Leading public prayers in a Sunday service doesn’t come as naturally to us as it used to. Here are five ways we can think about leading in prayer.
The preaching of God’s word is not the only kind of speaking we do in church services.
Public prayer has always, rightly, formed a key element of our gathered worship. Non-conformists used to be liberated in this area, not being bound by set liturgy. However, in more recent times we appear to be hamstrung by our lack of framework and approved words.
Public prayer seems to be on the decline.
This is an anecdotal observation, obviously. And your church may be gloriously bucking the trend. However, for most of us, it seems prayer in the Sunday service seems to be little more than a few snatched moments with God, the equivalent of a 140 character tweet. Perhaps this is part of a great malady: the decline of the church prayer meeting?
Yet church leaders who bemoan attendance at a weekly or monthly prayer time surely pour fuel on the flames of the problem if they don’t lead their people in prayer as part of their regular gathering. Why bother to get together to pray if the church leader doesn’t seem that interested?
Here are a few ideas to reverse the trend:
- Write out your public prayers. This can be particularly helpful if you’re not comfortable with praying out loud, tend to ramble or speak hesitatingly. There is nothing inherently unspiritual about this approach. Most preachers use sermon notes. Prepare for a prayer in the same way – notes don’t need to be verbatim, but it helps participants if you organise yourself.
- Avoid old written prayers. Much as I love Valley of Vision, these prayers are mostly unsuitable for public reading. Such a view is close to heresy, I realise, but not only is the language itself antiquated (I doubt you pray this way the rest of the time), but listening to long quotes of any kind is quite difficult. They are meant to be read, not read out. Great for personal devotions, not so good for public worship.
- Pray the Bible. It’s a real help to a congregation to hear prayers that are biblically informed. I love Rachel Jones’ three little books from The Good Book Company. The latest (5 Things to Pray for Your World – out in September) is a collection of subjects to which Rachel applies Scripture (subjects as diverse as prison work, the media and what’s happening in your street). These individual chapters would form superb prayers in a petition or pastoral slot each week.
- Go for content. Much of our public petitions seems to be reading out prayer lists. We pray for X and Y and Z, without adding any content. If we are to lead God’s people in prayer (and teach people how to pray), add in the substance. "We pray for X to…, we pray for Y that she…" and so on.
- Don’t be afraid of emotion. I don’t mean that each week’s prayers should bring us (or the one praying) to tears each week – but much of public praying seems to be reduced down to a holy monotone, like some kind of evangelical chant. Prayers of rejoicing and praise take us high, prayers of sorrow and sadness move our hearts. Let your words reflect the reality.