Updated: Oct 24, 2022
(This post is aimed at Christians, and particularly “churchy” Christians, so feel particularly free to skip it if it doesn’t pertain to you!)
Three common mistakes in public worship are connected with the difference between prayer offered aloud during the service on behalf of the congregation and the benediction, which is normally uttered at the end of the service by the pastor, preacher, or other ecclesiastical representative.
Distinction 1: Prayer is us speaking to God. Benediction is literally a “good word,” a blessing, spoken to us. Sometimes these two genres, with their completely different vectors (“from us” versus “to us”), are blurred by people reciting a doxology (a “word of praise” or “glory” to God) at the end of a service. But a benediction properly is an encouraging word given to us by God’s representative. It isn’t simply another form of prayer.
Distinction 2: We usually close our eyes to pray in this culture, as in many others, and often we also bow our heads as a sign of reverence. But for the benediction it has made more sense to open our eyes, lift our heads, and receive the blessing with thankful faces as it is given. Still, one could imagine praying or receiving the benediction in the alternate mode, so no legalism is mandated here! Just awareness of what’s going on, to which one can respond as one believes one ought.
Distinction 3: With the surge of renewed concern for a fully Trinitarian theology has come an unfortunate liturgical confusion. The benediction can quite properly be offered in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, since it is a blessing from the Triune God. But prayer cannot properly be offered in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, because then–well, then to whom are we praying?
Christian prayer is offered by Christians, those who follow Jesus Christ and, per John 15, are in Jesus Christ, and who therefore pray as if we were Jesus Christ—that is, “in Jesus’ name.” (That’s what the formula “in Jesus’ name” means: as if we were Jesus himself praying, under his authority and acting as his servants.) Christians thus pray, as Jesus prayed and as he taught us to do, to God the Father. And we do so in the spiritual power and companionship of God the Holy Spirit. That is how to pray “Trinitarianly.”
We don’t need any more mental fog in our worship services than we have already, so let’s clear up at least these few patches, shall we?