Thirteen Tips for Leading the Congregation in Prayer
1. Prepare. Some traditions use set prayers. Others rely on extemporaneous prayers. Both have their place. But I believe what our congregations need most are studied prayers. These prayers may or may not be read, but will be thought through ahead of time. Public prayer is often boring because little thought is put into it. There’s no training for it, no effort put it into it. An hour or two is not too long to spend in preparing a long, pastoral prayer.
2. Use forms with freedom. Learn from The Valley of Vision or Hughes Oliphant Old or the Book of Common Prayer. But suit their prayers to your own purposes. The Didache, after laying down set prayers for Communion, also allows “the prophets to give thanks however they wish.”
3. Pray Scripture. Don’t just ask God for what we want. Let him teach us what we should want.
4. Don’t footnote. Spurgeon: “It is not necessary in prayer to string a selection of texts of Scripture together, and quote David, and Daniel, and Job, and Paul, and Peter, and every other body, under the title of ‘thy servant of old.’” The Lord already knows who said everything so don’t tell him again in your prayers.
5. Leave the preaching for the sermon. Don’t exhort. Don’t explain texts. Don’t unpack complex theology. Spurgeon again: “Long prayers either consist of repetitions, or else of unnecessary explanations which God does not require; or else they degenerate into downright preachings, so that there is no difference between the praying and the preaching, except that in the one the minister has his eyes shut, and in the other he keeps them open. It is not necessary in prayer to rehearse the Westminster Assembly’s Catechism.”
6. Share some details of congregational life, but not all. A good shepherd will often mention by name various sheep that need special care. But don’t try to cover every engagement in the last three months or surreptitiously announce the youth retreat in your prayer (“Lord, be with our young people gathering this Friday at 5:00pm with their Bibles and a sleeping bag…”). Spurgeon one more time: “As I have said before, there is no need to make the public prayer a gazette of the week’s events, or a register of the births, deaths, and marriages of your people, but the general moments that have taken place in the congregation should be noted by the minister’s careful heart.”
7. Pray so that others can follow you easily. The goal is edification (1 Cor. 14:17). So don’t let your sentences get too long, too flowery, too ornate. If you write out your prayers, write for the ear not for the eye. On the other hand, don’t use distracting colloquialisms like, “Lord, you’re so sweet.”
8. Keep it relatively brief. Better to be too short than too long. Five minutes is plenty in most North American churches. Seven to ten minutes is possible is you are experienced and have trained your people well.
9. Remember you are praying with and on behalf of others. Use “we” and “our” (like in the Lord’s Prayer). This is not the time to confess your personal sins or recount your personal experiences.
10. Order your prayer. Make sure there is a flow and direction. Don’t get too wordy. Keep a good pace. It often makes sense to work from the inside out, praying first for concerns of the congregation and then moving out to the community, the global church, and the world.
11. Beware of verbal ticks. For example: popping your p’s, smacking your lips, sighing, ums, mindless repetition of the divine name, unnecessary use of the word “just” and “like,” an over-reliance on the phrase “we pray” or “we would pray” instead of simply praying.
12. Show proper reverence, confidence, and emotion. Pray like you mean it, like God is God, and as if he really hears us.
13. Pray before you pray. Ask God for help as you prepare. Ask him for humility and grace as you go up to pray.