Extemporaneous prayer is spontaneous and usually non-formulaic verbal praise, confession, thanksgiving, and/or petition that we offer to God in silence or out loud.
Ideally, impromptu prayer allows us to talk to our Creator intimately and comfortably, like an innocent child (Matt 6:6, 8–9). However, many of us have grown up in traditions that either never prayed or employed rote prayers and recitations. Others of us feel so at ease with extemporaneous prayer that we downplay the magnitude of the One to whom we are speaking (Amos 5:23–24).
Philip Jacob Spener (1635–1705) saw a trend toward the latter among the early Lutheran churches he pastored. Reformation controversies over doctrine and religious wars had bogged down the unfettered link to God, which Martin Luther had advocated a century before. The agenda-laden pronouncements of the new church had little to do with holiness in everyday life. Instead of theological and political debate, Spener sought moral and spiritual change for his congregation.
He started a small group that met in his home to discuss the Sunday sermon, study the Bible, and pray. He preached new birth (John 3:3–8), a personal Christian experience (John 15:14), and cultivation of the Christian virtues (Jas 2:26). He published these ideas in Pia Desideria (“pious longings,” 1675). Practitioners became known as Pietists.
Spener and the Pietists sought reform in the larger church through reform of the inner person. If motives were holy, they argued, then outward corruption would be swept away, replaced by good works. Spener encouraged people to “lay the right foundation in the heart,” because “what does not proceed from this foundation is mere hypocrisy.” “Work,” he told them, “on what is inward—awaken love of God and neighbor through suitable means—and only then . . . act accordingly.”1 One of these suitable means was spontaneous prayer. “It is [not] enough,” he said, “to pray outwardly with our mouth, but true prayer, and the best prayer, occurs in the inner man, and it either breaks forth in words or remains in the soul, yet God will find and hit upon it.”2
Furthermore, he insisted that everyone, not just the clergy, the educated, or persons of means, was responsible to God and to the church to be a person of prayer. “Every Christian is bound,” he wrote, “to offer himself and what he has—his prayer.” And “with the grace that is given him, to . . . pray for all.”3
Forty years later, his godson the count of Zinzendorf established a village on his land for religious refugees, many of them Pietists. This community devoted itself to prayer and Bible study in small groups. They held one another accountable to living out their faith in obedience, hoping to continue reforms of the young Lutheran church from within. They studied the Bible, established orphanages, and sent missionaries to India, Iceland, and America.
They met for prayer so regularly and for so many years that the group became known as the Hundred-Year Prayer Meeting. Their emphasis on everyday people, praying freely and honestly, comes down to us through the Wesleyan revivals and the Great Awakening. These in turn became spiritual streams with which we are familiar today. Methodist, Holiness, Pentecostal, Fundamentalist, and Evangelical traditions all emphasize extemporaneous prayer.
Some of us are new to prayer without form. Speaking to God the same way we talk to friends and family may feel disrespectful. Our language may seem stilted, silly, or uncomfortable. We may doubt our right to address God or our ability to find words that express what we mean. For us, the transition into extemporaneous prayer may be gentler if we permit some level of formality in the beginning, such as sticking to a prayer guide. As we follow these leads, eventually our own prayers come to mind more easily and the hope that God hears without judging our performance overcomes our awkwardness (1 Sam 1:14–17).
For others this method of prayer has become so habituated that we pay only partial attention to the conversation we are having with God. We may tick through prayer lists without asking God what he thinks and without entering a waiting posture for his answer. We forget whom we are talking to (Job 40:6–9). If we fail to open ourselves to him, hope in his power to answer and his willingness to forgive is sucked away (Ps 51:1–2; Rom 8:25–26).
We may need to break the flow of extemporaneous prayer and examine what we are doing to renew its power as a spiritual discipline. Have you ever played the “what are you thinking?” game where you are obliged to say whatever was in your head at the moment you were asked? It can be surprising to discover your intersection of ideas or train of thought. In a similar fashion, observing the mechanics of prayer and how we sound when speaking with God allows us to hear old praying and notice its answers in a new way. Then with intention we can reengage the meaningful conversation to which God calls us and lead others in calling out to him (Deut 4:27, 29–31).
1Philip Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria (1675; trans. Theodore G. Tappert; Seminar Editions; ed. Theodore G. Tappert; repr. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964), 116–17.