Patterns of Prayer: Ancient and Modern Tools for Reading Scripture and Communing with God
Any psychiatrist—and any parent, for that matter—will tell you setting limits, structures, and disciplines benefit children. They’ll tell you schedules and routines keep a kid’s mind healthy. When a child has free rein over his/her day, chaos soon follows. Though it hurts a little in the beginning, as time goes by, we see discipline’s good fruit.
And so it is with us. We need structure and discipline, not only in our prayer life but in our daily lives as well. We grab our morning coffee, get the paper, and start the grooming routine. There’s the commute, we say hello to our coworkers, and off we go to start the day. And it happens like this. Every day. Every day we perform these little rituals. Our church lives, too, often incorporate formal structures to guide our worship. We call this liturgy.
Ancient words like liturgy can seem scary for modern, nondenominational evangelicals. Liturgy and words like lectionary, or guides like the Book of Common Prayer, often bring up feelings of empty ritual. Are they hollowed out forms of true Christian faith from which we broke away during the Reformation? We often believe so and we make subconscious vows to never return to dead habits.
Yet, this year—the 500th since the Reformation—looking back to more traditional roots of our Christian practice can prove fruitful for our spiritual growth. In the last several years, in fact, many articles have explored why millennials are returning to mainline, traditional denominations because of their formal liturgy.
As I surveyed how the DTS family and its graduates approach patterns of prayer and Scripture, I discovered a variety of methods. Some reclaim more formal liturgical ways to reading the Bible. Others work to create new patterns using apps on our cell phones. Indeed, DTS itself currently has students from over seventy denominations including those whose ministries use some of these older prayer and Bible-reading tools.
It turns out this is not a recent or new change for DTS. In fact, from its founding some students and early influencers also found these practices helpful. To find out more, I talked to DTS professor Dr. Timothy Ralston (ThM, 1983; PhD, 1994) about DTS’s historical approach to educating students from all denominational backgrounds. He also gave me a primer on traditional guides to prayer such as a lectionary:
Historically the lectionary was designed to support the seasons of the Christian Year (Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Advent) that celebrate the life of Christ from His birth (Christmas) through to His glorious return (Advent). This arrangement offers worshippers an annual Christocentric journey that engages all the themes of biblical theology. It forms the support for the congregation’s experience of worship in both song and prayer—and focuses the community’s weekly experience of obedient celebration around the table fellowship of bread and wine. Within a more structured worship environment, people hear the Scriptures as part of a more multisensory, whole-body experience.
There are several different slightly varied lectionaries, but each one is essentially a three-year Bible reading plan for every Sunday of the year, plus a few other holidays. They often include a passage from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Gospels, and an Epistle that relate thematically. The lectionary ensures every congregant hears the gospel every Sunday and from every book of the Bible over the three-year period.
It seems the church in centuries past understood the importance of rhythm and structure. Many mainline denominations, including Anglican, Methodists, and some Presbyterians, use lectionaries to lead their people through the Bible. Not everyone has the blessing of a DTS education, so churches might benefit from guided reading through all sixty-six books of the Bible.
So, we see structure and ritual as good, and the church throughout history has had this framework built into it, but how does this affect DTS? What do we do about these things going forward? In order to go forward, it’s often wise to look backward.
The founder of DTS didn’t dismiss anyone based on their denominational affiliation. On the contrary, Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer found value in learning from others. In his book, An Uncommon Union: Dallas Theological Seminary and American Evangelicalism, Dr. John Hannah wrote that the greatest impact on Chafer’s development was when he participated in the “famous summer conferences from the array of prominent speakers he heard from across the United States as well as Great Britain and Canada.”
Chafer learned from a wide sphere of influences, such as G. Campbell Morgan, the traveling evangelist of New Court Church, Tollington Park, London, England, and F. B. Meyer of Christ Church in London, England. No one can disagree his friend and mentor, Cyrus Ingerson Scofield, impacted him greatly. When they met, Scofield pastored the Trinitarian Congregational Church of Northfield, in Massachusetts, the church the Chafers attended in the early 1900s.
Later, when Chafer began forming the seminary, he hoped to secure the services of his good friend, W. H. Griffith Thomas. Griffith Thomas was a priest ordained within the Church of England. As a priest, Griffith Thomas was required to follow the Anglican lectionary. Hannah explains, “Had it not been for his untimely death, he would have joined the nonresident faculty of the institution. Of the several men who consulted with Chafer about the founding of the school, Griffith Thomas alone was a renowned educator-scholar; his name lent credibility to the embryonic enterprise.”
Ralston mentioned D. M. Stearns, of Stearns Hall, who served as a Reformed Episcopalian cleric and advocated dispensational premillennialism. Hannah writes, “Stearns was widely known in the East as a pastor of the Church of the Atonement, Germantown, Pennsylvania, and for a remarkably large group of Bible classes that he regularly conducted across several states.” Appreciative members of those classes supported the building of the Stearns building.
Another early founder was A. B. Winchester, a Canadian Presbyterian pastor. Winchester helped Chafer with the original doctrinal statement of the seminary and later served, between 1924 and 1936, as one of six visiting faculty who devoted a month each to teaching English Bible at the seminary. All six visiting faculty had different denominations. Hannah writes that “three were Presbyterian . . . two were Plymouth Brethren . . . and one is uncertain.”
Chafer’s original vision for DTS was for graduates to have sound biblical theology, and then go back into denominational churches to teach people the Bible. Hannah wrote, “It [DTS] was an institution free of denominational ties, yet it purposed to serve them all by training their clergy.”
What does Chafer teach us as we consider other denominations and their practices? Ralston ended with this note. “I believe the DTS community could benefit immeasurably from a better understanding of other denominations particularly the celebration of the Christian Year and the lectionary supporting it.”
How can we adopt these ancient traditions going forward? Should evangelicals worry about using the liturgical calendar or lectionary? Although there’s always a risk that anything we do can become a dead ritual, the lectionary is a well-thought-out way of immersing oneself in all sixty-six books of the Bible alongside other Christians.
The church calendar can provide a powerful way to stay rooted in the gospel story in an increasingly secular and post-Christian world. However, a church might find other Bible reading plans or calendars helpful. Christians do not need to employ the common calendar and readings to stay in the Word. Modern Christians can adopt pieces of tradition from the past to move the church forward. The lectionary might be one of them.
I wrote earlier that millennials, like me, continue to seek older forms of Christianity. They’re looking for more stable, more rooted expressions of the faith that go beyond the current culture to a different time. It’s something larger than themselves. This might seem counterintuitive, given millennials try to be on the bleeding edge of technology and culture, but there is something noble in looking back, looking larger, away from the self-centeredness of our generation. Ad fontes, and all that.
Understanding the need to return to the Bible as the primary source of Christian faith, the DTS family makes biblical principles such as prayer a priority. Students have organized committees and regularly meet throughout the week to pray for one another. A new Prayer Partner outreach launched this past spring bringing people from all over the world to pray for the seminary. Professors ended their spring semester classes with prayer, “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Ps 19:14).
What does any of this have to do with helping one’s personal prayer life? Structure is good—we get that. In centuries past the church used structures to help guide our prayer and our worship—all good. Where does this leave us for the future?
Thankfully, some DTS alumni have worked to clear the way for the younger generation to grab onto these ancient truths.
Drew Dickens (ThM, 2013) works at Abide, where he heads the spiritual formation department. While not many people have a lectionary or a prayer book lying around, almost everyone has a smartphone in their pockets. The Abide app provides guided prayer for the next generation.
The app allows you to set reminders to pray while also offering topics, music, and narration to help with your prayer life. You might think, “If you need an app to help you with your prayer life, you don’t have a strong prayer life.” But as I wrote earlier, structure is good, and everyone needs it in their lives. The app gives us a guide to keep our prayers within historical, biblical, and Christocentric limits. It offers a way for us to prevent our prayer life from becoming hollow or empty.
Abide isn’t the only company trying to engage a younger group of Christians in the ancient forms of the church. Other alumni are moving inside their denominations to bring biblical doctrine to the people of God.
Bishop Ray Sutton (ThM, 1976) serves as the head of the Reformed Episcopal Church. He, along with DTS alumni Fathers Charles Camlin (ThM, 2003) and Kasey Gage (ThM, 2002), teaches the values of a DTS education to a denominational congregation through the Church of the Holy Communion in Dallas, Texas. Reverend Tony Melton (ThM, 2013), another alum in the Anglican church, presides as the assisting priest for The Chapel of the Cross in Dallas, Texas.
Throughout church communities, we see a resurgence for a more traditional faith, where others guide the next generation through the stable practices of Christianity throughout the centuries.
A partnership between Tim Keller, The Gospel Coalition, and Crossway, with the help of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, has produced a guided question-and-answer book called The New City Catechism. The goal of this catechism helps train adults and children alike through the foundational doctrines of the faith. Tim Keller explained it this way:
At present, the practice of catechesis, particularly among adults, has been almost completely lost. Modern discipleship programs concentrate on practices such as Bible study, prayer, fellowship, and evangelism and can at times be superficial when it comes to doctrine. In contrast, the classic catechisms take students through the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer—a perfect balance of biblical theology, practical ethics, and spiritual experience.
This isn’t something new or something to fear by those unfamiliar with it. Though these ancient concepts like liturgy and lectionary might sound foreign to us, they exist to help us grow more rooted in our relationship with the Lord and the people of God around the world.
Chafer’s vision that formed DTS so many years ago still thrives among our alumni. Some of them have taken the more traditional route in denominations that are hundreds of years old. Others have taken the route to plant nondenominational churches, or perhaps they’re planting the first churches among unreached people groups spread across the globe. Some, even still, work in and among nonchurched people in their office buildings or design studios, or maybe they’re building mobile apps to reach the pockets of millions of people.
No matter which path our alumni have taken—some using centuries-old guided prayer and some creating their own guides—we remain rooted in the good soil of Scripture to “teach truth and love well.” But what happens when God says no to our prayers? These guided practices, rooted in historical orthodoxy, can help us move closer to our heavenly Father so we understand what God wants for us in the first place. They help us hallow his name and ask for the things he desires for us and perhaps, just perhaps, we will find our souls encouraged. We will rediscover strength amid our hurts so we can continue “to go and bear fruit” (John 15:16).