Renewing Our Worship: Leading Public Prayer

We struggle in the area of public prayer. There are several reasons, but the biggest reason is a lack of preparation. We’re bad to ask someone to word a prayer 3 minutes before service.

The second biggest reason for our struggle is our failure to equip anyone for this task. We expect people to be able to word a prayer extemporaneously before a crowd of hundreds, with no practice and no training. It’s not fair to the poor guy leading the prayer and not fair to the church. Worse yet, our slovenliness in leading prayer means the rest of us tend to get pretty sloppy in praying with the guy leading the prayer.

Years and years ago, a church ran a TV ad that went like this. The camera looks through the roof of a congregation into the assembled worshipers. We see the church singing but hear nothing. Soon the singing stops and a man comes forward to lead a prayer. As he begins, the TV is filled with a thousand conversations all at once — one person thinking about lunch, another about the time, another about football …

A legend scrolls across the screen: HOW CHURCH SOUNDS TO GOD.

And it’s too true. Too often our minds are in neutral during the singing and our minds are on something else altogether during the prayers. Most of that is our own fault. But some of that is the fault of the leader.

Here’s how to do better –

* Be brief. Jesus condemned long prayers and vain repetitions. God isn’t stupid. Say it once and move on. Keep it short.

* Don’t preach.

* Don’t quote scriptures (God knows them already.)

* You get two “Lord”’s per prayer. If you have to say “Lord” every time you catch a breath, you can’t lead a public prayer (unless you’re 18 or younger).

* Don’t ask for your sins to be forgiven more than once per service. Besides, they were forgiven when you were baptized. Don’t dare ask for forgiveness before each element of communion and the contribution. I mean, just how much do we sin during communion? And why doesn’t the prayer at the end of the service handle that? (Imagine having a houseguest who asks for forgiveness between each course of each meal. You’d worry about their mental health!)

* Be specific. If someone asked for prayers, mention them by name.

* Contrary to much teaching, Jesus didn’t begin the Lord’s Prayer with praise. “Hallowed be thy name” is a prayer that the world hallow (revere as holy) God’s name. It’s parallel with “Thy Kingdom come.” There’s nothing wrong with praise, but we have this annoying tendency to think we have to butter up God before asking for something, and that’s just so wrong. He loves us. He wants our prayers. We should approach his throne with confidence.

* No King James English. No “Thee,” “Thou,” or “Thy.” When we talk like that, we act as though God wants us to speak in code. The New Testament is written in koine (common) Greek, not classical Greek. Classical Greek was to the First Century as Jacobean English is to us. And never end a verb with “-eth.” No one gets it right. It just sound affected — and ignorant. Or like you have a lisp. Speaketh thou in simple, contemporary English.

* Don’t try to sound eloquent. Very few of us are. You won’t fool anyone. Besides, simplicity and brevity are essential elements of eloquence.

* Don’t use a special “prayer voice.” God knows how you really sound. He can’t be fooled.

* Don’t be cute. Don’t call God “Pop” — even if that’s how you speak in your private prayers. The congregation will have trouble praying with you if you get too far out of their comfort zone. Respect the church enough to speak in language they can participate in. There’s nothing at all wrong with “Abba,” of course.

* Speak up. Sometimes we’re so used to praying quietly at other places, we just can’t make ourselves pray loudly. But the church has to understand you to pray with you.

* If it helps, write the prayer out before you come to church and read it. Nothing requires that we close our eyes when we pray.

* You can learn a lot about how to pray by studying the prayers of others. Scot McKnight, for example, frequently posts prayers at Jesus Creed.

* Passion matters. You’re charged with praying for the entire church, leading hundreds in a joint petition to God. Find two or three things that really matter and pray like God’s listening. He is.

* Avoid clichés. No “guide, guard and direct us.” No praying “for all for whom it’s our duty to pray.” No prayer for “a ready recollection.” If you can, avoid “guide the hands that minister to them.” “Be with the doctors and nurses” is much better because it’s simple and direct.

* Pray for miracles when miracles are called for. Don’t hesitate to ask God to heal, to enlighten, or change someone. There’s no reason to pray only for indirect miracles — “guide the hands that minister to them.” If God can miraculously guide hands, he can miraculously destroy cancer.

* Pray for and about God’s Holy Spirit. Paul did. We can, too.

(Eph 3:16-19)  I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Pray for God’s Spirit to fill us, to sanctify us, to strengthen us. Pray for fruit of the Spirit. Pray for the Spirit’s wisdom and insight.

* Be confident. Pray as though God will answer.

* Be humble. Admit that God’s wisdom is greater than ours and submit to his will.

I know it sounds like a lot of rules, but it’s not. Simple, short, direct, and from the heart will get it done and done well.

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9 Responses to Renewing Our Worship: Leading Public Prayer

  1. Pat says:

    Don't forget the informative prayers during which announcements are made. During this part of the prayer God may even be reminded in which hospital the prayed-for is a patient. I especially wonder about "we pray that our worship has been accordance with your will." Do we think that God will go back and clean it up if it wasn't? And how useless is it to pray that God will "guard, guide and direct us" but then don't really, way down deep where we live, believe that He actually does? Being a woman in a conservative fellowship, I am privileged to hear women pray. Our men could benefit from hearing those prayers.

  2. Cary says:

    Jesus told a story in which he essentially taught us what real prayer is like: "God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Luke 18 teaches us a lot about public prayer.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Pat,

    I've always been blessed by the prayers of women I've been privileged to hear. We really need to persuade people that there's no sin in hearing a woman speak with God!

    Some folks get bent out of shape over chain prayers where women participate, but they're dead wrong, even under very conservative interpretations of the "role of women" passages. Praying in the presence of men in no more sin than making comments in class in the presence of men. And, as you say, it would likely improve the prayer lives of the men!

  4. Jay Guin says:

    Cary,

    Exactly. Thanks. Here's another —

    (Mat 6:7-8 ) And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

  5. Joe Baggett says:

    Empty words and vain repetition, which is what Jesus warns of in his teaching on prayer are rampant in our churches. You would think that we have a denominational prayer book that people pray from. You can here one prayer and travel three states and here the exact same prayer. When I was a kid me and my friends would time the opening prayers which usually ran about 10 minutes +. The longest was 13 minutes 42 seconds. The same men prayed the same prayers about the same things in the same monotone voice. I am sorry but that is pretty close to empty words and vain repetition.
    In the Lord's Prayer we see that first the will of God and his kingdom is sought through out. An example for a congregational prayer asking for the kingdom of God would be: “Lord teach us how to love other people”, or “Lord help us to grow in the spirit of self control”, or “Lord teach let us become more generous” or “Lord help us to overcome our racism, indifference and apathy”. You see there are many specific ways to ask the Lord’s kingdom in a public congregational prayer.
    Now we can repeat this process for any of the below parts of the Lord’s Prayer remember to be specifically broad.
    Then physical provision – What physical things are needed in the congregation?
    Then forgiveness – Who, when, and where does the congregation need forgive and be forgiven?
    Lastly Spiritual Warfare-What specific evils is the church facing? How may God help us overcome and defeat these evils?
    Leading public prayers should not be a sermon. Telling God what he already knows it one of the most annoying things there is. I would suggest that one who is called on to lead a public prayer put much thought and prayer into it ahead of time. A five minute well thought out and prepared prayer is very effective!

  6. Joe Baggett says:

    I am most blessed by my wife's prayers. I could listen for a long time.

  7. paulsceptic says:

    Pray that people will compare Galatians 2 to Acts and then read 2nd Timothy 1:15 where Paul says "all Asia" had rejected him (why?), and realize that Paul was a false apostle trying to make himself out to be a real apostle by lying on Peter, James, and John, then throw Paul away and follow Jesus alone. Debates about authority for worship items will begin to disappear as men stop following Paul's example of waiting for someone to mess up so he can jump all over them and prove himself to be a super-apostle with perfect knowledge of the "mysteries" of Christ (as if there are mysterious rules only he knew and that's why everyone screwed up and he had to set them straight because only he was privy to the "mysteries"). Yes, pray for the exposing of Paul so that Jesus might commend us as he did the Ephesians (who are Asian) in Revelation 2:2.

  8. Chr1sch says:

    Joe, when I was younger, there was a guy in church who always prayed very long. And we, too, took the time of the prayer each week to see if he would break his record. It was also around 10 minutes or something.

    Jay, there is one notion coming up in most of your posts, as though everything in the service has to be "perfect". I know you don't want to say that but there is a danger in that. If everything that is being said is all very eloquent and perfect, many (who are not that good a speaker) won't want to say something anymore. I'm all for a well planned and seeker-sensitive service. But especially prayer is such a personal outlet towards God. It's just a child speaking to his father and not an official speech. We need to make sure that you don't have to be perfect to assist in the assembly. I'm just afraid that too much percetionism could send a wong signal…. Well, I hope this comment makes sense…

  9. Jay Guin says:

    Chr1sch,

    I agree that we can be too perfectionistic. I know of some churches that have so emphasized excellence that they've disconnected from their membership.

    On the other hand, neither should we be lazy and just go through the motions. Most of our churches suffer more from just going through the motions than from perfectionism.

    But you are right to warn me and all of us against pushing too far. I think Jesus makes it clear that God is quite pleased with simple, heartfelt worship.

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