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Leading in Public Prayer

Category Articles
Date November 2, 2003

Maurice Roberts, Inverness.

By ‘public prayer’ we mean prayer offered in the presence of a Christian congregation. This contrasts with prayer offered in secret or in the family, where a somewhat greater freedom may be appropriate and where the guidelines suggested here may be more relaxed. By ‘leading’ in public prayer we refer to that spiritual activity in which a believer conducts the thoughts of all the Christians present to the throne of God, usually in what we call a Prayer Meeting. In our circles this will be done by a Christian man who is a member in good standing. The reason for confining public prayers to male believers only is that the Apostle Paul lays this down as a rule for the churches in 1 Timothy 2:8: "I will therefore that men pray every where". Here the word ‘men’ is tous andras, ‘the males’.


Our concern in this article is to offer some guidance by which it is hoped that Christian men who are called on to engage in public prayer from time to time may improve their gift for the delight and benefit of all who attend prayer meetings. These suggestions are in no sense offered as a discouragement to Christian men who, like the writer, are conscious of their own shortcomings in public prayer. But as every spiritual gift is the better for being stirred up and as every fire is brighter after taking the poker to it, so we affectionately wish by these suggestions to help all our brethren to give attention to ways of possible improvement.


First, how long should a public prayer be as a general rule? We respectfully suggest that it should be no longer than five or ten minutes, unless the man who is leading in prayer has real ‘liberty’. We hope that this will often be the case, but experience suggests that it is not ordinarily so in our day. If a man in prayer has a manifest freedom of utterance and is led to plead with God in a manner that indicates that the Spirit is being poured on his soul, let him pray till he is finished. In such a case no one will feel the prayer too long. But this is rare. If we do not have this ‘liberty’, we must restrict our prayers as to their length.


What is a prayer to include? We should distinguish between the pulpit prayer and other prayers. The pulpit prayer offered by the pastor of a congregation must of necessity include a range of subjects which need not, and ought not, all to be brought into every prayer in a Prayer Meeting. Perhaps this point deserves to be especially emphasised. Those who pray in a Prayer Meeting are not called on to pray for so many things as the minister may need to pray for on the Lord’s Day. The requirement is different. Therefore the length and the content of the prayer should be different.


Can we prepare for the Prayer Meeting? Yes. It is a good practice to pray and meditate for a time before the Prayer Meeting begins. A Christian man, especially if he is aware that he is likely to be called on to lead that night in prayer, would do well to prepare his thoughts beforehand. By this, we do not mean ‘writing out’ a prayer and memorising it. But rather, we organise our minds like this beforehand: ‘What am I to pray for tonight?’ Then, select three or four matters of concern and relevance: the conversion of our young people; the opening up of new doors of usefulness; our missionary families; our need of more ministers; our elderly believers; the planting of new churches; the raising up of exceptional leaders in church and state; the purity and orthodoxy of our preaching; our great need of more power from above… These are part of our mental list. From this list we might select three or four matters particularly.


Alternatively, why should we not confine ourselves on occasion to just one matter in prayer? Let us say, for example, our need as churches today to reach more people with the message of the gospel. It would be good practice to pray to God for this one thing and to bring several arguments before God as to why He should so answer our prayer: ‘Do so, O Lord, because churches everywhere today are in our land so small… because the multitudes outside are going down to the pit in ignorance of what lies before them… because Thou hast sent us into the world to bear much fruit to Thine own glory…’, etc.


There is a general feeling of fear in many who stand up to lead in prayer that they have got to ‘keep going for a respectable length of time’. This fear has a knock-on effect. People then feel that their prayers are of inferior quality because they are only rather short. But of all the shortcomings we have in prayer, one of them is not being too short. A few devoutly-expressed words of gratitude to God for all His mercies can be followed then by three or four thoughtfully-chosen petitions in the way suggested above. Then the prayer can be brought to an end. There is no reproach in having uttered a prayer of moderate or even of rather short length.


It is a part of our preparation beforehand to have some idea as to what texts of the Bible we shall quote in our prayer. If we do not give this some forethought we shall find that we always quote the same passages – or only very familiar ones. It brings much delight and refreshment to a congregation in the Prayer Meeting to hear one or two unfamiliar texts of the Bible quoted. Prayers should edify the hearer – not as sermons do, but in a manner special to prayers, by the appropriate use of Bible verses fitly quoted.


It is a mistake to address God too frequently in prayer by the use of one or other of His names and titles. Begin at once by addressing God in some such words as, ‘Almighty and most holy God’. Then go straight into your prayer. But refuse the temptation to repeat, ‘O God’ too regularly, as you go along. If your thoughts fade or your words fail you, it is acceptable to have a momentary silence while you gather your thoughts together. This ‘struggle’ to get words will be appreciated by your hearers, who will all suddenly be led to pray for you as they empathise with your effort to express yourself.


Some elementary rules which we ought always to remember in our public prayers are easily stated:

1. Never use non-words such as ‘er’ or ‘hem’. Strive to overcome the bad habit of filling in an awkward gap in your flow with coughs or incoherent noises of the throat.

2. Do not repeat yourself. To have said the point once is sufficient in public prayer. In secret you may repeat a matter as often as you feel necessary. But not in public, as the effect is to ‘kill’ the spirit of prayer in others.

3. Do not ‘preach’ in prayer. It is not appropriate to offer explanations of the meaning of Bible texts in prayer or to make a parade of any sort of knowledge that we may think we are entitled to impart. Similarly, when we confess sins to God, we should not attempt to confess other people’s sins for them, unless we feel that we too are sharers in the common guilt of the sins mentioned.

4. Do not give a ‘life of Christ’ in your prayer. It is a common fault to go from the manger to the Cross, and on to the tomb and the throne and the Second Coming of the Lord. If this sequence is done with elaboration it wearies the hearers, all of whom know in advance what is coming next.

5. Do not be haphazard in prayer. By this we mean that there should be order and progression of thought in a prayer. Having thanked God, go on to state your requests or else confess sins or else lament our failures. Do not go backwards and forwards. When God has been thanked and sin is confessed and when you are now in midstream with your petitions, do not go back to the beginning. If you do, your hearers’ hearts will sink and they will be tempted to wish you would soon finish.


What do we most aim at in public prayer? In a word, we most aim at bringing to people a sense of the very presence of God. For this there is no substitute. When a brother has really prayed, we shall all have a sense of awe. We shall feel that we have parted company with this world for a time and that we have paid a visit to heaven itself. This, we affectionately urge, is what We should all aim to excel at when we go to the Prayer Meeting. A deeply spiritual prayer engages the souls of all who are present and will move the hearers often to tears. The thought we shall have when such a prayer is over is that we have ‘felt the powers of the world to come’. It is as though, when the excellent brother is in prayer, ‘heaven comes down’ and ‘God comes into the meeting’.


Let us be clear that this is a spiritual experience and has nothing to do with fine elocution or educated diction. When a truly spiritual soul is in prayer, we become conscious of the intimacy which he has with God. This is therefore what most enriches Prayer Meetings: to meet with spiritual men and women who are in the habit of ‘praying without ceasing’. Those who are near to God and who are constant in prayer will turn a Prayer Meeting into a water-spring for God’s thirsty people. The tone of our character will be felt in the meetings. The very presence of godly persons in a meeting will have a felt effect on all who are present – not least on those who are called on to engage in public prayer.

It would be good to feel more of God’s presence in our Prayer Meetings – and it would be good to see more tears there.

Free Church Witness. September 2003

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