A Guide to Public Prayer

Many people are terrified to lead prayer for a group, whether large or small.  That should come as no surprise.  Public speaking is consistently among the top 3 common phobias.  So if you combine that with the pressure of addressing the Almighty, you’ve got some serious trepidation.

With that in mind, I’ve compiled this handy resource for the various types of public prayer.  Feel free to consult this guide next time you’re called on to open a meeting or offer the blessing.  As someone who has led my share of prayers, I’ve got experience with each of the examples on this list.

The Ambushed Prayer
In my church back home, the pastor traditionally called on someone to conclude the service with a prayer.  No courtesy warning was ever given prior to the service.  When your number came up, you were on… right then, no excuses.  I mean, faking laryngitis works only up to a certain point.  This is what we call the Ambushed Prayer.  You have no chance to compose your thoughts or search for the right words.  You just dive in and hope for the best, racking your brain for any familiar phrase you can think of — some line of scripture or a favorite saying from your grandmother.  It’s not unusual for movie quotes to surface.  Some have even squeezed in excerpts from The Pledge of Allegiance.

The Just-Land-This-Plane Prayer
So you made a decent take-off, and you proved your aviation skills in the main body of the prayer.   With this particular type of prayer, you keep circling the ever-elusive runway.  And with every pass, you remember something else to pray for.  Eventually, though, you must deploy the landing gear and say “Amen.”  Your hope, futile as it may be, is to come up with some wonderful concluding sentence.  Finding none, you suffer through an uncomfortable silence before the crash landing — “Well, I guess that’s it. Amen.”

The Broken Record Prayer
When I was in high school, there was this one guy who always led prayers for our group. And I have to give him credit because the rest of us were too scared to step up. We didn’t want all that pressure, so this guy had the permanent gig.  He had a habit of constantly repeating the phrase, “Dear Father,” during his prayer. It became so obvious that the rest of the students kept count of how many times he said it. And after the “amen,” we would all shout, “24!” or “19!” — whatever the number was.  This is a classic example of the Broken Record Prayer.

The Tongue-Twisted Prayer
A few years ago, a young, recently ordained deacon led the Offertory Prayer for the first time.  He intended to begin with the traditional prompt, “Would you pray with me?”  Instead, the words came out, “Would you play with me?”   I employed this particular prayer tactic a few weeks ago. It happened just before the sermon, during what we refer to as a prayer of illumination.  I implored God, “Make us good listeners.”  But in that split second I had a brilliant thought.  We aren’t to be mere listeners of the Word.  We are to act upon it.  So I continued my prayer, “And more than that, make us good livers.”   That’s always an awkward moment because you don’t quite know how to recover.  In my most recent episode, I decided to keep going as if nothing happened.  But I gave serious thought to running with the unplanned metaphor — “Yes Lord, make us good livers.  Just as that vital organ of the body breaks down necessary chemicals, so let us break down the scripture for our spirits.”  Oddly enough, people tend to remember these prayers forever.

The Way Too Personal Prayer
Technically speaking, the person leading a public prayer is not the only one praying.  Rather, he or she is simply offering a voice for the prayers of all the people.  Not so with the Way Too Personal Prayer.  The good news is that everyone in attendance will have a thorough assessment of your most recent medical checkup, struggles with persistent sin, and opinions about controversial political issues.  The bad news is that half the group may sit down because they can’t in good conscience join you in the prayer.

The “What Were We Praying For Again?” Prayer
You eloquently covered all the bases. Gave thanks for the wonderful weather. Prayed for the missionaries serving in forgotten corners of the world. Invoked God’s healing presence in the lives of all who suffer and grieve.  Asked for divine wisdom and direction.  Offered praise for multitude of blessings… and identified most of them by name.  And then right after the “amen,” it dawns on you that your one assignment was to bless the food.

The Sleight of Hand Prayer
On the surface, this prayer has all the markings of legitimacy.  Head bowed, eyes closed, perhaps a furrowed brow for good measure.  But the message is directed, not to God, but to the other people in the room.  For this reason, the Sleight of Hand should be attempted by only the most skilled.  I remember sitting through a counselors’ meeting at youth camp one summer.  We had a lot of information to cover, and the camp director ran out of time.  So he used his concluding prayer as an opportunity to fill us in on what he left out.  “Dear Lord, as we get ready to leave this room and have a great camp, remind us to leave through the doors in the back rather than on the side.  And help us to have the kids all lined up for dinner at 6:00 sharp because the dining hall won’t let us in after 6:15. And lead us to set good examples for all the students, showing them which bowls to use for the ice cream machine. You O Lord, know that the smaller bowls located next to the salad bar are the proper ones for ice cream.”

Regardless of which type of prayer you lead, embarrassing yourself is inevitable.  Go ahead and accept that fact.  It’s actually one of the surest signs of God’s existence.

And remember three things:  Be reverent.  Be sincere.  Be brief.

The rest is just window dressing.