Many Christians appreciate Pastor John Piper for his bold, Christ-centered preaching, but often those who have been blessed by his ministry don’t know that when he was in college, standing to speak in front of others terrified him. The change for him came one day when he was asked to pray in chapel. He said he doesn’t know why, but he said “yes” and told the Lord that if He would get him through this thirty seconds of praying in chapel, he would never turn down a speaking opportunity out of fear again.
Praying in front of other people can be terrifying. We feel awkward and don’t know what to say, so we repeat phrases we have heard others say or pray in the same way we would if we were by ourselves.
How can we grow in our prayers for God’s people in corporate gatherings? Whether we are praying in a small accountability group or a large worship gathering, how can our prayers be a greater blessing to God’s people?
Donald Whitney’s book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life offers an important insight on prayer. He talks about how Christians often view Bible reading and prayer as two separate activities. Whitney suggests building a bridge between the two disciplines by praying in light of the passage of Scripture being read.
What Whitney encourages us to do privately, we can and should do publicly as well. When you pray in public, whether in a corporate worship service, a small group, or with friends, anchor your prayers in a biblical text. If you are in a small group or worship service, connect your prayer to the passage you just read or will be reading soon. What should you thank God for in the passage? What corporate failings should we confess in light of this passage? How does this passage reveal our need for God’s help and strength?
When you anchor your prayers in Scripture, you can be sure that what you are praying for is right and true. In addition, this practice helps you to make sure that you are not repeating the same warmed-over clichés every time you pray.
When you lead a group of people in prayer, you are not praying on your own, but for and on behalf of Christ’s body. Therefore, your prayers should reflect a concern for the people who comprise that body. Pray about common struggles you all face together. Pray for the spread of the gospel in your community and for revival in your church.
At the same time, avoid praying in purely self-referential ways. I once heard a man pray in a worship service and thank God for his multiple homes and vehicles. While we want to thank God for our blessings, we also want to avoid praying in ways that isolate our brothers and sisters in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul says we should avoid praying in a tongue when no one can interpret because no one else could say “Amen” to the prayer (1 Corinthians 14:16). This suggests that our corporate prayers should resonate so deeply with our brothers and sisters that they are able to pray privately what has been prayed publicly.
Jesus warned us to avoid “vain repetitions” in prayer, but unfortunately we often use the Lord’s own name as a form of vain repetition in our prayers. “Lord God, we thank you for this day, Lord God, and we just ask, Lord God, that you would be here with us today, Lord God.” If we’re not careful, this can be vain repetition of the holiest name in the universe. We often say God’s name when what we really should say is “umm.”
This problem is not new. In the nineteenth century, Charles Spurgeon reminded his students to be careful how they used God’s name in prayer, especially when they used it in the previously described manner. He told them, “God’s name is not to be a stop-gap to make up for our want of words.”
The remedy for this malady may not sound very spiritual, but it is quite simple. When you pray in public, slow down, take deep breaths, and think about what you are going to say before you start your next sentence. You are praying on behalf of God’s people, so make your prayers careful and thoughtful.
Other than my three and a half years in seminary, I spent the first thirty years of my life in small-town churches. During those years, I heard thousands of prayers from godly men and women. What struck me as I got older was how often people who spoke with a simple, Southern drawl would pray in King James English.
When praying in a public gathering, be mindful of your words and remember that you are praying on behalf of others, but be yourself. Use your own vocabulary and your normal speaking voice. You’ve been redeemed by Jesus. You have nothing to prove and no one to impress.
“In Jesus’ name” may be the most quickly uttered words by Christians in the entire English language. We often rush through these words as if they were the prayer equivalent of “Sincerely yours.” “In Jesus’ name” is not the sign off for prayer. These three simple words are the only reason we can pray.
When Jesus died in our place, he paid the debt for our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21). He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. He is now seated at the right hand of God and he makes intercession for his people (Hebrews 7:25). Because of his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and ongoing intercession, every person who trusts in Jesus has access to the Father (Ephesians 2:13). We know the Father hears our prayers not because of our goodness and merit, but because of his Son.
Maybe we have “in Jesus’ name” in the wrong place in our prayers. What if we brought “in Jesus’ name” to the beginning of our prayers? “Father, we come to you in the name of Jesus. Thank you that through Him, we know you hear your people today.” In this way, the message of the gospel frames our prayers and reminds us of the privilege God’s Son purchased for us.
Praying for God’s people in public is a great privilege. We get to come before the King of the universe to intercede for our brothers and sisters who have been ransomed by the blood of Christ. When we pray publicly, we don’t do so nonchalantly, but thoughtfully, biblically, and carefully. As we work hard at our public prayers, we bless our brothers and sisters in Christ, remind them of the riches of the gospel, and model for them how they can pray themselves.