The pitfalls and potential of leading in prayer

I know many pastors who prefer preaching a sermon to leading a service, who would gladly choose the carefully prepared discipline of reflecting on Scripture over shouldering responsibility for the other elements that constitute public worship. This is most likely an issue for those of us who are non-liturgical by tradition and/or conviction, where there is seldom a prescribed way of structuring a service or of composing its content. There are norms and givens which can be sentimentally and fiercely adhered to by an individual congregation, but there can also be a sense of being a little untethered, somewhat adrift, when it comes to compiling and presenting a running order.

One major component of this is public prayer, the idea of leading a congregation in seeking God together. In this short article I want to reflect on some of the perils and joys of leading in prayer, and then in a later article provide some practical pointers to approaching this component of the worship service.

I will list three pitfalls, followed by three potentialities:

Pitfall 1: public prayer can descend into trite repetition
One result of not following an established pattern, or a series of scripted prayers, is that the individual responsible for praying publicly can get lost in a kind of auto-liturgy, a weekly presentation of the same structure and content for seeking God in public worship which becomes predictable and tiresome by its third or fourth outing. This is made worse when the individual leading the prayer time hasn’t fully thought through how they might approach this part of the service and whose extemporary ability is limited. Such prayer resorts to biblical generalities, and the same pointers for intercession week on week.

Pitfall 2: public prayer can be the ante-room of a sermon or a side-ward of personal needs.
For those churches where the pastor is still expected to take at least part of the responsibility for leading worship, there can be a danger that the sermon will appear in miniaturised form in the prayer time, or that prayer will become exhortatory rather than adoring and intercessory. Given the void space the section marked ‘prayer’ on the order of service presents, the pastor might be tempted to bulk this out a little with some exegetical material. Likewise, if intercession is expected, the prayer can sound more like someone reading a database from a local hospital or nursing home than addressing God. Many of the pastoral needs in a church fellowship are profoundly private, and so the Pastor can find himself engaged in reading out generalised lists of people for honourable mention before God and the congregation.

Pitfall 3: public prayer can become a temptation to personal pride
Where repetition or distraction are not the order of the day in public prayer, the Pastor might be tempted to use prayer as a kind of platform for his own sanctity or Scriptural understanding. Here, the problem is not lack of content, or a surplus of it, but the intention behind it. Prayer under these terms becomes a performance – either emotionally or verbally, where the congregation hears what a ‘real’ prayer sounds like. The line between this kind of prayer and the Pharisee in the Temple is unnervingly thin.

Potential 1: public prayer can orient our service correctly
Many churches have an emaciated view of what constitutes public worship. I’m always uneasy when I hear someone leading a service refer to the music as ‘worship’, with the rest of our activity lumped into an amorphous ‘post-worship’ fog. A holistic view of congregational worship recognises the Godward direction of all of our activity as his gathered people, and the devotion of our combined hearts, souls, minds, and strength to the exaltation of his name. In a service where opportunity for public prayer is slim, or where it is simply the calling down of good things on our gathering, worship is sadly impoverished. Public prayer which is thoughtful, and appropriately calibrated by the great indicatives of our life in Christ, can be a tremendous opportunity for the exaltation of God and the edification of his people.

Potential 2: public prayer can prepare our hearts to meet God and hear His Word
It is hard to over-emphasise the personal whirlwind which delivers many worshippers into a church building on a Lord’s Day morning. Much as we might wish that people were preparing their hearts on a Saturday evening, and were gathering with focus and expectancy on the Lord’s Day, the truth is that many arrive for a church service feeling slightly bewildered at the fact that they are there, and unfocused on what they are doing. Public prayer, offered with sensitivity and variety, can soften the hardness of hearts, can serve as a powerful reminder of the glories of communion with God, the breathtaking privilege it is to be in his presence. Those moments of seeking the Lord’s face may be among the quietest and most meditative of the week in the lives of many church members. Praying in this way, taking time to be still before our glorious God, can render hearts more perceptive to the fact of why we gather, and more receptive to what God says when we are there.

Potential 3: public prayer can authentically model believing prayer
This is, perhaps, the most delicately balanced benefit of public prayer. Pride lives at the edges of addressing God before men, it lurks on the fringes of well turned phraseology, or well parsed ideas about the character of God. We must be alive to the fact that if public prayer is offered in high sounding, or even pathetically convincing, ways without a mother lode of prayer living behind it in the heart of the Pastor, then we are simply encouraging God’s people to tap their feet to noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

If, however, public prayer represents the overflow of a life lived in the conscious presence of God through the week, if our seeking of God is more than a display of the building blocks of what makes a ‘good prayer’, if we are seeking God out of a personal communion which precedes our public communion with his people, then this part of our service can be a fearful and glorious thing. The difference between a well-constructed public oration which thinly veils its hubristic desire to show others what is known of God, and a heartfelt seeking of his face and lifting of his name is something which is instinctively felt, and is difficult to linguistically capture. If we pray as praying men, who love the Lord, who are gripped by the miracle of grace which has brought us to Christ, who desire to lead fellow Christians into the enjoyment of exalting God and exulting in him, then our prayers might just be instrumental in moving other believers to pray privately in the same manner as they have shared publicly. That, undoubtedly, is a blessing to the Body of Christ.

In the next article on this theme we will consider some practical ways to approach the leading of public prayer, as well as identifying some ways to combat pride and hypocrisy in this regard.

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