Three Helps When Praying in Public
It just doesn’t fit. You spent many good and profitable hours preparing and then delivering your sermon. However, when it came time to lead the prayer, you backed it in like an SUV in a compact parking space. To borrow the words of Spurgeon, could it be that you are “spoiling your services by your prayers”? We’re too busy, preoccupied, and covered-up with the mundane, so our prayers before the church suffer. What can we do to change this?
Many times, I have felt well-prepared to preach and yet inadequate to pray before the flock. It’s true that “Many of our pastoral prayers are a maze of poorly thought out, confusing clichés, hackneyed expressions, shallow constructions, and formalized, impersonal ramblings” (William Willimon, Preaching and Leading Worship, 44). Let’s be honest; our prayers need work.
Preaching is vitally central to the worship of the church; yet, how we pray must also be given rightful consideration. It’s noteworthy that the “Prince of Preachers” thought prayer should be given more attention than preaching. He told his pastor’s college: “It is my solemn conviction that the prayer is one of the most weighty, useful, and honourable parts of the service, and that it ought to be even more considered than the sermon.” Another classic handbook on preaching states, “I deem that the minister is as much bound to prepare himself for praying in public as for preaching” (R. L. Dabney, Evangelical Eloquence, 346-47). Faithful shepherds who love the flock must preach and pray well. We must give focused attention to the preparation of both disciplines.
Here, I simply want to provide practical guidance to assist you in public prayer.
1. Pray in Private
I have never been satisfied with how much I pray when alone. I often find myself easily derailed from meaningful prayer because a host of various distractions. We must not, however, allow diversions to hinder our efforts to pray.
Before I pray with and for my flock, I must be with God in private. There I confess my sins, bring particular petitions before Him, and rejoice in His redeeming promises in Christ. In this way, private prayer becomes a base for prayerful instruction (Psalm 51:13). Spurgeon rightly observes, “Private prayer is the drill ground for our more public exercises, neither can we long neglect it without being out of order when before the people” (Spurgeon, Lectures, 55).”
2. Prepare to Pray
Public prayers need preparation and careful thought prior to their being uttered. It is vital that prayer not be relegated either to an afterthought or “to last-minute inspiration” (Hughes Oliphant Old, Leading in Prayer, 6). Preparing to pray is no less a spiritual exercise than sermon preparation. Both should be tethered to the Word of God (Psalm 119:18).
Our prayers should be aligned with the teaching of Scripture and based on sound interpretative principles. We should not get a pass simply because we’re “speaking from the heart.” Prayer is a matter of the heart, but it must be true to the Word.
One way to study for prayer is to pray Scripture. The Psalms are a natural place to start but the entire Bible is profitable in this way. Meditating on Scripture and then praying it back is a wonderful way to immediately apply the message of God’s Word. In praying the Psalms, for example, our hearts find a place for all the emotions and a focused insight into God’s unfolding redemptive plan. I believe that such studied preparation will help our prayers reflect the language and focus of Scripture and guard us from aimlessly digressing.
Preparing your pulpit prayers by writing them down beforehand can keep you from rambling and help you be more effective in instructing and engaging your listeners. Since biblical prayer is instruction, it is an important opportunity to teach our people how to pray. For good or ill, you are modeling prayer for your flock. What are we teaching through our prayers?
3. Read the Prayers of Others
Don’t reinvent the wheel. I find it profitable to read the prayers of others, especially those that come from fellow pastors. Puritan prayers (The Valley of Vision), Spurgeon (The Pastor in Prayer), and MacArthur (At the Throne of Grace) have given us many examples from which to draw. In these, I have learned how to pray in light of various doctrinal truths, particular needs in the church, and how to navigate special seasons or church events with prayer (e.g., Advent, Easter, funerals, weddings). Sometimes I read them to prepare my own prayers and sometimes I read them from the pulpit.
I know that reading the prayers of others might seem odd to some. Remember, however, when we read the Psalms we are reading the prayers of others (see also 1 Samuel 2; Daniel 9; John 17). This is also a considerable aid when our own hearts are dry, and we find it difficult to pray.
Dear pastor, I have not argued here for mere eloquence but renewed faithfulness in prayer. I hope it will be said of you, as Livingston described Scottish preacher Robert Bruce, “No man in his time spoke with such evidence and power of the Spirit . . . every sentence was like a strong bolt shot up to heaven.” May God help us to pray.
Paul Lamey is one of our seven TES campus pastors, having served as pastor of preaching and leadership development at Grace Community Church in Huntsville, AL since 2002.