This article is about leading the church with public prayer in the worship service.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1994. 3 pages.

Praying in Public Worship

Though much of what follows is applicable to all of the prayers offered in the congregational worship of God, chiefly in view in these remarks is the principal prayer, sometimes designated the 'pastoral' prayer.

  1. Something should be said at once to identify and isolate the problem. We are speaking in this connection of that part of public worship which is specifically directed to God and which we call prayer. The whole of worship in a fundamental sense has a God-ward direction, but prayer (with closed eyes and bowed heads) is most particularly addressed to God.

  2. One need not have a great deal of experience in these things or to have travelled widely to discover in his observance of the way in which public worship is conducted that prayer is often approached with an attitude that can only be described as careless and casual. Clearly, many ministers have before them, not the reality of prayer as addressed to God, but the position and situation of the congregation. Not infrequently prayer is used as a vehicle to extend the sermon; or to bring items of information to the notice of the people; or to voice the personal sentiments of the minister; or for the display of rhetorical brilliance. Just as frequently prayer in public worship is unprepared; displays a careless attitude in relation to grammar and sentence structure; is marked by vain repetition; is oppressive in its want of a true devotional spirit or Christian spirituality. In the liturgical churches a prayerbook or service book is generally employed. We have our reasons for repudiating the imposed use of such an aid. But our repudiation ought never to be paired with an indifference to the demands of biblical liturgy.

  3. To help us in this whole matter of pulpit prayer, we should study carefully the great prayers of the Bible. I am thinking, of course, of the Lord's Prayer; but also of the prayer of Daniel (Daniel 9); of the prayer of Solomon at the dedication of the temple (1 Kings 8); of the Psalms as examples from the Scriptures themselves of what true prayer is; of the high priestly prayer of the Lord Jesus Christ (John 17); and of the teaching to be found almost everywhere in the Word of God on this subject. If we are to get guidance in learning how to pray, it must be from this source.

  4. We shall also be instructed if we learn from the doctors of the church and from the church's own confessional statements what God's people have understood prayer to be. 'What is prayer?' 'Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies' (Shorter Catechism, Question and Answer 98). 'Prayer with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men; and that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son by the help of his Spirit, according to his will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue' (Westminster Confession of Faith, XXI:3). John Calvin has wonderful passages on prayer. The Heidelberg Catechism is also rich in biblical teaching on the subject.

  5. A clear link exists between the character of the minister — his own walk with God, his own experience of these things on the one hand, and his public ministrations on the other. This is true with respect to preaching; it is also true with respect to prayer. Perhaps it is still more true with respect to prayer than it is to preaching. The richness, depth and integrity of a man's devotional life will show itself in his giftedness for leading in public prayers. If his own life be impoverished in this regard, that, too, will shortly become evident.

  6. In evangelical Christianity much has always been made of preparation for preaching. We do not always prepare as we should do, and we are con­scious of our inadequacies in this connection; but we believe that we should prepare assiduously for the proclamation of the Word of God. This is not nearly so much the case with our pulpit prayers. But why should we make such a distinction? The best writers on the subject have regularly insisted that preparation for leading in prayer is at least as important, perhaps even more important, than preparation for preaching.

  7. We should not confuse incidental matters, on which good men may diverge in their practice, with essential considerations. I have in mind here, for example, the use of pronouns in prayer. Some of us address God as 'thou', others as 'you'. I myself have a strong personal preference for the older usage and am both unable and unwilling to break with it. I know very well, how­ever, that the one mode of address is not necessarily more reverent, more full of awe and wonder, than the other.

  8. Indispensable to learning how to pray from the pulpit is a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. I do not believe that it is possible to pray as we should without getting much of the Bible by heart. Some have had the advantage of beginning that exercise in childhood. Others have begun rather later than that. We should all be concerned, for many reasons, to hide God's Word in our hearts. Almost certainly we face here something of a perplexity. Which version shall we learn? When I was a boy there could be no doubt about that: we all learned the Authorised (King James) version. Now we have many versions employed in evangelical churches. Whatever you do, stick to a great 'churchly' version, and get it by heart. I suggest also that the Psalms in particular will be constitutive of a devotional attitude and of a prepared heart which must show themselves in public prayer.

  9. Take pains in your preparation for public prayer. If you do not use a prayerbook, you should not feel free to draw the conclusions that, apart from the sermon itself, there is no need to ready yourself for the worship of God. You should prepare your own heart, first of all. Surely that is absolutely basic! A man with skill in putting words together and with a feeling for liturgy who does not have a devout and a spiritual heart will be but sound­ing brass and a tinkling cymbal. How does one manage this?

  1. It is useful to remember the constituent elements of prayer: adora­tion, confession, thanksgiving, supplication and intercession. An analysis of these elements will show them to be characteristic of prayers in the Bible. Each need not receive the same place or emphasis in every pulpit prayer. Confession, for example, may well find place in a separate prayer of confes­sion elsewhere in the service — possibly in connection with the reading of the Law of God. But none ought regularly to be neglected.

  2. Be certain that your approach to God is in language fitting and suit­able to the occasion. One of the problems with the use of the old singular second-person pronoun 'thou' is that people, ministers among them, can no longer handle the necessary inflections. The result can be a linguistic disaster. If we do not read our prayers, we are liable to mistakes and flaws. But these should be kept to a minimum. I hold in any case that ministers should work as diligently as they can to become good grammarians, not only because they respect language, but most especially because they respect and reverence God.

  3. Cultivate an awareness of what you are doing in the pulpit. You are not indulging in private devotional exercises, but you are leading the people in prayer to God. There is no place whatever — on any occasion of public worship — for the use of 'I' and 'me' and 'my' in pulpit prayers. We are speaking for the people, on behalf of the people, and leading the people; hence, we ought to make certain that the language of our prayers is appro­priate in this respect.

  4. Flee from colloquial expressions in public prayer. Prayer is to God, and the language by which we make our approach to him should be com­mensurate with that tremendous reality.

  5. Be solemn in prayer, but do not work at or self-consciously strive for solemnity, as though it were possible to put on reverence by assuming a cer­tain posture or pitching the voice in a particular way. Some men, captured by the old theology of the Puritans, have thought that they could best be solemn by using the voice in an odd and unnatural way. Such men some­times have several voices: one for the street or for normal conversation, another for preaching, still another for prayer. How ludicrous and how deceived! True evangelical solemnity comes always from the inside, from a right grasp of what we do. It cannot be artificially induced.

  6. Cultivate a pastor's heart. Be sensitive to people. Remember their hurts, their needs, their problems, their temptations, their anxieties. Some in the congregation are approaching the end of life. Others are on its threshold.

  7. Be specific in public prayer. This is perhaps more difficult to do in larger congregations than it is in smaller ones; but we are inclined, whatever the size and character of the congregation, to be much too general in our coming before God. Make certain to remember always the servants and cause of the gospel.

  8. Learn from the best writers on the subject of pulpit prayer. You can­not do better than to read Calvin — remember that many of his own prayers offered in public settings are included in his commentaries. Also to be men­tioned are J.A. Broadus, Preparation and Delivery of Sermons; R.L. Dabney, On Preaching;  C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students; A.W. Blackwood, The Fine Art of Public Worship; Samuel Miller, Thoughts on Public Prayer.

  1. Remember always to be grateful for the high and holy opportunity of leading the people of God to the throne of grace in prayer.

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