Jesus said to his disciples, “Pray in this way, ‘Our Father in heaven…’” (Matt 6.9-13); “When you pray, say: ‘Father hallowed be your name….’” (Luke 11.2-4). This is more than a model prayer, it is a prayer intended by Jesus to be prayed by his disciples. This can be deduced from the fact that when the prayer taught by Jesus is put back into Jesus’ own language, Aramaic, both in Matter’s version and Luke’s version, it has rhythm and rhyme. Jewish poetry did not rhyme, apart from one notable exception – the prayer said by Jesus three times daily, the Eighteen Benedictions.
Amazingly many Baptists – as indeed probably most of the evangelical non-liturgical churches who often pride themselves on being ‘Bible-believing’ Christians – fail to take this injunction of Jesus seriously. Just the other Sunday I was preaching to a Baptist church on Zoom – there was no Lord’s Prayer. Sadly, this is typical of many churches I have preached in. To my consternation, in a fairly recent Baptist guide for worship leaders and worshippers, Approaching God (2009) by Chris Ellis, there is no reference to the Lord’s Prayer. There appears to be a suspicion that praying the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday might lead to the prayer ending up as a collection of “empty phrases” (termed by the AV as “vain repetitions”) which Jesus condemned (Matt 6.7). The fact is that the unthinking use of the prayer by some should not become an excuse for neglecting the prayer. This is the great family prayer of God’s church. As R.E. (‘Ron’) Clements, a distinguished Baptist scholar of a former generation wrote:
If it is on the one hand the first and simplest prayer that the Christian can offer, it is also, paradoxically, the hardest of all prayers to utter with that intensity of meaning which would enable the Christian to say, ‘I know that with all of my heart I truly mean that prayer’. Such is its depth and the demands that it makes upon our own desires for God that we can be easily tempted to say: ‘It is too high, I cannot attain to it’ (The Prayers of the Bible, 1986)
The importance of this prayer was emphasised by William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, at the time both were at Duke University, the former a professor of ministry, and the latter a professor of theological ethics:
If you are asked, ‘Who is a Christian?’ the best answer you can give is, ‘A Christian is none other than someone who has learned to pray the Lord’s Prayer’. Learning to pray this prayer, allowing it to become second nature ty us, takes time, habit. We pray out of habit…. Habit is good. Most of the important things we do in life, we do out of habit. We eat, sleep, make love, shake hands, hug our children out of habit. Some things in life are too important to be left to chance. Some things in life are too difficult to be left up to spontaneous desire – things like telling people that we love them or praying to God. So we do them ‘out of habit’. (Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian Life, 1996)
In both the churches I was pastor of, I ensured we had the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday. Although the Lord’s Prayer can fit almost anywhere in the service, my custom was to put the Lord’s Prayer immediately following the opening prayer of praise and confession, when the children had yet to leave for their own teaching (‘Sunday School’). For me it was vital that the children of the church were given an opportunity to learn the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. The fact is, unless children go to a church school, church is the only place today where children can learn the Lord’s Prayer. For that reason alone ministers need to lead their people in the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday. But children apart, not to say together the Lord’s Prayer in public worship every Sunday seems to me amazingly perverse, for this is the one prayer that binds the people of God together.
Indeed, I am conscious that many Christians would say that the Lord’s Prayer should be said every day, and not just once a week. In this respect Steven Croft, the Bishop of Oxford, has given seven reasons why saying the Lord’s Prayer on a daily basis is good for mental health:
- To remember who you are: Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name
- To find courage to live well in an imperfect world: Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven
- To find the only way to be content: Give us this day our daily bread
- To learn to live with our imperfections: Forgive us our sins….
- To learn to live with the imperfections of others: ….as we forgive those who sin against us
- To be resilient in a challenging world: Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil
- To understand the end of the story: For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever, Amen.
One thing for certain: the Lord’s Prayer needs to be an integral part of Christian worship.