The Lord of the Sanctuary has told us that His house should be a place of prayer. If prayer is the priority then great care should be taken in how it is offered to God. Those who pray in the public worship service have a grave responsibility. Depending on the circumstances, the minister will pray, or the elders, or the members of the congregation. But in all circumstances, it is important that the prayer fall within scriptural boundaries. And sometimes, those boundaries can be surprising.
For example, the Bible requires that public prayer be kept as brief as possible, given the duties and needs we have in prayer. At first glance this seems counterintuitive, but it only seems this way because our carnal flesh is very religious. The Bible says that God is in heaven, and that we are on the earth, and so therefore our words should be few (Eccl. 5:2). When Jesus taught us to pray, He gave us a prayer that was the very model of sanctified brevity (Mt. 6:9-13). Not only so, but He also went back and commented on this aspect of prayer, chastising those who think that God is somehow interested in word count. They actually think, He said, that they will be heard because of their lengthy prayers. Within the church, we should be constantly on guard against the temptation to do a little showboating in public prayer. This is all tantamount to loitering at the Throne. Prayer offered up with one eye on the heavens and the other on the cheap seats is definitely not what we want.
This does not mean that public prayer should be offered for fifteen seconds. Our duties in public prayer are assigned to us, and if we faitfhully discharge those duties it will take some time. The point being made here is merely that length is not to be valued as an end in itself. Given the time taken by the fixed nature of the prayers that must be offered up, our goal should be brevity, not length.
But brevity can be of two kinds. Someone can be brief because they have nothing to say, but there is a profound brevity. Many Christians assume that because they have a problem with the first kind of brevity in their personal prayers, that therefore it is necessary to make the prayers at church as long as possible. But this is a false assumption. Length is thought to be the opposite of ignorant brevity, but the problem is the ignorance.
Profound brevity requires preparation, and training. This is an easy point for the garrulous to miss. If someone has been around in Christian circles for a while, and they know the jargon, it is very easy for them to go on in prayer for quite a while without really saying anything. Learning to pray through scripture is one way to achieve a profound brevity.
In discussing the need for preparation and training, this raises the importance of learning how to write out prayers for public worship beforehand. This is likely to excite some prejudice, and so a few preliminary qualifiers are necessary. This is not written against extemporaneous prayer at all, but it does assume that biblical extemporaneous prayer is far more difficult than chatty people are likely to think.
When Jesus comments on the need for brevity in prayer, He tells us not to be like the Gentiles with their “vain repetition.” The word battalogeo, refers to pious yammering. When we start talking about writing prayers down, this makes many evangelicals think of set prayers (as in the Book of Common Prayer), and they start getting more than a little nervous. The fear is that we are inching closer to this sin of vain repetition, and that if we keep this up soon we will be mumbling our way through prayers that we have not ever thought about.
The irony here is that this is the reverse of our actual temptations. If an anecdotal illustration may be permitted, I grew up in evangelical circles and knew the public prayer ropes. I could pray readily in public settings, particularly in church, and did so in accordance with the accepted canons for many years. When I finally began to write my prayers out before the service, I noticed something funny. I had stopped repeating myself. I found myself praying in new territory. In short, the previous situation had allowed me to pray predictable prayers that I had not really thought about. Composing prayers beforehand, sitting down and actually thinking through what I was going to say, brought in a whole new world of possibilities in prayer. Too many people, when they pray extemporaneously, pray in the same way that they comb their hair. It is a habitual action that requires no real thought. This goes there.
Most forms of extemporaneous prayer may paddle about in new, little circles, but always stays close to the shore. Thoughtful prayer, prepared beforehand, launches out into the deep. Consider this: “Heavenly Father, we thank Thee that we can gather here today for worship…” Without preparation, I found myself praying some version of this over and over again. But the fact was invisible to me because it was never identical, never verbatim, to the previous prayers. I did not have memorized prayers, and did not play them note for note. But I was always improvising on the same basic melody. What broke this pattern up was the freedom brought by writing prayers down beforehand.
Many bad habits have grown up around our impromptu attempts to pad our prayers. As public prayer becomes more important in a congregation, and less given to rambling, these bad habits should be carefully rooted out.
When the people of God are praying to God, the one offering up the prayers on their behalf should not start (or continue) preaching to the people. If a pastor did not get His last point of the sermon in, he must not try to shoehorn it into his closing prayer. The one praying should never forget who is being addressed. When the prayer suffers a directional drift, the result is that the congregation is addressed in substance with a thin veneer of vocative references to God. “And dear Lord, Thou dost know that the Greek verb in verse seventeen is a present, active indicative…”
Nor should prayer be filled up with pious substitutions for um. One of our favorite substitutes is “just.” “Lord, we just want to thank Thee, for being our Lord, and we just come unto Thee today to just…” And the same could be said for the name of God. His name is to be hallowed, and not used as a filler or a stop-gap.
Also to be avoided would be attempts at wit, sarcasm, or humor. In a public setting, it would be rare indeed for such an attempt to be anything other than an appeal to a human audience. But God is our audience. If the one praying thinks that He would think it funny, then there is not problem with offering it up to the God who is a consuming fire.
Prayer can also get far too detailed. It is one thing to pray that someone in the congregation would be heal for their sicknesses. It is another thing to work through their latest lab reports, and responses to various medications. On a related matter, the prayer requests can also be too distant for the congregation to be able to say amen. This is the problem caused by a prayer request from someone in the congregation whose cousin in Chicago has a neighbor whose cat was hit by a car.
Sadly, this last problem area has to be addressed somehow. The subject matter should be decent. More than one congregation has been mortified to have to add their corporate amen to a plea for the healing of someone’s hemorrhoids. While we perhaps have not gone as far as the Philistines and made gold replicas of them to set up in the foyer, we do talk about personals things in public worship far more than we should. Another appalling practice in this regard might be classified as gynecological prayer requests during a childbirth. “Susan is now at eight centimeters, and we should all pray…” While we should all be concerned, in a general way, about the state of Susan’s cervix, that’s no reason to bring it up in the public prayers at church.
Almighty God and Father of the Eternal Word, Thou didst bring all things into being by virtue of divine Speech. But even Thy most holy words were clear and concise. Teach us to speak even as Thou hast spoken. Make us mindful of our limitations. Remind us that fools are known for their much speaking. Make us truly wise. Let our words be few. Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.