“Oh, Lord, as you read today in the Courier-Journal…” That’s how one worship leader began a prayer in our seminary chapel. The prayer created quite a discussion among all the young theologues on campus. The one thing no one doubted was that God knew about the event without reading the local newspaper.
Only the worship leader knows for sure, but many of us wondered if the prayer was directed to God or the congregation? Was it really addressing God, using bad theology, or was it crafted to impress the gathered worshipers? I have no doubt the worship leader had the best of intentions, but the words left people wondering.
If speaking in public is the number one fear of many people, praying in public must be high on the fear list, too. As a Baptist and a part of the Free Church Tradition, I have no prayer book, no prescribed prayers on which to draw. Every week, each prayer must be offered on its own. Because we have to start anew each time we pray publicly, many in our tradition fall back onto cliché’s and find ourselves repeating things we have already said.
Public prayers are too important to the role as a spiritual leader for ministers to use them mindlessly. In The Truth About God, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon point out that bad worship …” eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend. “ (p. 89) The public prayers in our churches shape people. According to Hauerwas and Willimon, for good or for ill. Thus, we need to use as one of the ways we shape the spiritual formation of our congregations.
How do we voice prayers that are theologically sound, take seriously the hearts of the people we lead, and fulfill our stewardship of the spiritual lives of our congregants? Here are some thoughts.
- Always address God. When we refer to God in the third person, we give away that we are talking to the congregation. Watch for phrases such as: “We’re thankful we could come worship God today.” In the same way, I’ve heard prayers that spend five minutes describing the world — and thirty seconds asking God to do something for it. We do not need to inform God of anything. Instead of saying, “God you know it’s been a hard week,” try “We confess this week has put our faith to the test.” Examine your prayers and try not to go three sentences without actually thanking, praising, confessing, or asking God for something. Make sure you offer a prayer and not an essay.
- Avoid cliché’s. We use cliché’s in conversation when we have not given much thought about to what to say. We spit out the standard, dull platitudes when we are unprepared. In public prayer, clichés send worshippers the signal that prayer is mindless. Regular use of phrases such as “We’re glad we could be here today,” “Bless the gift and giver…” communicate that the prayer is mindless. Think through what you will pray. Impose a limitation on yourself not to use certain phrases and force yourself to say things to God in a different way. If you must use a cliché, use it consciously and not as a throw-away line to complete your duty to pray.
- Learn to read effectively. Even in the most educated congregations, wooden prayers leave worshipers unfulfilled. No matter how well it is prepared, reading it poorly can distract others from participating as if it is theirs. If preparing your prayer means writing it, then learn how to read with a heartfelt tone. In order to allow others to join the prayer, you must say it with an authentic way.
A good place to gain understanding of this principle is broadcasting. Watch the news. No newscaster has the entire broadcast memorized. They are reading everything verbatim from a teleprompter. Yet, they sound like they are simply talking to you. Sportscasters ad lib their play-by-play. But when a commercial begins, they read a script. Most people can’t tell the difference in their inflection, whether reading or commenting live. In order to represent the hearts of the people you are leading, your prayer should sound at least as genuine as a commentator. This skill takes practice and some self-criticism.
- Gather resources. I have a shelf of books which are collections of prayers from many people. I read them devotionally and I read them to inspire my public prayers. In them I find subjects I need to pray for publicly. In them I find approaches to prayer I had not considered, new ways of addressing God, and meaningful phrases which I incorporate into my own prayers. I do not, however, pray the prayers of others. Simply to read someone else’s prayer would not require me to put myself or my congregation into what is offered to God.
Each prayer you lead in public is an opportunity to grow as a spiritual leader and to form the spiritual life of your congregation. Do not strive to be eloquent when you pray aloud. Rather, attempt to lift the hearts of all who worship in such a way that when the prayer is over, an “Amen” is spoken from every heart.