A friend wrote to me of his concern with his prayer life:
“One of my big problems with praying is when I get ready to pray in public–or even in private–I can’t think of something new to say. I sound so repetitive in my prayers. How do I increase my vocabulary?”
My immediate thought is that, while I certainly understand his desire for freshness in his prayers, vocabulary has little to do with it. The issue is not the word-choice but the heart-cry.
After receiving my friend’s note a few days ago, I decided to sit on it until inspiration provoked a proper response.
Sitting in church this week and worshiping along with the congregation for the first half of the services before walking to the pulpit and preaching, it occurred to me that staleness and dullness affect far more than our prayers. Our worship–meaning everything we do in worship services such as preaching, teaching, announcing, leading hymns, etc–could use a periodic infusion of freshness.
So, let’s get to it.
Here are five suggestions for freshening up your prayers, sermons, everything about your public worship leadership. Please do not miss the caution at the end.
1. Give advance thought to what you plan to do and say.
As a retired pastor in a different church almost every Sunday (guest preaching, leading conferences and revivals), I suppose I see it all.
You can tell when the leader is making it up as he goes (shooting from the hip, ad libbing, winging it, choose your figure of speech) and when he/she has put no advance forethought into the worship leadership.
I suggest to pastors that after they’ve prepared the Sunday sermon and feel relatively good about it, they turn their attention to everything else in the service, from the invocation and greeting worshipers, to any announcement they will be making, to introducing a guest in the service, thanking this person or recognizing someone else. What will be the best way to do this? Give it some thought.
A rule which may be set in concrete says: “If what you are doing is boring to you, rest assured it’s mind-deadening to everyone else.”
By giving advance thought to an announcement or prayer, a welcome or a recognition, you can try out various ways until you find one which works best for you.
2. Read far and wide.
The pastor who reads nothing but the same preachers’ publications each week is sentencing himself to be dull and his congregation to be bored.
Start with God’s Word, of course. Study the prayers of Jesus, particularly the “Great Priestly Prayer” of John 17. The Psalms are rich with prayers and intercessions, praise and worship, and you will get a thousand ideas from one hour of sitting at the feet of the Psalmist. Read Paul’s prayers throughout his epistles.
If you come away without ideas and guidance for your worship leadership and your public prayers, you weren’t paying attention, friend.
Here’s an exercise I recommend: Once in a while, visit the periodicals section of your public library . Spend an hour browsing the magazines on the shelves, many of which you have never seen or heard of. Bring along a notebook for jotting down interesting ideas and creative approaches to issues. Notice the ads, glance over the editorials, check out the lead articles. No matter the magazine’s primary focus–whether it’s electronics or rock music or liberal politics–in one hour you will find a dozen memorable stories or fascinating insights or unusual catch phrases you’ll want to remember. If even one or two of these affect your thinking for a sermon or a program in your church, the time has been well spent.
3. Get a copy of The Book of Common Prayer and use it.
This prayer book is available through the Episcopal denomination and has a world of blessing to offer one who needs freshness and direction to his prayers.
Thirty years ago, I ran by St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Columbus, Mississippi (I was then pastoring the First Baptist Church in that city) and asked the minister where I could get a copy of The Book of Common Prayer. He said, “Here! You can have this one!”
My hesitation at taking his copy was quickly dispelled when I realized that book is as prevalent in the typical Episcopal church as a Baptist Hymnal is in ours. I still use that beloved volume.
Now, let me emphasize that I am not urging anyone to pretend to be of another denomination or to use everything in that good book. We’re talking about freshness here, and I’m trying to convey that this time-tested and highly-honored book will prod your mind and heart in directions you did not know existed.
Here’s a prayer, taken completely at random from this book–
Almighty God, who didst give such grace to thine apostle Andrew that he readily obeyed the call of thy Son Jesus Christ, and brought his brother with him: Give unto us, who are called by thy Word, grace to follow him without delay, and to bring those near to us into his gracious presence; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Now, any pastor whose prayers have bogged down under the usual vain repetitions and trite catch-phrases can read that and find himself inspired to pray differently. He might follow the example of this prayer and mention some other saint whose faithfulness inspires us today, to apply that disciple’s actions to our situation, and to pray for grace to do likewise.
The Book of Common Prayer must contain a thousand prayers. Again, we are not suggesting you pray these in a worship service, but only that you read them for inspiration as to how you can lead your people to the Throne of Grace.
4. Listen to your people during the week.
What are they going through? What do they worry about? What fears keep them awake at night?
I am not suggesting that you ask them, only that you sit quietly and listen. If your church does a weekly fellowship dinner for your people or if you regularly meet with members for meals or committees, sharpen your ears. You may even want to invite your spouse and a key staff member or two to serve as your listening posts.
What issues are absorbing the energies of your community? What is dividing your city? What challenges is it facing? To find this, you need to read your paper or follow the local news online.
As a new seminary student many years ago, I was struck by how one professor in particular would open class with prayer for community issues. He knew what the city council would be facing some days or something the governor was doing, and he lifted them to the Father for wisdom and guidance. After his “amen,” he launched into the lesson on Hebrew grammar without a word of explanation as to what he had just done. But many of us never forgot the lesson.
5. Talk to God about real people and real issues.
One reason people get bored by our prayers–and it’s the same reason we bore ourselves–is that we deal in such generalities without ever getting specific.
What if next Sunday in your pastoral prayer, you lifted up David and Jaime Rhymes who have left our congregation to minister in the interior of Africa and are counting on our intercessions? What if you prayed for Jonathan and Bethany Sharp who recently left our associational office and will soon arrive in Portugal to begin a career of ministry for the Lord?
What if you prayed for the Stewart family who just buried their precious child as a result of leukemia? Or the Sikhs of Wisconsin whose congregation was invaded just last week by a gunman?
What if you called people by name and asked the Father for specific direction and provisions for them?
Having said all that, however, I feel a need to point out that freshness in worship is probably over-rated.
After all, our Bible contains 150 Psalms, many of which cover the same ground again and again. The really fresh ones–those that introduce unique ideas or use unusual language–stand out in our minds because they are different from the others. But it’s worth mentioning that the Lord did not require all the Psalms to be original to find their way into the Holy Book.
It is critical that in our prayers, our worship, and our preaching we be genuine and faithful.
We want to honor the Lord from our hearts and not just with so many pretty words we read in a book or cut out of magazines.
We want to approach His Throne with great reverence and humility, and not as a rude child who does not appreciate the privilege of entering His presence.
In doing so, if our words sound a lot like the ones we used the last time we were down here on our knees, it’s all right. After all, the Lord has heard all the words and none are new and fresh to Him.
O come, and let us sing to the Lord!
Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving;
Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms.
For the Lord is the great God,
And the great King above all gods.
In His hand are the deep places of the earth;
The heights of the hills are His also;
The sea is His, for He made it;
And His hands formed the dry land.
O come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker, for He is our God,
And we are the people of His pasture,
And the sheep of His hand.