The way we pray in secret (Matt 6:6) is different from the way we pray in public. Private prayer is heightened by the reality of our personal relationship with God. Though we pray as part of the Church, remembering others in our prayers, we are praying in such a way that our own relationship with God is cultivated and deepened.
Public prayer is different. When one prays in public he or she prays not as an individual, but as one representing the entire church. Public prayer is offered remembering those who are listening to us, praying with us. Thus, our prayers to God are also meant to edify and build up those that hear us (1 Cor 14:13-19). So while, you shouldn’t think it’s necessary to write down your prayer, you should be intentional in putting thought into the content and manner of the prayer.
Sadly, many–including pastors–rarely pray well in public. The following are some simple directions meant to be a help remedy this situation. These are for pastors as well as any Christian asked to offer prayer during a worship service. These directions are both practical and theological in nature. Remember that these directions are meant to be a help and not some rigid pattern to follow. They are not part of a check-list to tick-off or a series of requirements to follow. Instead, they are designed to help make our public prayers to be the most glorifying to God and edifying to his people.
1. Pray in the Plural
Remember again that when you pray in the worship service, you are praying on behalf of the entire church. You are leading everyone to the throne of God. Thus, you should not say things like, ‘I pray’ or ‘I’m asking.’ Pray in the plural with phrases like, ‘We come before you this morning’ or ‘We pray now,’ etc. This also follows the pattern of prayer the Lord gave us (Matt 6:9).
2. Pray the Scriptures
The language of the Bible is always right, safe, and edifying to God’s people (2 Tim 3:16-17). It is always powerful and effective at gripping the believer’s heart (Heb 4:12-13). It will always lead us to pray with kingdom priorities (Matt 6:33). Therefore, whenever possible, you should try to use the very words of the Bible in your public prayers.
3. Pray the Gospel
There is nothing more encouraging to God’s people than a prayer that is full of Christ and the grace we have received through him. Whenever possible, offer praise and thanksgiving for Christ’s saving work through his life, death, and resurrection. Tie the gospel to your words, making its reality the basis and motivation of your prayers (Eph 3:7-14).
4. Pray an Appropriate Length
Various occasions call for varying lengths of prayer. Basically, we are saying that one should offer a prayer that is neither too long nor too short (Ecc 5:2; Matt 6:7). Often, wisdom in this area comes over time as you listen to the prayers of others and gain personal experience in praying publicly. For the most part, a basic rule of thumb is 1 to 2 minutes. An longer prayer of intercession (often before the sermon) might even be 3 to 5 minutes in length.
5. Pray with an Appropriate Tone and Attitude
Because God desires the prayers of his people, we should come boldly to his throne with confidence that he will hear us (1 John 3:21-24; Heb 4:16). This does not mean that we should go carelessly before God in prayer. It is still the humble person that attracts God’s gaze (Isa 66:1-2). But it does mean that our prayers should be full of hope and joy in the goodness and power of the Lord to whom we are praying. Furthermore, those praying in public should not use pretentious, overly familiar, or irreverent language. Language that is flippant and jokey is never befitting prayer (Ex 20:7; Heb 12:28). Neither is language that is exaggerated in its importance appropriate. Public prayer should not seek to impress anyone (Matt 6:5).
6. Pray with Focused Concerns
Think about what you want to say before you pray. Paul gives us some good, basic directions for prayer (e.g. Eph 6:18-20; 1 Tim 2:1-7). But you cannot and should not cover everything in one prayer. Do not begin with a vague list that meanders around all of the church’s members and ministries. Plan for your prayer, even using a simple outline if you need to. What kind of prayer have you been asked to offer? A prayer of adoration to God? Then think about a short list of specific attributes for which to praise him. Are you going to offer a prayer of confession? Again, think of a list specific enough that it would cover most people, but not so specific that you would be singling out people listening. If you’re praying after the sermon, bring in some of the themes you just heard proclaimed from the passage.
7. Pray with Spiritual Preparation
Make sure that before you pray, your heart is right before God (Ps 66:18). The night before, or the morning that you are to pray, examine your life and make any necessary confession and repentance so that you will be fit to bring God’s people to his throne of grace in prayer (Heb 7:27).