How to Pray in Public

In a typical Southern Baptist church–if there is any such animal!–the pastor and other ministers handle most of the pulpit duties. The times when a deacon can be counted on to lead in public prayer is more likely to come before the offering and in the Lord’s Supper.

When a layman approaches the pulpit to lead in prayer, there is no telling what will happen then. If it’s true that most pastors have never had training in public praying, it’s ten times as sure that the laypeople haven’t.

What we get when the typical layman comes to the microphone to lead a prayer is some or all of the following:

–trite statements he has heard other people pray again and again

–vain repetitions

–awkward attempts to be genuine and fresh

–awkward attempts to admonish the congregation about some issue, usually their laxity in giving

–a total unawareness of the time element. He/she may be too brief or go on and on and on.

The typical layman feels out of place doing this. There are exceptions, thankfully, and some wonderful ones. But in most churches, the deacons and other lay leadership would rather take a beating than to pray in public.

A pastor friend announced to his deacons that they would no longer be leading offertory prayers. He expected resistance and was prepared to respond to it. Instead, without exception, they cheered the news. “They felt like a burden had been lifted off their shoulders,” he said.

I understand that. But I regret it. In truth, this could be a wonderful time for a man or woman of the Lord to render service of an unusual nature to the congregation and indirectly to the Lord.

Here are ten suggestions on how any of us–preachers, staffers, deacons, laity–can improve our public prayers.

1. Use first person plural in your prayers.

Speak of “we” and “us” and “our.” After all, you are not offering a private, personal prayer at this moment, but a corporate one on behalf of all the Lord’s people who are in attendance.

Since I’m in a different church almost weekly, I’m slightly perturbed when I hear public prayers ending with “In Jesus’ name I pray.”

Our Lord taught us to pray, “Our Father…give us…forgive us…lead us.”

That prayer we call The Lord’s was clearly meant as a public prayer. We know that by the first person plural found throughout. When our Lord prayed in private, He spoke in the first person singular (“Father, I thank you that you heard me when I prayed.” –John 11:41).

You’re praying on behalf of all of us, friend. Keep that in mind.


Unless this event is your inauguration. It’s a public gathering at which you are the guest of honor and you are intoning a prayer of commitment involving your own work. In that case, you may speak of yourself; otherwise, you are merely voicing a request on behalf of everyone else.

2. Think about this prayer well in advance if possible.

My college roommate George Gravitte and I pulled the same bonehead mistake in our initial attempts at preaching. His first sermon came just after our freshman year while mine came as a college senior. But we both went into the pulpit unprepared, counting on the inspiration of the moment to produce a sermon that would enthrall our audience and confirm to our families God was on the throne.

Nothing like that happened. Both sermons were failures of the first order.

Preparation is good. It’s good for sermons and it’s needed for prayers when both are to be uttered in the presence of other people.

Everything that follows is meant to assist the person praying to prepare well for what he/she will say.

3. Ask yourself, “What Scripture speaks to the subject my prayer deals with?”

As a young minister with zero preparation or training in public praying, I sometimes found myself immensely blessed by the occasional prayer uttered at gatherings. Why, I wondered, did that prayer touch me so and lift my spirits and inspire my faith more than the others?

One thing almost all inspiring prayers had in common were their use of Scripture.

A prayer that prays the promises of God can always be counted on to bless the hearers.

And that, of course, raises the question: should a prayer have as its aim to bless the hearers? After all, isn’t a prayer directed toward the Heavenly Father? Wasn’t it for His benefit? It surely was not a performance. That being the case, does it matter how the audience felt about it?

Answer: it matters. It matters a great deal. For one thing, if the prayer is on behalf of the congregation, we would love for them to buy into it, to feel it was their prayer, and to exercise their faith concerning its requests.

We are not talking about preaching to the congregation or making announcements to them by means of the prayer. Those are two of the most common misuses of public prayers. We are talking about praying in such a way as to inspire their faith and uplift their spirits.

The psalms is a rich depository of texts to inspire our prayers. Take the very first one. Suppose you prayed this way in your pulpit prayers:

Our Father, you have pronounced a blessing on the person who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly. Help us to walk faithfully. You have pronounced a blessing on the person who does not stand in the way of sinners. Help us to surround ourselves with men and women of faith and integrity. You have pronounced a blessing on those who do not sit in the seat of the scornful. Help us to take our place among the encouragers.

Or this:

Father, you have promised that the man or woman of faith and obedience will be like a tree planted by rivers of water. O, give us stability and lasting strength. You have said it would bring forth its fruit in its season. Make us fruitful, Father, that we may bring glory to Thee. You said its leaf would not wither, that whatever it did would prosper. Father, we long for that kind of daily consistency and productive service for Thee.

Pray the promises of God.

4. Be concise, to the point, and relatively brief.

That is, unless you are on the program for a major prayer.

If the White House calls to inform you Billy Graham cannot make the inauguration this January and invites you to fill his slot, go for it. Take a full five minutes. Otherwise, shorter is better.

This means removing from the prayer material that is not needed, off the subject, or distracting.

In one church I served, we had an elderly deacon who used to be the sheriff in that county. He was notorious for prayers that circumnavigated the globe. Ten minutes minimum would be my guess. Once, some years after he and his family moved away, they were back visiting and present in our morning service. For no other reason than nostalgia, I suppose–or possibly a streak of meanness–I called on him to pray. Later, I wished we had timed him. Did it really take ten minutes or just seem that way?

My hunch is that anyone praying interminable prayers in a public gathering does not pray at all in private.

5. Be yourself.

This is no time for your Billy Graham imitation. (Or whoever your favorite celebrity preacher happens to be.) Be true to you.

What’s on your heart? What do you believe strongly? What is the need of the hour? What have you learned about approaching the throne of God in prayer?

You may even want to pray about the prayer.

Does that sound a little redundant? It isn’t. The Father has a greater interest in your prayer “working” than you do. So, ask Him for guidance.

Today, as I write, I picked up my grandson from the school. He was feeling poorly, and I was glad to run this little errand. At a stop light, we noticed the Arkansas license plate on the car in front of us, with a drawing of a diamond. We got into a discussion about diamonds, called “the hardest surface on the earth.” Being a grandfather who is always trying to teach the little ones I love, I said, “So, Grant, if the diamond is the hardest thing on the planet, what would they use to cut one?”

He suggested all kinds of answers before the obvious one occurred to him: “Another diamond.” Right.

Perhaps that is a metaphor for praying about our prayer.

6. Put the event you are praying for in context.

What’s going on? Does the congregation know about it? If not, you may need to inform them. That’s why a lot of thought should go into the preparation of the prayer.

You may need to preface your prayer with something like: “As many of you know, last night we had a death in the church family. Deacon John Jasper was suddenly called home to the Heavenly Father. So, while our hearts go out to his family and loved ones, we want to lift them to the Lord for strength and blessing this morning.”

A friend tells me she has known church members to be hurt because no mention from the pulpit was made of the tragedy their family was enduring, and no prayer was offered. She writes, “Our previous pastor used to give us a prayer list before the morning prayer. But when the present pastor came, he stopped that. The congregation really missed it. But the preacher said something about not wanting to violate the ‘privacy act.’ Consequently, the prayers thereafter were always general and never specific. The members felt something precious had been lost.

Pastor John Franklin says, “I have observed a unique atmosphere of love in congregations where people pray publicly for one another by name.”

My pastor, Mike Miller, says, “If you’re praying in the service, pay attention. What was just sung? What did the pastor just say? What happened in the church or the world this week?”

7. Don’t hesitate to remind God of Who He is, What He has done, and What He has promised in similar circumstances.

This is too lengthy a subject to go into here, but based on Isaiah 62:6, I strongly believe that most of our public prayers ought to be built around reminding God of these three aspects of His revelation: Who He Is, What He has Done, and What He has Said. (I capitalized them all on purpose to stress their importance.)

“You who remind the Lord, take no rest for yourselves and give Him no rest until He make Jerusalem a praise in all the earth.”

The Hebrew word MAZKIR means to remind. But it’s also the title of a court official, usually called a “recorder.” The official functioned as a court reporter in our culture, taking notes on happenings in order to read them back to the supervisor at a later time. Kings had their “mazkirs” and depended greatly on them.

Often in Scripture, those who prayed public prayers would take the first half of the prayer time to do just this–remind God that He was God and He alone, that He had made the Heavens and the earth and all that is in them, and that He had spoken about situations just like the one the pray-ers were facing. A few examples are David’s prayer when dedicating the temple materials in I Chronicles 29:10-20, Jehoshaphat’s prayer in II Chronicles 20:6-12 and the Jerusalem believers in Acts 4:24-31.

8. Pray a prayer of faith.

Believe God and say so in your prayer. Don’t be afraid to tell a Loving, Holy God that as His children engaged in His work, you are asking for the needed materials or personnel to get the job done.

Part of praying prayers of faith means asking for precisely what you need and every bit of it. Do not be afraid to pray big.

Thou art coming to a king,

Large petitions with thee bring.

For His grace and power are such

None can ever ask too much.

–John Newton

Pray big. Expect big. And commit yourself totally.

A friend (below, in the comments) suggests using The Book of Common Prayer. I’m glad he mentioned that, because I had intended to do so in the body of this article (and hereby do so). Many years ago, a neighbor who pastored the Episcopal Church gave me a copy of that wonderful book which has blessed me and made my prayers stronger than before. For those in our Southern Baptist tradition (or similar), reading one of those prayers would not work in a worship service. However, you will get great ideas for your own prayers from that highly respected and greatly loved volume.

9. Thank the Lord and do so specifically.

On a blog where the host asked for suggestions on how he could pray well in public, a fellow identified only as Jesse commented:

I try to be brief and make a ‘thank you sandwich’–thanking God for bringing us all there safely, asking Him to bless the activity we are gathering for, thanking Him for the opportunity to participate in the proceedings, and the ability to give money/study the Bible/have a church meeting, etc. Lastly, I try to acknowledge that all things come from Him. It takes about 20 seconds at the most. I’ve been teased about my short prayers, but really, I feel like if I try to do more I’d be showing off or performing.

That’s one person’s take on the subject.

Another fellow had a good idea: Practice, practice, practice. He suggests you write out your prayers and then practice saying them so you’ll not need the manuscript. He says, “Think about how you will address God (‘God of mercy, God of grace, God of giving, God of peace, etc’). Think how you will address the situation at hand. Keep the tone consistent with the prayer type.”

10. Begin and end your prayer with praise.

I think of Psalm 103, which begins, “Bless the Lord, O my soul” and ends the same way.

The Lord’s prayer, which begins with praise (“Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name”), ends with “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.”

I expect to tweak this article in the next day or so, but will end it right here at the moment. You may wish to leave a comment below (suggestions welcome) and to check back from time to time. Eventually, once it gets in its final form–maybe a week from now–you may wish to print it out and hand to your deacon chairman or pastor. If you have any desire to print out multiple copies, do so with our blessing.

5 thoughts on “How to Pray in Public

  1. Thanks Joe for this practical guide to public prayer. I tend to be the person who does the announcements and leads in that opening prayer. My personality being what it is I too often “wing it” and God is gracious. But I think this is very good!

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks a million times JOE for that great revelation and insight on public praying. I honestly tell you that many of us who are far from Bible or Theology Colleges and who can not afford to join them find it a blessing to download such a powerful revelation free. You are a blessing to many. Personally I will be looking on how to print and share with my pastor friends and leaders in my area.

    God satisfy you with long life and show you His salvation. Amen.

  3. Ah public prayer! Growing up Baptist our congregations we forced to put up with orations by the self important, pontifications by the self pious, embarrassment of the hapless, usless “thee’s” and “thou’s” ( we don’t talk that way anymore) and the “Jesuswejust” folks. Now I have this wonderful thing called The Book of Common Prayer. It covers any and all public occasions and will help you focus your private prayer time really well. Now I know that the Southern Baptist Convention would just keel over dead at the suggestion of using a prayer book. However, it would not be a bad thing to actually teach a course in public praying to prevent some if not all of the things I mentioned at the start of this reply.

  4. Have a feel for the tradition where you are praying. Some denominations or ethnicities have certain expectations of a public prayer that are sometimes different than what you grew up in.

  5. I’ve also learned to not call upon a layperson to pray the invocation. That’s just too much pressure. The invocation or “pastoral prayer”, as I’ve heard it called, can be a very meaningful time of prayer for the service.

    My deacons have expressed concern that they don’t pray in public well enough. What I try to tell them is that half of the battle is already won simply because of the respect that they receive by the life that they live. In their humility they often don’t see it. But, the congregation isn’t looking to them for flowery prayers. They look to them as men of substance and action who also have a relationship with Jesus. I think it’s so very valuable that they pray in our service.

Comments are closed.