How to Pray the Collect Way: Let’s Go Deeper than Grocery List Prayers

How to Pray the Collect Way:
Let’s Go Deeper than Grocery List Prayer
By Scot McKnight|March 24th, 2021

You pray more often than you realize
Prayer is far more common than we realize, that is, if we take the meditations of the
Book of Psalms as a guide. There we encounter the Bible’s own prayer book but what
we discover often are meanderings and ponderings of the one praying. We might call
these prayers the sorts of things we do sitting alone on a porch in the morning sun or in
our muttering thoughts when we are out for a walk. Eugene Peterson, one known for
his love of the Psalms, has often said people pray far more often than they may know
and thus feel guilty for not having done (pray) what they have in fact done. To think
prayer can be reduced to the intentional times of structured and conscious prayer is a
mistake. Prayer can be the heartbeat of our ponderings.
Where have we learned to pray?
Where, we might ask, have we learned to pray? In my recent book, To You All Hearts
Are Open, I reflected on learning to pray especially from my father and my pastor, as
well as from the Psalms and prayer books. C.S. Lewis tells us that he spent afternoons
pacing in his rooms at Magdalen College praying the Psalms in the Coverdale
translation. (It’s my favourite translation of the Psalms.) The Psalms were Lewis’s
instructor in prayer. The same can be said of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eugene Peterson.
Many have also learned to pray from books of prayers. I have benefited from the prayer
books of John Baillie, Walter Brueggemann, Samuel Wells and Abigail Kocher, Stanley
Hauerwas, and Janet Morley.
The most common form of prayer: petition
No statistics are available, but I’m willing to speculate with full assurance that the most
common form of prayer is petitionary prayer, asking God for something.
Who taught us how to approach God with our requests? What concerns me is how we
have learned to barge in on God. We say, in effect, “Dear God, give me this or give me
that, and then how about this, too?”
Here the biblical forms of prayer have much to teach us. In fact, perhaps the best way
to teach a theologically reverent approach to God in petitions is to take a long look at
the Anglican Collects.
(What’s a Collect, you ask? Click here to learn more.)

Think about the Collects
The Bible’s own approach to Asking God reveals a fullness that is often missing in our
petitionary prayers. The Collects, which bring into a concise and tight formula the
pattern of petitions in the Bible, instruct us in crisp and clear language how to approach
God reverently with our requests.
A few years ago, because the Collects had taught me so much and because I thought
many could benefit from them, I wanted to devote time to a study of the theology of
prayer in the Collects. Having observed the common order at work in the Collects, I
planned to go through all the major Collects in The Book of Common Prayer to sort out
their theology of prayer.
Kris (my wife) and I planned a two-week visit to the island of Naxos in Greece as a kind
of mini-sabbatical – some study in the morning, touristing in the afternoons, evening
dinners and long walks. In the mornings with the Aegean breezes sweeping through
our room, I read through the Collects a dozen or so times, sorted out the various
elements of the Collects, assigned the words of each of the Collects to an element, and
then took a long look at a messy manuscript interesting to probably no one but me –
and probably not to me for long. An editor friend agreed.
Alongside studying the Collects, I mustered together the prayers of the Bible, and a
good place to start is the old All the Prayers of the Bible by Herbert Lockyer, made
more enjoyable because they are in the English of King James. The Bible’s own prayers
often had enough of the elements of the Collect that I was willing to say the Collects
are a concise Christianised version of the various elements of the Bible’s own prayers.
But I needed more to make this into the book I had in mind, so I began to explore
petitions outside The Book of Common Prayer. Eventually, the book came into form,
but not without recommendations from a good editor.
Think about God
What the Bible and the Collects have done for me is to teach me to think about God
before I form my petition. It sounds to me that many don’t think about God enough and
so just wander into their petitions. I am not one to spend much time criticizing the
prayers of others, but I do readily admit that praying the Collects all these years has
raised my expectations for Anglicans in how they ask God for something. If we would
study their forms, we will learn a more reverent approach to petitions.

Here’s a model petition. We recite each Sunday at Church of the Redeemer the Collect
for Purity, perhaps my favourite collect:
1. Almighty God,
2. to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid:
3. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
4. that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name;
5. through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Notice that this prayer can be separated into five elements. The five elements in order
are, in my own terms,
• Address God: What do you call God? Father? Almighty God?
• Remind God: What about God implies it is fitting for God to answer?
• Ask God: What do you want from God? Say it.
• Expect God: What will you do when God answers your request? Do it.
• Access God: How do you access God’s presence?
These elements are found already in various prayers in the Bible. Here is one example
from Deuteronomy 9:26-29. Again, I will add the various elements.
26 I prayed to the LORD and said, “[Address] Lord GOD, [Ask 1] do not destroy
the people [Remind 1] who are your very own possession, whom you redeemed
in your greatness, whom you brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 27 [Ask
2] Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; pay no attention to the
stubbornness of this people, their wickedness and their
sin, 28 [Expect] otherwise the land from which you have brought us might say,
‘Because the LORD was not able to bring them into the land that he promised
them, and because he hated them, he has brought them out to let them die in
the wilderness.’ 29 [Remind 2] For they are the people of your very own
possession, whom you brought out by your great power and by your
outstretched arm.”

As this prayer illustrates, natural prayer doesn’t follow strict formulas. There are two
reminders of what it is about God that prompts the “Ask God” element, which also
happens twice, and the Expect God pertains to God bringing glory to God by being
faithful to the promises. This Expect God could be explained as another Remind God
There are many prayers like this in the Bible, and in To You All Hearts Are Open I go
through a number of these. But there is a reverential respect at work in this prayer. The
reverent approach of this prayer in Deuteronomy is a template for a more reverent
approach for us.
Praying more Collect-ly
I make this suggestion. Pause before you enter into the presence of God. Formulate in
your mind your petition. Then, with your petition in mind, think about God and what it is
about God that makes your petition fitting for God to answer. Then with that fit
between God’s goodness and power in view, consider the implications in your life if
God were to answer your prayer.
Again: Ask God – Remind God – Expect God and then Address God as you think most
appropriate for that petition (“Almighty God” is very common in our Book of Common
Prayer for a reason), and then utter your prayer. The Access at the end reminds us all
over again that everything we ask is rooted in the redemptive work of God through
The form of the Collect is a more reverent, biblical approach to petitionary prayer than
the all-too-common – let me say it – theologically careless, irreverent, and inconsiderate
approach of many. Let us go to God, reminding God that God in his good power is
worthy of the petitions we carry.
The Collects teach this as they have shaped the biblical prayers into a form for our
Scot McKnight is Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, a Deacon and Canon Theologian
to Bishop Todd Hunter, and an author of To You All Hearts Are Open and A Church called Tov. You can
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