Jesus taught us to pray. He even gave us a model to guide us in Matthew 6:9-13. The church has historically believed that this prayer can and should be followed, thus it occurs in the earliest Christian teaching on how to pray and what to specifically pray about. It seems very apparent that very early in the church's historical development this prayer was recited both publicly and privately. But many evangelical Christians stumble over this idea sometimes. The reason is often found in the words of Jesus in the same prayer context when he said, "And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words" (Matthew 6:7).
Is Jesus forbidding the repetition of his own words? Is he instructing us that all prayer must be spontaneous and extemporaneous, not prescribed and read? Is the repetition of words already spoken or written by someone else simply "vain repetition" (cf. the KJV translation)? Are Christians who pray with written and learned prayers babbling like pagans?
The first thing to note here is that this text is really stressing the point that people who pray like "babbling pagans" are really believing that "they will be heard because of their many words." The point is obvious. The "pagan" idea is not repeating words but praying many words in hope that this will gain God's favor by such action. This gets to the heart, to the motive Jesus is addressing here. The Greek word, battalogeo, means "to repeat idly" or "meaningless and mechanically repeated phrases." This was done in pagan prayer in the time of Jesus and the apostles. Our Lord is thus rejecting prayers said without proper reverence for God as our Father. Jesus is more concerned with the inner disposition of the heart (cf. Matthew 7:20-23; 15:9) than with outward appearances.
The second thing to note here is that Jesus is not condemning all formal prayers. By this I mean prayers that are already set in writing and then learned and/or read. Formal prayers were used by Jesus himself. How do I know this? He prayed in the synagogue. This was a part of the practice.
All of us use hymns and other set forms in our worship. Even the freest charismatic church follows some ritual, albeit one that allows for greater change within the structure. Many of the songs we sing, from both formal hymnals and informal praise music we learn or see on a projected screen, is prayer. Most of us are already praying in a set manner and do not realize it.
I recall hearing someone say when I was young: "If you have to use someone else's words than you aren't really praying." But the truth is that this is simply untrue. It is, in the end, another one of those numerous reactions that many of us have to traditions that are not our own.
Spontaneous prayer is valuable and benefits those who learn to talk to God in this manner. But it is not the only form of talking with God. Sometimes following the words of others helps. When I am dry, and need to be pushed out of myself, the words of others help me. When I cannot frame my thoughts properly I can use the Lord's Prayer and begin to connect with the petitions. I know I am right and safe to pray this prayer. There is no shadow of doubt. Formal prayers can and do shape my thoughts and desires and keep me in alive to God's revealed will. Informal prayers are more conversational and remind me that my Father loves me and wants to talk to me. A well developed and shaped prayer life will include both. Indeed, repeated written prayers will deliver me from missing something essential that I am prone to leave out if I follow the course of my own thoughts spontaneously.