A View from the Pew: What to Say When You Pray in Front of People

Each week at my church we have a “deacon of the week” whose most visible responsibility is to say a prayer before the offering is collected.

My turn rolls around every few months, and each time I try to think about the purpose of the prayer in the worship service, the purpose of the act of receiving the offering, and the theme of the service. Whether I go into the pulpit with a written prayer or aim for a more off-the-cuff expression, I have developed an approach to praying in public.

As a preacher’s kid, I was taught to always be ready to “preach, pray, or sing.” I was often called on for prayers, and after a few ineloquent attempts, an older member of the congregation pulled me aside and gave me some much-needed pointers. His main advice, which I still try to heed today, was don’t fill your prayer with repetitious filler words and verbal pauses. Those are distracting and ultimately don’t convey your thoughts well, though God can certainly ascertain your intent.

In the spirit of that instruction, here are five tips for laypeople who get called on to pray during worship:

Focus on the purpose. Each prayer in a worship service has a purpose. Be aware of which prayer you have been asked to give and, whether you plan it ahead of time or give voice to your thoughts in the moment, be intentional about what you are asking of God or saying to God. An invocation invokes God’s presence. A benediction sends the congregation forth. A pastoral prayer is for the congregation and the concerns of the larger community. Prayers of the people are specific petitions for the needs of the church family. A blessing for the food is both thanksgiving and a request for sustenance. Sincerity is the key, but a prayer is most meaningful when it aligns with the intended purpose of that portion of the service.

Remember who you are praying to. It’s clear when the person offering the prayer forgets they are supposed to be talking to God. It’s an easy trap to fall into. From the pronouns you use to the content of your prayer, keep in mind that voicing a prayer in the service is not your moment to sermonize. You are not there to inform God of theological truths or reminders from the church calendar. You are speaking to a loving, personal God who is not only interested in your individual life but the well-being of the entire community and even the world.

Remember who you are speaking for. If you’ve ever heard someone mistake a corporate prayer for a time of personal confession, then you know what I’m saying here. This is not the same prayer that you would say during your personal devotional time. And though the words are yours, the prayer is not about you. It’s a prayer given on behalf of the people in attendance. Keep that in mind and you will find your prayers resonating with the congregation in a way that prevents the prayers from being stale or rote.

Be clear. God knows our hearts and hears us no matter how softly we may speak. However, our rapidly aging congregations would like to hear us, and everyone wants to understand your words so they can participate better in the worship. From your volume to your pace, say the prayer so that the back row can hear, and use words even the children can understand. We don’t win any spirituality points with inaccessible seminary language. Overly simple constructions that employ a lot of “just” and filler words are just as unclear, but in a different way. Simple sentences clearly, deliberately spoken should be the goal.

Be concise. In my life, I’ve violated all the tips I’ve listed, including this one. And my loving wife helped me correct this habit. By praying long, we take the focus off God and we lose the congregation. By intentionally saying what needs to be said in as few words as possible, we are ensuring that everyone is with us until we say “Amen.” If you are writing out your prayer, it’s okay to practice it. God knows the intent of your heart, and it’s helpful to know how long it will take. In public prayers, less is more.

My prayer is that all lay people will have an opportunity to give voice to the congregation’s worship, and when that opportunity comes, it will be meaningful for you, your fellow parishioners, and the Lord.

Lance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA, does media relations and issues management at his day job, and blogs at newsouthessays.com.

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