This article is part of the Help! series.
Is Prayer Hard or Easy?
Prayer is like breathing. Inhale the grace and truth of God and exhale praise and petition. Sounds easy, right? In one sense this is true. What could be more natural for a born-again child of God than to talk to God intimately and often (1 Thess. 5:17)?
Christians complain that over time prayer gets repetitious, feels rote, and rambles here and there amidst many distractions. And these difficulties increase exponentially as prayer becomes more public. What does reticence to pray in public look like?
In counseling, I often ask the person I’m meeting with if they would like to pray out loud with me. Some are too uncomfortable to pray out loud with another person and ask me just to pray for them. One person told me how anxious he would get when each person in a growth group was asked to pray briefly in turn around the circle. This fear of praying even a sentence or two in public was almost paralyzing. But the height of intimidation comes when someone is asked to lead in prayer for the whole congregation on a Sunday morning. There is a natural gravitas about addressing the Lord on behalf of an entire congregation that makes hearts race and hands sweat. What are some reasons this is so daunting?
Fear of Public Speaking
This is called glossophobia and 25% of people rate it as a significant fear. There are many reasons for this but one of them is undoubtedly the sense of not being articulate in front of others that afflicted Moses (Ex. 4:10–12) and Paul (1 Cor. 2:1–5). In both cases God overcame their natural weakness with his divine power, but we often don’t trust that he will do this for us.
Fear of Not Knowing the Bible Very Well
Evangelicals believe the Bible should inform and guide everything we do in worship. We should sing the Bible, preach the Bible, and pray the Bible. However, many of us are unsure what it means to pray the Bible and don’t feel we know the Bible well enough to incorporate it meaningfully into our prayers. We don’t know how to mine the riches of Scripture to avoid sounding biblically illiterate, clumsy, or trite.
Not Knowing What to Pray For
Many Christians struggle with knowing what to pray for even in their own personal prayer life. We easily get distracted and run out of things to pray in a few minutes. It’s no wonder then that the thought of repeating this struggle in front of others would fill us with fear and trepidation. If your personal prayers are brief, distracted, and repetitious, how could you possibly pray for an entire congregation? What exactly would you pray for?
The Need for “Real” Prayer to Be Spontaneous
This is the mark of evangelical prayer, we reason: heartfelt and intimate. We don’t pray formal, written, liturgical prayers like Catholics. The more spontaneous-sounding a prayer, the better. The problem is that “the more spontaneous, the better” often doesn’t sound very biblical, reverent, thoughtful, balanced, or God-glorifying. We inwardly cringe when public prayer sounds overly familiar and rambling, even as we do when it sounds stilted and dated. We long for balance between Scriptural form and Spirit-led freedom but don’t know how to get there.
Lack of Good Role Models in Public Prayer
I realize that this is a dangerous generalization. There are many godly leaders who lead in prayer with conviction, integrity, knowledge of God, and love for their congregations. Praise God from whom all blessings flow! But I suspect that there are a good number of public prayers that float over the heads of the congregation. Minds wander and not a few are tempted to tune out until the “Amen” is heard. Good public prayer should capture hearts and connect the mercies of God with the deepest needs and desires of his people. If we don’t often hear these kinds of prayers, we will lack inspiration and motivation to work intentionally to prepare effective public prayer.
The Root of the Problem
All of the above help us understand why praying in public can be daunting. However, I believe a major reason is that many leaders don’t believe they can and should devote the same kind of intentional preparation to public prayer as they do to preaching or leading in music. A simple comparison of the number of books devoted to preaching and leading music with the number of books devoted to helping leaders prepare for leading in prayer would be instructive.
The rest of this article will address some of the above problems and give ideas on how to prepare well for leading in public prayer whether you are a pastor, worship leader, elder, campus director, youth group leader, or interested layman.
This anxiety about public prayer could be the fear of God (good, but sometimes misunderstood) or the fear of man (always bad). The fear of God would include a sense of unworthiness to speak to him or unfitness to represent his people. This is where good biblical theology is invaluable. According to the gospel, when we place our faith in Jesus Christ we are forgiven and counted righteous (Rom. 4:5–8), adopted as his beloved children and filled with the Spirit of God’s Son (Gal. 4:4–7), brought near to God by the blood of Jesus (Heb. 10:19–22), and invited to pray to our generous heavenly Father (Luke 11:13). In other words, our worthiness to come before God in prayer is in Christ, not ourselves.
Regarding our fitness to represent the people of God, it is important to remember that not everyone is called or expected to lead in public prayer. Certainly pastors and elders (Acts 6:1–4), worship leaders (1 Chron. 16:4), and mature Christians (1 Tim. 2:8) should expect to be called and equipped to lead in public prayer. These should be people devoted to private prayer, knowledgeable in Scripture, and able to lead through example and teaching. Through their leadership in prayer God will be glorified, prayers will be answered, and his people taught how to pray.
Although the fear of man is a formidable hindrance to public prayer, we saw earlier in the lives of Moses and Paul that God is able to overcome our fear and equip us to minister his power in our weakness. Moses begged God not to send him to speak and Paul testified to ministering in Corinth in fear and trembling, but the presence and power of God was ultimately triumphant.
For those called to lead in public prayer, it is important to remember that each member of the Trinity helps us in all life and ministry. The Father strengthens us with power, the Son dwells in our hearts as our new identity, and the Spirit fills us with all the fullness of God to do his work (Eph. 3:14–19; Eph. 2:10).
Achieving Balance in Prayer
One of the most common hindrances to vibrant and effective prayer is the “grocery list syndrome.” Our prayers degenerate into a repetitive recitation of our needs and desires. While the Father invites us to pray about everything that concerns us and is happy and generous in answering prayer, effective public prayer includes three types of prayer:
- Adoration (Ps. 95:1–4). Prayers of adoration should aim at “affectionate wonder.” God is infinitely worthy and only adoration can fully satisfy us. This is the most basic form of prayer.
- Confession (Ps. 51). Prayers of confession should aim at “grateful sorrow.” Many churches are a stranger to including confession in their services, but without it a service has no real integrity.
- Supplication (Ps. 25). Prayers of supplication should aim at “urgent confidence.” God is glorified as he generously meets our needs for body and soul.
The point is not that each public prayer needs to include all three but that all three should be the steady diet for worship services. This will keep prayer balanced, God-glorifying, and fruitful.
Saturating Prayer in Scripture
Since the Bible is the word of God and guides us into all that is good, true, and beautiful, our public prayers should be saturated with Scripture. This is not as hard as it sounds. Of course the more we read, study, meditate on, and memorize Scripture, the more naturally it will become part of our prayers. We can use the Bible in prayer in two different ways. One way is to actually quote or paraphrase Scripture in prayer. We could call this scripted prayer. Praying Psalm 103 might sound like,
Lord, we bless your holy name and rejoice in all your benefits. You forgive all our sins. Bless your holy name! You heal all our diseases. Bless your holy name! You redeem our lives from the pit. Bless your holy name!
Our worthiness to come before God in prayer is in Christ, not ourselves.
Another way to use the Bible in prayer is to creatively express scriptural themes in prayer more freely. We could call this developed prayer.
Lord Jesus, you have invited us—wretched beggars—to your wedding feast, not only as guests, but as your beloved bride, to be united to you forever. You are a gracious host and glorious bridegroom and have paid the bride price with your precious blood.
Notice the themes are entirely biblical, but the expression is more free and contemporary. Both are legitimate ways of praying scripturally. One leans more toward form (scripted) and the other toward freedom (developed).
Think of these two ways of praying Scripture as a musician adept at both classical (scripted) and jazz (developed) music. Be aware that both kinds of scriptural prayer are available and each has its benefits. Practice (yes, practice!) both and grow into a more complete prayer “musician.”
Knowing What to Pray For
It can seem overwhelming to think about how to pray for a whole congregation, but here is where we can draw on the riches of church history up to the present to give us different models of intercessory prayer.
Pray like the early church and the Reformers prayed in these four areas:
- Civil authorities
- Christian ministry
- The salvation of all people
- The afflicted
Pray “inside out” for:
- Your own congregation
- Other gospel-centered churches in your area
- Your city
- State leaders and needs
- Your country
- The world
These models help us pray for needs beyond the obvious and immediate and will keep our supplications fresh, relevant, and comprehensive.
A Final Assignment
I was a high school Bible teacher for thirty years, so it’s in my DNA to give assignments! Read Nehemiah 9 in the next few days and note all the topics and themes the Levites develop in this public prayer. How could this chapter shape your personal (and public) prayer this week?
Pat Quinn is the author of Praying In Public: A Guidebook for Prayer in Corporate Worship from which some of the ideas in this article are adapted.
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