Leading in Prayer
At its simplest, prayer is talking to God. There is a sense, then, that any discussion about prayer that has the potential to complicate matters or create uncertainty can be counterproductive. And yet, while most prayer is private, when we are with others, in Bible study meetings, in prayer meetings, in public gatherings of Christians, or, for some, in worship services, we may be called upon to lead others in prayer. And, if nothing else, our experience tells us that some do this ‘well’ while others ‘struggle’; some bring us closer to heaven, while others leave us confused, suppressing giggles, horrified, or fast asleep!
It seems useful then for us to consider those things that need to be borne in mind when it comes to leading others in prayer. And to do this we are going to draw heavily on a book that discusses this exact subject. Professor Samuel Miller of Princeton Theological Seminary wrote a book called Thoughts on Public Prayer. It was published in 1849 and remains as edifying, instructive, and useful as it was when first written. A book of this vintage does mean, however, that ‘text language’ had not yet been invented! Instead, Prof. Samuel Miller writes in the ‘rich and full’ style of the 19th century, which, I trust you will agree, adds a depth and beauty to the subject at hand that is worth our perseverance. What we will do, then, is simply consider portions of his book in the hope that, with discernment, we will be aided in this weighty and joyful responsibility (For the sake of this article, I have taken the liberty, in just a very few places, of abridging or editing the quotes in terms of language and content. I have not, though, omitted any of his points – AH). The four portions from Miller’s book that are cited are: Firstly, introductory thoughts, secondly, frequent faults in public prayer, thirdly, characteristics of good public prayer, and fourthly, the best means to obtain excellence in public prayer. Finally, recognising the focus on prayer in public worship that Miller has in view, I conclude with some additional comments and considerations of my own about prayer in settings like Bible studies and prayer meetings.
1. Introductory Thoughts
In regards to the best preparation for leading in social, and especially in public prayer, there are two things worthy of particular notice; the one is what has been called the spirit, or grace of prayer; the other is what has been denominated the gift of prayer.
- By the spirit or grace of prayer, is to be understood that truly devout state of mind which corresponds with the nature and design of the exercise. He has the spirit of prayer who engages in that duty with serious, enlightened, cordial sincerity; with that penitence, faith, love, and holy veneration which become a renewed sinner, in drawing near to God to ask for things agreeable to His will. Even if he is intellectually weak, has little knowledge of theological truth, and a very imperfect command of appropriate language, yet if he have a heart filled with love to God, with confidence in the Saviour, and with ardent desires to be conformed to His image, a heart broken and contrite for sin, breathing after holiness, and earnestly desiring the enjoyment of covenant blessings – in a word, a heart in which the Holy Spirit dwells and reigns, that man has the spirit of prayer, the grace of prayer. Though his words be few, though his utterance be feeble and embarrassed, though his feelings be poured out in sighs and groans, rather than in appropriate language, he may be said to “pray in the spirit” – to pray in such a manner as will never fails to enter into the ears of the “Lord of Sabaoth” (James 5:15, 16, Zech. 12:10; Rom. 8:26; Gal 4:6).
- By the gift of prayer is to be understood that combination of natural and spiritual qualities which enables any one to lead in prayer in a ready, acceptable, impressive, and edifying manner; that suitableness and scriptural propriety of matter, and that ardour, fluency, and felicity of expression which enable any one so to conduct the devotions of the others, as to carry with him the judgement, the hearts, and the feelings of all whose mouth he is to the throne of grace.
2. Frequent faults in Public Prayer
- The over frequent recurrence of favourite words, and set forms of expression, however unexceptionable in themselves. Among these are the constant repetition in every sentence or two, of the names and titles of God; “O God! – Great God! – Our Heavenly Father” – “we pray Thee” – “We beseech Thee,” or the excessive use of the interjection Oh! prefixed to almost every sentence.
- Hesitation and apparent embarrassment in utterance ... When he pauses, stumbles, recalls, or goes back to correct, he unavoidably gives a pain to every fellow worshiper, and always leaves the impression of a mindless intent, a heart less fervently engaged, than it ought to be.
- All ungrammatical expressions in prayer – all expressions foreign from English idiom, and bordering on the style of cant (stock phrases) and whining, low and colloquial phrases, ought, of course, to be regarded as blemishes, and to be carefully avoided.
- The want of regularity and order is a fault which frequently and greatly impairs the acceptable and edifying character of public prayers. All public prayer which bears the comprehensive character which belongs to that exercise, is made up of various departments; such as adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. A public prayer entirely missing any one of these departments, would be deemed essentially defective; and a prayer in which the several departments should all be so mixed up together throughout the whole as that they should all go on together in this state of confused mixture, from the beginning to the end, would, doubtless, be considered as very ill judged and untasteful in its structure; nay, as adapted essentially to interfere with the edification of intelligent worshipers. Not that the same order should always be maintained.
- Descending to too much minuteness of detail in particular departments of prayer is another fault of unhappy influence in this part of the public service.
- Closely connected with this fault in public prayer is another, of which we often hear serious complaint. It is that of excessive length. This is so common and so crying a fault that it ought to be mentioned with emphasis, and guarded against with special care. Such is the weakness of our faculties, and their tendency to flag, that an exercise of this fervent and exulted character ought not to be long continued.
- An abundant use of highly figurative language is another blemish in public prayer. All studied refinement of language; all artificial structure of sentences; all affectation of the beauties of rhetoric (the putting on of a prayer ‘voice’ that is unlike the voice normally heard), are out of place in the exercise of right prayer. Too often prayer lacks the unaffected simplicity which ought to characterise it. It has too little of the language of scripture. It is artificial, rhetorical, elaborate, abounding unduly in ornate and studied forms of speech. This is often beautiful. Some greatly admire it and call it an eloquent prayer. But the fervent utterance of the heart is always simple.
- It is a serious fault in public prayer to introduce allusions to party politics, and especially to indulge in personalities.
- All the expressions of the amatory class are to be carefully avoided in the public devotions of the house of God – Such as “dear Jesus” – “Sweet Jesus” – “Lovely Saviour.” All such language, though flowing from earnestness, and dictated by the best of motives, is unhappy, and produces on the minds of the judicious painful impressions.
- The practice of indulging in wit, humour, or sarcasm in public prayer, is highly objectionable and ought never to be allowed.
- The excellence of a public prayer may be marred by introducing into it a large portion of didactic statement, and, either in the language of scripture, or any other language, laying down formal exhibitions of Christian doctrine.
- Another fault nearly allied to this is worthy of notice: That of studiously introducing those doctrines which are most offensive to the carnal heart, and which seldom fail to be revolting to our impenitent hearers.
- Too great familiarity of language in addressing the High and Holy One is also revolting to pious minds and ought to be sacredly avoided.
- There is also such a thing as expressing unseasonably, and also as carrying to an extreme the professions of humility. An oft heard example of this being, “Lord, assist your servant, one of the most weak and unworthy of men, a very child in spiritual things, in his feeble attempts to open and apply the Scriptures...”
- Everything approaching to flattery is a serious fault in public prayer, and ought to be carefully avoided. This can occur when someone prays after another has preached or spoken, for example.
- The want of appropriateness is another fault often chargeable on public prayer. With some, perhaps an eighth, or a tenth part of what they pray can be considered as applicable to the occasion before them, or as entirely seasonable.
- The apparent want of reverence that often concludes prayer created by the sense of haste at the end or a less solemn tone or with less fervour and apparent earnestness than the preceding.
- The last fault is that rapidity and vehemence of utterance, which are sometimes affected as an expression of deep feeling, and ardent importunity (repeated request). Nothing hasty, nothing rash, nothing which has not been considered and weighed, ought ever to escape from the lips of him who leads others to the throne of grace.
3. Characteristics of Good Public Prayer
- One of the most essential excellencies in public prayer is that it abounds in the language of the word of God.
a) This language is always right, always safe, and always edifying.
b) It is a language of simplicity, tenderness, and touching eloquence peculiarly adapted to engage and impress the heart.
- Another excellence of a good public prayer is that it be orderly. It needs a real and perceptible order. Not that it be characterised by formality; not that it be always in the same order; but still that it’s several parts of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication should not be jumbled together in careless, inconsiderate mixture; but made to succeed each other in some happy arrangement.
- A suitable prayer in the public assembly is dignified and general in its plan, and comprehensive in its requests, without descending to too much detail (which is appropriate for private prayer).
- A good public prayer should be carefully guarded, in all its parts, against undue length.
- Another excellence of a public prayer is that it be seasonable and appropriate to the occasion on which it is uttered.
- It is an important excellence in a public prayer that it include the recognition of so much gospel truth, as to be richly instructive to all who join in it, as well as all who listen to it. Truth is the food of the soul. Gospel truth is that on which the Christian lives and grows from day to day.
- Another important feature of great excellence in public prayer is a desirable degree of the variety. The congregation should not be able to anticipate all that the minister will utter in this exercise in each prayer and from week to week.
- A good practise is to close prayers with a doxology, copied more or less closely, from the word. Remember variety though!
- A good public prayer ought always to include a strongly marked reference to the spread of the gospel, and earnest petitions for the success of the means employed by the church for that purpose.
- Another consideration worthy of notice here is the manner in which the Most High is addressed in different parts of public prayer. Some will call only on “Almighty God” or “Heavenly Father” or “Lord” again and again and exclusively throughout the prayer, for instance. How much more appropriate, and in accordance with a spiritual taste, would it be, frequently to alter this title, as we pass from one part of prayer to another, recognising the diversity, and the glory of the Divine attributes.
- A good public prayer should ever be strongly marked with the spirit and the language of hope and confidence.
- The prayer after sermon, which is commonly short, is very often, not only a brief, but a mere general, pointless, and uninteresting effusion, simply imploring a divine blessing on what has been said, equally applicable to every similar occasion, and only adapted to prepare the way for the close of the service. Instead of this, the closing prayer ought to be framed upon the plan of making it, as far as possible, one of the most solemn, appropriate, and impressive parts of the whole service. It ought to be formed upon the plan of taking hold of the conscience and the heart most deeply and effectually, and of uniting as far as possible the most pointed and searching solemnity of application, with the most perfect tenderness and affection of appeal.
- In regard to the use of the Lord’s Prayer in the devotions of the sanctuary, it should be used occasionally rather than in every service and repeatedly.
- The whole manner of uttering a public prayer should be in accordance with a humble, filial, affectionate, yet reverential spirit, which ought to characterise the prayer itself throughout.
- Finally, the “Amen” is important! It should be pronounced in that distinct, tender, emphatic manner which indicates a real feeling and earnest desire.
4. The Best Means to obtain Excellence in Public Prayer
- None can hope to obtain this unless they abound in closest devotion, and in holy communion with God in secret.
- Read and study the best books that are written on the subject.
- Store the mind with the language and the riches of the word of God.
- When any providence occurs, in the world, community, or calendar, attend to it in prayer in the most simple, scriptural, and edifying form.
- Develop a habit of devotional composition. Read and write prayers to the Lord.
- Days of prayer and fasting are ever important in nurturing a spirit of piety.
Hopefully then, all that has been said will be of benefit not just to the few who lead us in worship, but also to the many of us who are led in worship, in that our understanding of the importance of leading in prayer and those principles that are relevant to this subject is enhanced. We offer the following points in addition to Miller’s principles:
- Preparation is almost everything!
a) If John Calvin wrote out his prayers, we should not be afraid to do likewise. Praying written prayers does not make us any less ‘spiritual’ because of it.
b) If not written out in full, at least note the various subjects that you will pray about.
- Prayers in the rear section of the 1976 Psalter/hymnal, Arthur Bennett’s The Valley of Vision (a significant and beautiful collection of Puritan prayers), and Terry L. Johnson’s Leading in Worship, are a wonderful source of inspiration and content for prayer.
- A more detailed order/list of ‘subjects’ might be: Praise & confession & thanksgiving, supplications for gospel proclamation and for the Word to do its work among us, supplications on behalf of the church, local, national, and international, supplications on behalf of civil government, supplications on behalf of those being persecuted, supplications on behalf of those in distress/travellers, requests for spiritual and physical blessings, concluding thoughts/doxology/Amen.
- It is helpful to open your prayer using connections to what has just been read or sung in worship. Use the words or theme of the psalm or hymn preceding, the words of the call to worship, or the text of the Bible passage that has just been read, etc.
- Listen to yourself on CD/DVD. This is always painful but very helpful in detecting patterns and analysing content.
- Discuss prayers (be they the minister’s or the reading elder’s!) in sermon/service evaluation. If we recognise how important prayer is in the life of the congregation, we should be willing to receive encouragement from one another in this vital area.
However, while many of the above principles are equally relevant to leading in prayer at Bible studies and prayer meetings, the following suggestions are offered as additional encouragement:
1. Bible studies
a. Before the study begins:
- Begin with adoration.
- Pray for the Holy Spirit to give understanding and insight.
- Remember those who could not attend.
- Pray for other study groups that may also be meeting.
- Don’t ‘give away’ the whole study in your prayer!
- Don’t ask someone on the night to open in prayer unless you know they would be willing and are able to do so profitably. Ask those who may not have led in prayer before to do so before the meeting, giving them time to prepare.
b. After the study:
- Ask for prayer items and write them down so they are not forgotten.
- Praise the Lord and thank Him for His Word.
- Pray for the Holy Spirit to apply His Word; that we may be ‘doers’ also, not just hearers.
- If two or three lead, agree on what each will pray for.
- If you pray around the whole group allow those who would prefer not to to just say ‘Amen’ and move on to the next person.
2. Prayer meetings – At the Reformed Church of Dovedale, we meet for prayer on a Friday evening before our bi-monthly celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, and before our afternoon service on the first Sunday of the months between Lord’s Supper celebrations. Here we offer the format of our prayer meetings as a suggestion.
- The one who opens reads a portion of the Bible and then we sing one song.
- Praying out loud is entirely optional.
- A list of prayer points that has been pre-prepared is distributed and added to by the group.
- We encourage many ‘smaller’ prayers rather than larger ‘catchall’ prayers.
- One member is asked to begin the time of prayer and another to close it at a defined time.
- The first part of the prayer meetings is spent in prayers of adoration, confession, and thanksgiving.
- The leader then reads a second portion of the Bible and we sing again.
- Again, one member is asked to open and another to close at a defined time.
- This last time of prayer is spent in prayers of supplication.
May our Lord be glorified and we as His people aided in our devotion to Him through these encouragements concerning leading in prayer.