliphant Old. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995. Pp. xi-370. $19.99. (paper). [Reviewed by Prof. Robert D. Decker.]
This is a very good book on a much needed subject. While the emphasis of the book is on the public prayers a minister is called to offer in the worship service, the author has a good deal to say about worship in general.
Prayer is an art, i.e., it is a gift from God. All God’s servants in the ministry must have this gift to one degree or another or they cannot function in the ministry of the Word. But the gift of prayer can be developed. This book will help ministers to do precisely that.
In the introduction Old makes several important points. The first is that spontaneity in prayer, something to be desired in the minister’s public prayers, too often lacks content. It may be sincere, but often not very profound. Hence, according to Old, spontaneity must be balanced by careful preparation and thought. Spontaneity in prayer must also be supported by an intense prayer life on the part of the minister. “One can hardly lead if one does not know the way oneself. Spontaneity has to arise from a profound experience of prayer” (p. 5).
Leading in prayer, Old rightly stresses, belongs to the office, the official work to which Christ calls His ministers. To support this point, Old cites William Perkins, a late 16th century Puritan theologian, who taught that the office of the ministry consisted of two functions, “First was preaching and teaching the Word of God to the people of God; second was presenting the needs of the people before their God … as Perkins saw it, prayer was a prophetic ministry that demanded the same gifts of discernment and inspiration that preaching demanded” (pp. 5-6). One is reminded of Article 16 of our Church Order which lists prayer before the ministry of the Word and the dispensing of the sacraments as the work of the office of the ministry! Old points to the Puritans as worthy examples for us today. They prepared to lead their congregations in prayer by private prayer and by studying the prayers of Scripture.
In this connection Old points to the truth that, “Prayer does have its own language, its own vocabulary, and its own imagery. This language is not simply a matter of style … prayer uses biblical language” (p. 7). Closely related to this, Old correctly reminds us that the Bible provides what he calls “a prayer typology.” By this Old means that the recorded prayers in Scripture are given by God as examples (paradigms) of how ministers ought to lead in prayer.
In the first chapter Old contends that the worship service ought to begin with an Invocation because this is a profoundly biblical form of worship. “This invocation names the God to whom the prayer is addressed. One might therefore define an invocation as a prayer that begins worship by calling on God’s name. The Latin word invocare means to call upon, to appeal to, or to invoke in prayer” (p. 11). The Invocation includes the following elements: 1) It, as Jesus taught His disciples and us, ought to be offered in the name of Jesus. 2) It must include the hallowing of God’s name. 3) It must claim God as our God. 4) It must include the petition that our worship be inspired of the Holy Spirit and received through the intercession of Christ. In this connection Old stresses that Christian worship is Trinitarian. 5) It should conclude with a full Trinitarian doxology. The chapter concludes with a listing of some thirty-six Invocations selected by Old and all based on Scripture. In our churches the “Invocation” consists of the votum taken from Psalm 124:8, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth,” followed by the salutation.
Chapter two is an excellent presentation of “The Psalms as Prayer.” Old points out that the Psalms were used as both prayers and songs by the ancient church. This usage was lost in the Middle Ages, but restored by the 16th century Reformation. This was true of both the Lutheran and Calvinistic branches of the Reformation. The Lutherans of Augsburg published a psalter as early as 1531, while in 1537 the Calvinists produced the Strasbourg Psalter, which contained vernacular versions of all 150 psalms. Psalm singing continued for the next 200 years, but lost popularity at the end of the 19th century. It ought to be restored, Old contends, because “the psalms are the prayers and songs of the Holy Spirit” (p. 57). Regular use of the psalms in worship teaches the congregation the biblical language of prayer, and therefore, too, the psalms should be “the core of Christian praise” (p. 58).
Chapter three deals with “Prayers of Confession and Supplication,” elements which we include in our congregational prayers. Pointing to Psalm 51 as an example of this kind of prayer, Old concludes that two things stand out in this Psalm, a deep feeling of lament and the assurance of pardon. Worship, Old correctly emphasizes, must include recognition of our sin. Without this our worship lacks integrity. God is offended by sin and yet He accepts sinners.
Again the Reformation restored this type of prayer. Martin Bucer composed such a prayer for the Reformed Church at Strasbourg, which became a model for the Prayer of Confession used in Geneva as well as for Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. Matthew Henry, at the beginning of the 18th century in his Method of Prayer, emphasized that the Prayer of Confession should confess both our sinful nature and our particular sins. Reformed Christians recognize that this profound thought occurs much earlier in The Heidelberg Catechism, Q & A 56.
In Chapter four Old discusses The Prayer for Illumination. This is a brief prayer offered by the minister just before preaching in which he asks the Lord to illumine the preacher and open the hearts of the people of God to receive the preached Word. This reviewer is convinced that this is something which must be included in every congregational prayer. It would be even better to have a separate brief prayer for illumination just before the reading and preaching of the Word.
Old offers compelling theological reasons for this prayer. God reveals Himself, and revelation is an act of grace. Unless the Lord Himself enables the minister correctly to expound the Word and unless the Lord Himself opens the hearts of the congregation the Word can neither be preached nor received with faith and repentance.
This prayer too was lost in the Middle Ages and revived by the Reformers. Old includes in this chapter beautiful prayers for illumination composed by Bucer, Calvin, and Zwingli.
The Prayer of Intercession, what we would call the congregational prayer, is the subject of chapter five. Characteristic of biblical prayer is that it begins and ends with praise and thanksgiving.
The congregational prayer has strong theological foundations. Belonging to the theological foundations are the doctrine of the Trinity (God is a covenant God who speaks to and fellowships with His people in prayer), the doctrine of Christ (prayer must be in His name and is possible only on the basis of His efficacious atonement), and the doctrine of the church (especially the communion of the saints).
This prayer dropped out of the liturgy of the mass, but was restored by the Reformation. Included in this section are excerpts of some of the prayers of the Reformers. Old concludes the chapter with sound advice, “What is important is that the minister regularly give time and thought to preparing for this ministry. Spontaneity and preparation should complement each other” (p. 183).
Since we are bound to the use of adopted forms, we refrain from comment on the next two sections of the book which deal with Communion prayers. It is interesting to note, however, that many of the petitions in our Communion prayers are found in the Didache, a first century collection of the prayers of the early church! In this section Old makes the interesting comment that the offerings ought to be simple and without ostentation and properly belong at the end of the worship service.
The last section of the book deals with Hymnody, Benedictions, and The Ordering of Public Prayer. Those of us who are committed to exclusive psalmody will be interested to know that psalmody persisted from the Reformation until the middle of the eighteenth century in virtually all branches of the Reformation including the Anglican. The revivals of the mid 1700s introduced hymns.
Old concludes with a lament that, “For at least a generation we have experienced a sort of atrophy in public prayer” (p. 361). He challenges us to revive the art of prayer in worship. With Calvin Old thinks the congregational prayer ought to follow the sermon. We ought to give this some serious consideration. Prayer, after all, is not something we offer to God, but is the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s application of the Word in our hearts.
All in all, this is an excellent book on the subject. It will be helpful to ministers, and through them it will be beneficial for our congregations.
 Unfortunately Old omits large sections of the beautiful prayer of Martin Bucer. The complete text of this prayer may be found in Liturgies of the Western Church by Bard Thompson, pp. 175-177.