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.