IMPROVING PUBLIC PRAYERS
A central part of the Christian’s life is the simple, yet profound, act of prayer. It is one of the sublime privileges God grants to his children. It has been the subject of countless sermons and has been demonstrated often in the lives of believers. All of us should treasure the ability to speak to the very Creator and sovereign of the universe whenever we choose to, whether day or night, rain or shine, in sickness or in health – in short, at any time or place (while of course not interfering with other people).
But we have to guard this great privilege to avoid letting familiarity and repetition cause our prayers to become more perfunctory than heartfelt, especially those in a public setting. The remarks which follow are intended to help those who lead public prayers make their prayers more understandable and coherent, therefore more effective for the listeners who are attempting to make the leader’s prayer their own. The intent of these comments is not to criticize but to point out ways to improve in this important part of our worship. Much of this is based on learning from my own many mistakes as a poor leader of prayers. So here goes:
One. Whoever plans the service should provide advance notice to the designated leader of a public prayer whenever possible. Obviously there may be unanticipated prayers during a service, but they tend to have a single theme and usually can be handled well without the need for prior preparation.
Two. The designated prayer leader should prepare well before arriving at the church building and have a definite plan for the prayer. Historically, in probably most of our congregations, we have shied away from writing our prayers or preparing notes in advance, perhaps because we have grown up with the idea that prayer should be spontaneous or it won’t be sincere. If that were true, shouldn’t it also apply to sermons? No, we like our sermons planned ahead and presented logically for better understanding – and the same principle appears to apply to public prayers. If the written prayer is good in God’s eyes, surely he won’t mind experiencing it twice, as it is being written and as it is read in public.
Three. Make sure that every person in the audience can hear the prayer leader. This requirement, while very basic, has often been ignored in churches in the past. The practice in most churches a few generations ago was usually for all the men, including the prayer leader, to “kneel” (actually, squat) for prayer if it was possible where they were sitting, with faces bowed toward the floor; and a man in that position couldn’t possibly be heard by a very large audience unless he had an unusually loud voice. Later it became the practice in some congregations for the prayer leader to stand at his pew so as to give his prayer a better chance of being heard by the congregation. Fortunately, at least in many congregations, we’re no longer hesitant to stand before the audience and use a microphone, if one is available, when we lead prayers. However, the prayer leader cannot depend entirely on a building’s sound system; he must raise his voice as well. Along with that, he should be careful not to speak too rapidly for the audience to follow comfortably. And he should be careful also not to let his volume taper off at or near the end of a sentence as if he were swallowing his words, but let the audience hear and understand every word. Remember, he’s not just praying by himself; he is endeavoring to lead many prayers, perhaps hundreds if the crowd is that large. And without hearing the leader, how can a person in the pew possibly be following along and silently offering the same prayer?
Four. Be considerate of the audience. People in the audience are bowing their heads, and possibly their upper bodies as well, or perhaps standing with heads bowed. Either posture can tire them after a few minutes. With that in mind, the leader should avoid making the prayer unduly long. The following points are intended to show how the prayer can be kept to a comfortable length and still serve its intended purpose.
Five. Let the contents of the prayer be as promised by custom, or in the bulletin if one is available. If the prayer is the opening prayer, the idea is to thank God for enabling the people to be there and to ask for his blessings on them and their period of worship together. It can become tedious if the leader decides to express all that is in his own heart but not appropriate for the moment. If the prayer is designated as a prayer of supplication, it is of course fitting to include thanks to God for taking care of his children and for the avenue of prayer provided for us to express our needs, but the main purpose is to supplicate, and we generally do that abundantly. However, if it’s called a prayer of praise, many prayer leaders can’t seem to avoid asking more than praising and thanking, perhaps because mentioning a blessing from God prompts a desire for still more. In prayers of praise and thanksgiving let’s just praise and give thanks and rejoice!
Six. Avoid needless repetition. Sometimes when we are presenting our requests to God, it’s easy to slip into a sort of rhythm that may have a lulling effect on the audience, bringing on sleepy inattention. That happens, for example, if we choose to ask for each of several blessings separately and repeat practically the same sentence a number of times, changing only a few words in each sentence. To some extent that rhetorical tactic might work in a sermon, but it can quickly become monotonous in a public prayer. In this connection, since we address the Father at the opening of the prayer, it is not necessary to repeat the word “Father” or “God” time after time during the prayer. Although of course an occasional reuse of the term is not inappropriate, excessively saying “Father” is superfluous and can hamper the quality of the prayer by adding to the dulling effect of repetition. It can also be helpful to use easily understood synonyms in a public prayer to reduce the repetition factor. For example, instead of saying “praise” many times in a prayer, one could substitute other words, such as honor, glory or glorify, magnify, and so on.
Seven. If the prayer includes unfamiliar names of people, settle on a pronunciation beforehand and use it clearly in the prayer. Faltering indicates indecision, which may also give the impression that the name of this person is not really very important.
Eight. When praying for an individual, have in mind specifically what blessing you are asking for and state it, without offering a news report in the prayer. If Brother Blank broke his leg, it’s reasonable to mention that in passing, but if the accident just happened yesterday and more of a report is necessary, offer appropriate details for the audience before the prayer, not during it.
Nine. Reading the prayer aloud beforehand may reveal awkward phrases that otherwise would not come to light until it is being read before the congregation. It might be profitable also to look carefully for any phrases or sentences that have been included out of habit but may have lost their original meaning to the modern ear. For example, many years ago a dear brother in a Texas church always began the concluding part of his prayer by saying, “And when it is ours to tabernacle in this tabernacle of clay no more by reason of death. . . .” That phrase was probably understandable to all when he was younger, but its meaning became rather obscure over the years. As in preaching, practice in praying never hurts.
A Husband’s Prayer
Dear heavenly Father,
How deeply I thank you for the lovely and gracious wife you have given me. Thank you for her virtue, her good nature, and her love for me and our children. Thank you for her great example of a Christian with an unwavering goal of showing her faith by her life. She takes such good care of the children and me that I can never her praise her enough. Please help me to be the kind of husband I should be, and grant that together we can be good examples to our children and to others who observe our lives.
Her goodness often reminds me that I am not worthy of her, and I want to be a kinder, more considerate and more loving husband. I pray earnestly for your help in this endeavor. May I so live that she can always be thankful that you brought us together. And may our love for one another, for you and for Jesus our Savior grow continually throughout our lives. I pray in his name.
A group of churches, led by Quaker Avenue Church of Christ in Lubbock, Texas, has had considerable success during the past quarter century in planting and churches in Uganda, Kenya and other East Africa countries. Another successful project has been the establishment of LivingStone University in Uganda, where Africans can obtain Christian education. More information is available www.quakeravenue.com and www.livingstone.ug.