This may come as a surprise but one of my least favorite things to do as a pastor is offer public prayer. I have, I believe, good reasons for my dislike of public prayer. I do like to pray—it is a very personal thing for me where I can lay myself bare and express my fears, concerns, joys, doubts, and many other emotions. The whole dynamic changes, however, when someone else is listening in on the conversation. If you knew, for example, that the NSA was listening to your phone conversations, how would this change what you say? When I’m praying from the pulpit, I have a whole lot of people listening in to my prayer. Such a reality makes me second-guess myself as to what, specifically, I will pray.
Given that many extra ears tune in when I pray from the pulpit, I open myself to a totally different unrequested answer to prayer—criticism. Over the years from time to time I have poured out my heart in public prayer only to have someone approach me afterwards and criticize the content of my prayer. Maybe I forgot to mention something, or I prayed too long, or I didn’t use the right words, or people have even challenged my prayers on theological grounds. Someone once criticized me for being pro-Islamic because I prayed that the gospel would go forth among Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. So when I step into the pulpit, I fear being criticized when I am at my most vulnerable.
Regardless of whatever fears I might have, as a minister, you don’t have an option. You will regularly offer public prayers, whether from the pulpit, or at other church functions and occasions. So what should you do to be ready to pray in public? Well, believe it or not, unlike private prayer, you should prepare, train, and even practice to pray in public. Public prayer is an acquired skill. In private prayer, so long as you follow biblical norms, you can say and do what you want. But public prayer has different parameters because of its public and open nature. So how can you prepare for public prayer?
First, study the subject of prayer. Far too many people think that prayer, private or public, requires no study or preparation. Who needs to practice conversation? Isn’t prayer a conversation with God? Yes, prayer is akin to a conversation with God, but have you ever been to a party and been stuck in a corner with a horrible conversationalist? Good conversation is an acquired skill and art, both in delivery and reception. So study the prayers of Scripture—learn their structure, terms, rhythms, and flow. Just like a child learns how to speak by repeating his father’s words back to him, learn how to pray by repeating God’s word back to him. You will learn how to praise God, for example, when you follow the patterns of prayer and praise in the Psalms. Far too often our prayers can sound like a laundry list of requests rather than first losing ourselves in the praise of God in prayer.
Second, don’t be afraid to write out your prayers. For some unknown reason people think that scripted (or prepared) prayers are unspiritual or less vibrant than extemporaneous prayers. They’re not. You can, for example, pray the Lord’s Prayer, which is written, or scripted, yet it is the model prayer and hardly less spiritual than an extemporaneous one. On this note, get a copy of Hughes Oliphant Old’s Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Ministers. It’s full of scriptural and written prayers that you can use in worship. Pick up a copy of the Book of Common Prayer or The Valley of Vision, which is a collection of puritan prayers. One way to learn how to pray well is to read the prayers of others. You can use these in the pulpit to great personal and congregational benefit. Can you pray extemporaneously? Of course! Yes. But you can also bring written prayers into the pulpit as well.
Third, in public prayers remember that as a minister, you are not praying for yourself but on behalf of your congregation. Remember, your congregation is praying with you through your prayer. Do not, therefore, use the first person pronoun. Do not say, “Please, Lord, help me to preach well.” You have just taken a corporate prayer and made it individual. You have disassociated the congregation from your prayer. You can instead pray, “Lord, help your servant preach well.” This is something that everyone in the church can pray. As the minister, you pray on behalf of the church, therefore, pray with their needs and voice in mind, not merely your own.
Over the years I have grown more comfortable with praying in public, but I still have a sense of discomfort for the above-stated reasons. This fear has given me good reason to pray that the Lord help me to set them aside. If you have similar concerns, take them to Christ in prayer so that he will assist you in your public prayers.