How to lead in public prayer

  • Deryck Howell
  • 1 September 2004

You have been asked to lead the prayer time at church on Sunday morning. What will you do?

  • Have a look at last week’s church program for some ideas.
  • Dig out that book of prayers from the bottom shelf of your library.
  • Wait until you stand up at the microphone and see what pops into your head.
  • Wait until you get some inspiration from your Bible reading that Sunday before church.

1. Love is essential

In 1 Corinthians 12-14 the apostle Paul instructs us about behaviour in church. It is essential to see that in the centre of these three chapters is the great thirteenth chapter, the hymn of love. The message is clear: we are to ensure that we always follow the more excellent way of love. And this is nowhere more true than in leading the church in prayer.

2. Truth is essential

Make no mistake: truly Christian love in its treatment rejoices in the truth (1 Cor 13:6). So as I lead others in prayer, I want to ensure I am speaking what is true. Amongst other things, it is true that I am leading others. Therefore I should use ‘we’ pray rather than ‘I’ pray, for the truth of the matter is that I am not saying my personal prayers publicly, but lovingly leading others—my brothers and sisters in our prayers. I will ensure that my public prayers are truly Christian—reflecting the wonder of praying to God the Father by the mediation of God the Son through the work of God the Holy Spirit.

3. Clarity is essential

If in fact I am leading others in prayer, then just as if I were teaching them, I will need to enable them to follow what I am saying. Some (though very few) can do this without thought or preparation. I notice that such folk are usually elderly and have in fact spent decades in thought and preparation before they stand up to lead in prayer. The rest of us need to do the hard yet rewarding work of preparation. So, a couple of pointers about preparing to pray in public:

a. Write/ type your prayers out in full

This helps you see whether there is an easy to follow, logical flow (God doesn’t need this but it sure helps those you are leading).

It helps you cut out the verbal fillers like “just” (how can one ‘just’ pray?), “Lord” (yes, when all else fails, put this in), and the all-purpose “um”.

It helps you avoid long sentences with many dependent clauses, for although this was both a commendable and satisfying way of prayer in the sixteenth century, it is rarely appreciated and is more often thought pompous and irritating in the twenty-first century, the problem having not to do with people’s attention spans, even though such a possibility may be raised, but more to do with the pray-er being thought clever and even highly spiritual, when the truth of the matter is that they can just compose long sentences.

It helps you see whether you are praying Christianly (see above under ‘truth’) and it helps you to see whether what you will say is truly prayer. Many, many pray-ers have found that praying with minds (and keyboards) full of Scripture helps us pray according to God’s will.

So writing out prayers in full will help ensure that they focus on the big-picture purposes of God in his gracious salvation of the world.

Writing out prayers will also save us from wanting to inform God of all the intricate details of the church picnic or evangelistic mission or, what is almost as bad, reinforce the announcements already made in the meeting.

b. Take advice and help from others

Look at (and even use) some of the prayers written by older believers. You may want to analyse the prayers of King David, King Solomon, Moses, the apostle Paul or the Lord Jesus himself. You may want to look at the way the English Reformers prayed, especially at Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. His ‘collects’, that is, short prayers, one for each week of the year and for special occasions, are masterful examples of one-thought prayers: scriptural, brief, expectant and based on what Christ has done for us, not on what we do for him. Brilliant!

Talk to older Christians who have been at it for many years.

So you have written out your prayer and the meeting leader has called you out to the front. Immediately thoughts go through your head like, “What heresy will I sprout?” or “Beware of making long prayers for a pretence” (a solemn warning from the Lord—Matt 6:7), and the old chestnut, “How can I be passionate, real and spontaneous when I am reading out something I have written down word-for-word?”

I remember a former Archbishop of Sydney speaking at a meeting for ministers shortly after he retired and reflected on his reservations about being ordained back in the 1930s when he was a student. The big issue for him was not whether you could baptise infants or not. The issue for him was ‘can I use the same prayers week in and week out as I lead God’s people from the Prayer Book?’ To his great relief, someone pointed him to some words of Charles Simeon, the eighteenth-century chaplain of Cambridge University. In giving advice to people who asked this question, Simeon is reputed to have said, “Ensure that when you go to the prayer desk, you pray as if you were praying extemporarily, and when you are called upon to pray extemporarily, bear in mind the set prayers”. Good advice indeed.

So as you stand there waiting to pray, shoot up a quick request to the Father like this: “Lord, please help me to honour you by serving my brothers and sisters as I lead them before your throne of grace”, and then do so. May God bless you to others as you lead his people in this most marvellous of privileges, speaking with their King and their God.

A word about the subjects of prayer

Beware the self-centred approach. It is so easy to get excited about what God is doing in our little patch that we forget the rest of the world.

The Lord’s Prayer, though it has become wonderfully personal, focuses on the coming of God’s kingdom to the world, and so should we. So as you think about the prayers you are going to lead people in, start from God, then pray for his world, then for this country, this city, this suburb and then your church.

Make sure you include, as Paul does in almost every recorded prayer, expressions of thanks to God and praise for who he is and what he has done.

And a final tip: speak up, not so God can hear you but so that we can, and say a heartfelt “Amen”.

This article was first published in Briefing #312, September 2004.