I keep reminding our pastors that when I drop in on their services, I come as a worshiper and not as a critic or advisor or their mentor. I come as a fellow believer. I consider myself a good audience for a preacher. I want him to do well, I pray for him and work at listening.
But, I'm about to violate that unspoken contract with our pastors. I need to tell you something that weighs heavily on my heart. Pastor, you need to give some thought to what you say from the pulpit. No, I'm not referring to the sermon. You seem to be doing well on that. I'm talking about what you say to the Lord, your prayers in the worship service.
In a typical service, there is the invocation and the benediction. In between will often come a pastoral prayer, an offertory prayer, and occasionally a prayer at the start and/or conclusion of the sermon. Some of those are spoken by staffers or deacons, but most belong to you, the pastor.
What follows is my impression of what the fellow in the pew would like to register with you the pastor. This is not to imply that he sits there thinking these things. In most cases, I fear he has long since abandoned hope that you might invigorate your prayers with fresh thoughts and uplifting praise and strong intercessions. But, if I were a wagering man, I'd betcha that the lay men and women who read this will connect with it in a heartbeat. As always, we invite them to leave their comments at the conclusion, in agreement or disagreement, contributing their own suggestions and anecdotes.
What Joe PewSpud wishes his pastor knew about his public prayers:
1. Remember that you are praying with me and for me.
This is not your private prayer time, pastor. You are voicing a prayer on behalf of the congregation. Therefore, say "We" and "our," and not "I" and "my."
At some point in recent history, some misguided influencer-of-preachers convinced them that no one can voice a prayer for someone else and that when you pray in public, you should use the first person singular pronoun. "I make my prayer in Jesus' name, amen."
My response is that this would be news to Jesus. He taught us to pray, "Our Father... give us... forgive us... lead us..."
So, make your prayers on behalf of the entire congregation. What are they feeling, where are they hurting, what do they need? What has God impressed you to request on behalf of your congregation? Pray that.
2. We're counting on you to lift us to the Lord's throne in prayer.
That means your prayers in the worship service should not be routine little speeches you are hoisting heavenward, but well-considered expressions to the Lord of the Universe. When you pray, you are making an entrance into the Royal Throneroom of the Universe. Come with dignity, with love and awe, with humility and praise. Think about what you are saying!
Pastor, do you recall times when someone else's prayers have drawn you out of your lethargy and dullness and inspired you by a divine quality that was far different from most prayers you've heard or offered? What was there about them--a sense of holiness, of immediacy, of awe and love and commitment?
Consider praying during the week about your prayers with the congregation, that the Father will teach you how to make these prayers alive and relevant and fresh.
3. You are teaching us to pray by your example.
Pastor, you are the only person we hear pray more than once a week. You are the great influencer of our prayers. Without ever thinking about it, we will begin to mold our prayers by the pattern you set. If you are trite and overly informal, we will shift in that direction. If you shout out machinegun-fire prayers to the Almighty in staccato fashion, something inside us decides this is the right way to pray. If you are cold and formal as though God is distant and we should be fearful, we will gravitate in that direction, too.
On the other hand, if you are careful in your choice of words, if you come with a blend of boldness and humility, of privilege because you are a child of the King and of unworthiness because you have no right to be there in your own self, the congregation picks up on that too and that's how they will learn to pray.
What an incredible position you are in, modeling prayer for the next generation of young believers. It would not be out of line for you to have conversations with the Lord about that privilege during your weekday prayers.
4. It's really not necessary to pray lengthy prayers when you do it right.
We all would do well to take to heart the admonition of Ecclesiastes 5:1-2.
"Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools; for they do not consider that they do evil."
"Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God; for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth. Therefore, let thy words be few."
We recall from Scripture that Jesus sometimes prayed all night at crucial times in His life. But His public prayers were brief and to the point. At the graveside of Lazarus, He prayed, "Father, I thank you that you heard me when I prayed." He was no doubt referring to the prayers He had lofted to God during his walk of several days to get to Bethany. Now that He was here, it was no time for long intercessions. He had done the work of prayer; now the time had come to go to act on His faith. With that, He called Lazarus from his tomb.
Somewhere I heard of a pastor whose pulpit prayers droned on and on for several minutes at a time. One Sunday as he prayed, a little white-haired woman on the front row of the choir had taken all she could. She leaned over and tugged on his coat-tail. "Pastor," she said, "call Him Father and ask Him for something."
5. Do not pray your frustrations before the congregation.
Most of us have known people who, if they were carrying anger or frustration toward another, used their public prayers as an opportunity to chastise that individual. By inserting it into their prayers--along the line of, "Lord, help us to realize that" and "Remind us that," followed by his personal complaints about the person--it seemed less offensive to the one doing the praying and, in theory, put their hostility off limits to retaliation or response. Don't do that.
6. Learn to pray the Word of God.
The Bible contains some great prayers, some wonderful introductions for worship times, and some incredible benedictions. Few things would lift the mood of your people and inspire their own commitment better and faster than your standing before them and bringing them a blessing or benediction or intercession in the very words of the Word itself.
An invocation might begin with a great affirmation of the truth of the Lord's way. "For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ! For it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Romans 1:16). Then move immediately into your prayer.
My favorite benediction is this one from the conclusion of Hebrews. "Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen" (Hebrews 13:20-21).
Many times you will not want to quote the Word in your prayer, but let the Word direct your prayer. Consider the Beatitudes, for instance. What if the minister, during his pastoral prayer in the Sunday morning service, prayed something like this:
"Our Lord, you said the poor in spirit are blessed. Give us that humility and childlikeness that you value so much and forgive us for our pride."
"Our Lord, you said those who mourn are blessed. Give us a heart broken for the needs in the world around us and forgive us when we close our eyes to them."
"You told us the gentle and meek are blessed. Give us that tenderness and gentleness that we see in Thee, and forgive us for our anger and self-centeredness."
"You assured us that those who hunger and thirst after righteousness are blessed. Give us a hearty appetite for Thee, and forgive us when we fill our souls with the junk food of this life."
The greatest resource book for effective praying on the planet is your Bible.
7. Cleanse your prayers of those dead, pet phrases.
I apologize in advance to the deacons who read this, but somewhere there seems to be a school of prayer for deacons only, where they learn to include the same dull phrases over and over again in their prayers prior to the offering. Two aspects of these prayers in particular I find fascinating and a little exasperating.
In the typical prayer before the offering, the pray-er seems more intent on telling the Lord to use the offering wisely than in asking that the church members may catch the divine vision, open their wallets, and give generously. We get the impression the deacon thinks God may spend it foolishly if He's not careful.
The other is something that amazes me every time I hear it. The deacon will pray that God will use this offering "for the betterment of the Kingdom." I want to interrupt, "Wait a minute--what in the sam hill do you mean by that? How are you going to 'better' the Kingdom of God?"
I know what happened; the deacon heard someone else saying it and thought it sounded good and added it to his prayers. Bad mistake.
Pastors do it too, although not with those same phrases. I'll not elaborate on this point since it seems each pastor has his own variations on this theme.
The best way I know how to purge our prayers of these meaningless, lifeless phrases is to turn our Sunday prayers into genuine conversations with a loving and holy God. And for that, we'll need to do the hard work of repentance, commitment, prayer, meditation, Bible reading, and drawing close to the Father during the week. This is not something that can be done on Sunday morning.
Our prayers on Sunday are a fallible reflection of the fellowship we have maintained with the Heavenly Father that week. If our weekday devotionals were lifeless and dull, our Sunday worship leadership will carry the same qualities. If we had a great private devotional time with the Lord each day this week, if we thrilled at our Bible studies and were touched in our prayer times, then the congregation will pick up on that special something in what we say and how it is uttered when we stand in the pulpit.
Joe PewSpud knows that, pastor. He hopes you do too.
Dr. Joe McKeever is a Preacher, Cartoonist, and the Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Visit him at joemckeever.com/mt. Used with permission.