Structure and Spontaneity in Prayer

New wine must be poured into new wineskins. Luke 5:38

One of the biggest challenges with regard to prayer is to develop a frequent, extended time of prayer that is at the same time energizing and sustainable over the long haul.  Since prayer is the means by which we communicate with God, who is our creator and the lover of our souls, why should it not be so?  I am of the strong conviction that indeed it can be so and is in fact our rightful inheritance as children of God.

But how is it possible?  The secret lies in utilizing and blending two seemingly incongruous approaches to prayer – structure and spontaneity.  I share this out of my own experiences in the trenches of prayer and the observation of the experience of many others.  But most importantly a strong case can be made from both a Biblical perspective and common historical practice that developing a vibrant and sustainable prayer life depends upon striking a balance between structure and spontaneity.

But before I delve into the practicalities of how to do that let me define the terms I have chosen to describe the kind of prayer life I believe God intends for each of us to have.  In the opening sentence I described the ideal prayer life with four words: frequent, extended, energizing and sustainable.

As with every close relationship there are key elements that contribute to its healthy maintenance.  The same principles apply to prayer and our relationship with God.  First communication and interaction must be “frequent,” meaning at a minimum daily, if not often throughout the day. It must also be “extended,” meaning of sufficient time to allow for in-depth and intimate conversation.  (It’s worth noting that Jesus asked for an hour in the garden.)  Third, communication with God is meant to be “energizing,” meaning that it should be a life-giving, joyful experience that is nurturing, enriching and inspiring. And finally a healthy prayer life needs to be “sustainable.”  In other words it continues to develop and deepen over the long haul, through thick and thin, trial and triumph.

Now what do I mean by structure and spontaneity?  The two obviously are opposites but like the wineskin and the wine, it takes both to have a party!  By structure I am referring to a disciplined commitment to the repeated use of set times and prescribed ways of praying.  Such commitments provide initiative and motivation to overcome prayer-less inertia.  Structure is like a launch pad or rocket launcher that is necessary to initiate and propel our prayers into their intended trajectory in the heavenly realms to accomplish God’s purposes.  Structure enables us to overcome distractions and diversions by guiding and giving focus to our prayers. And as with any discipline, structure empowers us to break through the “spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” syndrome. (Matthew 26:41)

Practically speaking structure in prayer is applied in one or more of the following ways:

  1. The commitment to the use of a predetermined regularly scheduled prayer time. (e.g. David praised God seven times a day, Daniel prayed three times a day. – Psalm 119:164, Daniel 6:10)
  2. Attendance at and praying regularly with a selected group of fellow pray-ers. (e.g. believers continually devoted themselves to “the breaking of bread and to prayer” and the apostles observed the hours of prayer established at the Temple – Acts 2:42, 3:1)
  3. A commitment to the use of a regular place and/or posture for prayer. (e.g. Jesus consistently sought out a solitary place for prayer, be it on a mountain, in the garden etc.)
  4. Use of a prescribed or chosen topical list, format, outline and/or formal liturgy for prayer. (e.g. the Lord’s Prayer, ACTS – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication, and the Liturgy of the Hours)
  5. Use of memorized scriptures, written or crafted prayers, sentences of phrases.

Whereas structure provides a framework or launching pad for prayer, spontaneity provides the fuel empowering our prayers and the guidance system helping our prayers to find their mark. Spontaneity in prayer is best defined as the freedom and flexibility to respond to the leading of the Holy Spirit.  Attentiveness to the spontaneity of the Spirit is absolutely necessary in prayer because it is through the Holy Spirit that revelation, faith and God’s power are all released. (Zechariah 4:6)  It is the Spirit that “helps us in our weakness” teaches how to pray and when necessary even intercedes for us.  (Romans 8:26)

The necessity of a blend of structure and spontaneity in spiritual matters is seen throughout the scripture beginning with the inherent marriage of Word and Spirit.  Structure is like the Bible (logos) and spontaneity is like the Spirit-inspired “rhema” word.  We are told that although the law (structure) came through Moses, Jesus came to fulfill the law as the embodiment of both truth (structure) and grace (spontaneity). (John 1:17)

Church history is replete with Christian traditions that nurtured frequent, extended, energizing and sustainable prayer through a blend of both structure and the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit.  Just to mention a few, there were the Desert Fathers, St. Patrick and the Celts, St. Benedict, Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians, William Booth and the Salvation Army and the Azusa Street Revival.  All of these Christian movements, although placing a divergent emphasis on either structure or spontaneity, maintained a blend of both and thereby sustained years of history shaping prayer.

As we think about utilizing both structure and spontaneity in our personal prayer lives it is helpful to think of them like the new wineskins and new wine that Jesus insisted upon in His teaching about the kingdom life.   For your prayer life to be vibrant it needs both “new wineskin” structures and “new wine” spontaneous responses to the Holy Spirit.  Creativity and variety are the key to keeping and making things “new.”  The use of “new” prayer structures prime the pump for the Spirit’s release of “new” revelation and faith in prayer.

May I encourage you to experiment with the five types of prayer structures listed above as a launching pad for a “new” spontaneity and accompanying joy to be released in your prayer life?

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2 thoughts on “Structure and Spontaneity in Prayer”

  1. Tom…Your words here remind me of the ancient Lectio Divina…The method of prayer used by the mystics and monks…as follows:


    Ask the Holy Spirit to cover and guide you as you read.

    Read the scripture or listen to it as it is read preferably three times or more.

    What touches my life in this moment? Reflect and wait for the Holy Spirit’s Response. Like when something brushes you and you turn to look at it.

    Taking to heart what we believe God is saying, asking for clarity and giving thanks.

    This is quieting down. We do not look for consoltations but simply enjoy the presence of God.

    Living the Word. We see how what we experienced with God can apply to our lives so we can always be praying. (Luke 21:36)

  2. Steve, thanks for this great illustration of Lectio Divina the origins of which come from the Benedictine tradition dating back to the 5th century. Even before that it was a term used by the likes of one of the great church fathers, Origen in the 3rd century, to describe a meditative way of reading scripture – blending the structure of the Word with the spontaneity of the Spirit.

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