In a typical Southern Baptist church–if there is any such animal!–the ministers handle most of the pulpit duties. The times when deacons lead in public prayer are more likely to come prior to the offering and inside the Lord’s Supper.
When an inexperienced layman approaches the pulpit to lead in prayer, there is no telling what will happen. If it’s true that most pastors have never had training in public praying, it’s ten times as sure that the laypeople haven’t.
What we get when the typical layman leads a prayer in the worship service is often some or all of the following:
–trite statements he has heard other people pray again and again
–awkward attempts to be genuine and fresh
–uncomfortable attempts to admonish the congregation about some issue, usually their laxity in giving
–a complete unawareness of the time element. He/she may be too brief or go on and on and on.
The typical layman feels out of place doing this. There are exceptions, thankfully, and some wonderful ones. But in most churches, the deacons and other lay leadership would rather take a beating than to pray in public.
When a pastor friend announced to his deacons that they would no longer be leading offertory prayers, he expected resistance and was prepared to respond to it. Instead, without exception, they cheered the news. “They felt like a burden had been lifted off their shoulders,” he told me.
I understand that. But I regret it. In truth, this could be a wonderful time for a man or woman of the Lord to render service of an unusual nature to the congregation and indirectly to the Lord.
Here are ten suggestions on how any of us–preachers, staffers, deacons, laity–can improve our public praying.
1. Use first person plural in your prayers.
Speak of “we” and “us” and “our.” After all, you are not offering a private, personal prayer at this moment, but a corporate one on behalf of all the Lord’s people who are in attendance.
Our Lord taught us to pray, “Our Father…give us…forgive us…lead us.”
That prayer we call The Lord’s was clearly meant as a public prayer. We know that by the first person plural found throughout. When our Lord prayed in private, He spoke in the first person singular (“Father, I thank you that you heard me when I prayed.” –John 11:41).
You’re praying on behalf of all of us, friend. Keep that in mind.
2. Think about this prayer well in advance if possible.
My college roommate George Gravitte and I pulled the same bonehead mistake in our initial attempts at preaching. His first sermon came just after our freshman year while mine came as a college senior. But we both went into the pulpit unprepared, counting on the inspiration of the moment to produce a sermon that would enthrall our audience and confirm to our families God had chosen wisely.
Nothing like that happened. Both sermons were failures of the first order.
Preparation is good. It’s good for sermons and it’s needed for prayers when both are to be uttered in the presence of others.
Everything that follows is meant to assist the person praying to prepare well for what he/she will say.
3. Ask yourself, “What Scripture speaks to the subject my prayer deals with?”
As a young minister with zero preparation or training in public praying, I would sometimes find myself immensely blessed by a prayer offered at a worship gathering. Why, I wondered, did that prayer touch me so and lift my spirits and inspire my faith more than the others?
One thing almost all inspiring prayers had in common were their use of Scripture.
A prayer that prays the promises of God can always be counted on to bless the hearers.
And that, of course, raises the question: should a prayer have as its aim to bless the hearers? After all, isn’t a prayer directed toward the Heavenly Father? Wasn’t it for His benefit? It surely was not a performance. That being the case, does it matter how the audience felt about it?
Answer: Yes. It matters a great deal. For one thing, if the prayer is on behalf of the congregation, we would love for them to buy into it, to feel it was their prayer, and to exercise their faith concerning its requests.
We are not talking about preaching to the congregation or making announcements to them by means of the prayer. Those are two of the most common misuses of public prayers. We are talking about praying in such a way as to inspire their faith and uplift their spirits.
The Psalms are a rich repository of texts to inspire our prayers. Take Psalm 1, for instance. Suppose your pulpit prayer included this–
Our Father, in Thy word, you have pronounced a blessing on the person who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly. O, help us to walk faithfully. You have pronounced a blessing on the one who does not stand in the way of sinners. O, help us to surround ourselves with men and women of faith and integrity. You have pronounced a blessing on those who do not sit in the seat of the scornful. O, help us to take our place among the encouragers.
Father, in Thy word you have promised that the man or woman of faith and obedience will be like a tree planted by rivers of water. O, give us stability and lasting strength. You have said it would bring forth its fruit in its season. O, make us fruitful, Father, that we may bring glory to Thee. You said its leaf would not wither, that whatever it did would prosper. O, Father, we long for that kind of daily consistency and productive service for Thee.
Pray the promises of God. And by that I mean you’re not just parroting Scripture back to God, but building on it, showing how seriously you take it. You internalize God’s Word, reflect on it, and then as the Holy Spirit leads, you build your prayer on something in it.
4. As much as you can, make your prayer concise, to the point, and relatively brief.
That is, unless you were put on the program for a major prayer.
If the White House calls to inform you that (fill in the blank; some well-known clergy) cannot make the inauguration and invites you to fill his slot, go for it. Take a full five minutes.
If a great prayer conference is being held and the organizers slot you for a major prayer, accept the assignment eagerly, then begin to work on your opportunity. (I’m recalling that while pastoring in New Orleans, twice I was asked to pray at national conventions being held in our city, once for 700 dentists and another for morticians. I took the assignments seriously and tried to do my very best for my Lord Jesus Christ as well as those good people who had invited me.
Otherwise, shorter is better. To a point. Don’t overdo the brevity. You’re talking to the Father about very real needs. You are being overheard by people going through very real situations. Ask the Holy Spirit to speak through you.
In one church I served, an elderly deacon who used to be the county sheriff was notorious for prayers that circumnavigated the globe. Ten minutes minimum would be my guess. Once, years after he and his family had moved away, they were back visiting and present in our morning service. For no other reason than nostalgia, I suppose–or possibly a little streak of meanness–I called on him to pray. Later, I wished we had timed him. Did it really take ten minutes or just seem that way?
Between us, and as a general rule, I suspect that anyone praying interminable prayers in a public gathering does not pray at all in private. I hope I’m wrong.
5. Be yourself.
This is no time to imitate some famous person you heard once. Be true to you.
What’s on your heart? What do you believe strongly? What is the need of the hour? What have you learned about approaching the throne of God in prayer?
In fact, as you prepare, you will even want to pray about your prayer.
Does that sound redundant? It isn’t. The Father has a greater interest in your prayer “working” than you do. So, ask Him for guidance.
I picked up my grandson from the school. Grant was feeling poorly, and I was glad to run this little errand. At a stop light, noticing the Arkansas license plate on the car in front of us carried a drawing of a diamond, we got into a discussion about diamonds, called “the hardest surface on earth.” Being a grandfather who is always trying to teach these little ones I love, I said, “So, Grant, if the diamond is the hardest thing on the planet, what would they use to cut one?”
He suggested all kinds of answers before the obvious one occurred to him: “Another diamond.” Right.
Perhaps that is a metaphor for praying about our prayer.
6. Put the event you are praying for in context.
What’s going on? Does the congregation know about it? If not, you may need to inform them. That’s why a lot of thought should go into the preparation of the prayer.
You may need to preface your prayer with something like: “As many of you know, last night we had a death in the church family. Deacon John Jasper was suddenly called home to the Heavenly Father. So, while our hearts go out to his family and loved ones, we want to lift them to the Lord for strength and blessing this morning.”
A friend tells me she has known church members to be hurt because no mention from the pulpit was made of the tragedy their family was enduring, and no prayer was offered. She writes, “Our previous pastor used to give us a prayer list before the morning prayer. But when the present pastor came, he stopped that. The congregation really missed it. But the preacher said something about not wanting to violate the ‘privacy act.’ Consequently, the prayers thereafter were always general and never specific. The members felt something precious had been lost.
Pastor John Franklin says, “I have observed a unique atmosphere of love in congregations where people pray publicly for one another by name.”
Pastor Mike Miller says, “If you’re praying in the service, pay attention. What was just sung? What did the pastor just say? What happened in the church or the world this week?”
7. Don’t hesitate to remind God of Who He is, What He has done, and What He has promised in similar circumstances.
This is too lengthy a subject to go into here, but based on Isaiah 62:6, I strongly believe that before mentioning our requests, our public prayers ought to be built around reminding God of these three aspects of His revelation: Who He Is, What He has Done, and What He has Said. (I capitalized them all on purpose to stress their importance.)
You who remind the Lord, take no rest for yourselves and give Him no rest until He make Jerusalem a praise in all the earth. That’s Isaiah 62:6 and it changed forever my perception of public prayers.
The Hebrew word MAZKIR means to remind. But it’s also the title of a court official, usually called a “recorder.” The official functioned as a court reporter does in our culture, taking notes on happenings in order to read them back to the boss at a later time. Kings had their mazkirs and depended greatly on them (I Kings 4:3 is one instance).
In Scripture, those who prayed public prayers would often take the first half of the prayer to do just this–remind God that He was God and He alone, that He had made the Heavens and the earth and all that is in them, and that He had spoken about situations just like the one the pray-ers were facing. Three excellent examples are David’s prayer when dedicating the temple materials in I Chronicles 29:10-20, Jehoshaphat’s prayer in II Chronicles 20:6-12 and the Jerusalem believers in Acts 4:24-31.
Over decades of ministry, the prayers that inspired me most from other ministers and leaders often followed this very form. They began by reminding God who He is, what He has done, and what He has promised. Then, and only then did they get to the immediate situation with appropriate requests to God. It’s a prayer method found throughout Scripture, and thus one we should not dismiss lightly.
8. Pray a prayer of faith.
Believe God and say so in your prayer. Don’t be afraid to tell a Loving, Holy God that as His children engaged in His work, you are asking for the needed materials or personnel to get the job done.
Praying prayers of faith means asking for precisely what you need and every bit of it. Do not be afraid to pray big.
Thou art coming to a king, Large petitions with thee bring.
For His grace and power are such, None can ever ask too much.
Pray big. Expect big. And commit yourself totally.
Another excellent resource is The Book of Common Prayer. This inspiring volume of worship leadership will bless your private devotionals as well as provide great ideas for your own public prayers.
9. Thank the Lord and do so specifically.
On a website where the host asked for suggestions on how he could pray well in public, someone identified only as Jesse suggested–
I try to be brief and make a ‘thank you sandwich’–thanking God for bringing us all there safely, asking Him to bless the activity we are gathering for, thanking Him for the opportunity to participate in the proceedings, and the ability to give money/study the Bible/have a church meeting, etc. Lastly, I try to acknowledge that all things come from Him. It takes about 20 seconds at the most. I’ve been teased about my short prayers, but really, I feel like if I try to do more I’d be showing off or performing.
Another fellow had a good idea: Practice, practice, practice. He suggests you write out your prayers and then practice saying them so you’ll not need the manuscript. He says, “Think about how you will address God (‘God of mercy, God of grace, God of giving, God of peace, etc’). Think how you will address the situation at hand. Keep the tone consistent with the prayer type.”
10. Begin and end your prayer with praise.
Psalm 103 begins and ends with “Bless the Lord, O my soul.”
The Lord’s prayer, which begins with praise–“Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name”–ends with “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.”