I know; it’s scary. But follow these steps and you oughta be fine.
You might have an amazing, consistent prayer life. You might have regular deep, meaningful conversations with God.
And then, when it comes time to talk to God in front of other people—when it’s time to pray in public, lead a prayer group, say grace before a meal, or even “close out” any meeting with a short blessing—you seize up like a buck in front of a truck.
No, it doesn’t mean you suck as a Christian. It has nothing to do with how spiritual or religious you are, or aren’t. It has to do with public speaking. That’s the number one fear of all Americans. Jerry Seinfeld loves to joke that at a funeral, more people would rather be in the casket than give the eulogy. People don’t wanna pray in public, not because they suck at prayer, but because it’s another form of public speaking.
Worse: You’re already worried about messing up. You especially don’t wanna mess up a prayer. Not because God will never forgive you for it; he doesn’t care. He’s not impressed by public prayer anyway. He only cares how we really think, how we really feel, and that we’re not slipping into hypocrisy at this moment. But the prayer itself?—God’s not the one we need to worry about. And to be frank, he’s not the one we are thinking about, either. We’re more worried about the public. Who’ll be watching.
And what might they think of us?… Who are we to be leading a prayer anyway?—shouldn’t pastors do that? What if we stammer, or stumble, or don’t speak loud enough, or can’t pray long enough, or aren’t eloquent, or can’t sound holy, or say something dumb, or request something inappropriate, or slip up and curse, or drool or belch or fart or our pants suddenly fall down? What if we embarrass ourselves?
’Cause that’s really what the fear of public speaking is all about. It’s an incapacitating, irrational fear of public disapproval. It’s why shameless people, or people who don’t care what others think, or people with big egos (that’d be my category), have no trouble with public speaking. But people like them (and me) are definitely in the minority. Everybody else simply can’t speak in public. Nor pray.
But sometimes we gotta pray in public.
It happens. Whether you’re in a ministry or not (but particularly when you’re in a ministry). The time will always come where you’ll be called upon to pray publicly. It may be because everyone takes turns leading prayer, it’s now your turn, and they won’t let you pass the buck any longer. It may be because you’re the only Christian in the room—it’s you and a roomful of pagans, and somebody’s gotta pray, and the pagans don’t know how. (Or worse, one of ’em insists they do know how, and it’s just gonna be awful if you let them.) In some cases your pastor just puts you on the spot: “Hey, could you ‘close us out’ in prayer?”
Rote prayers are your friends!
I taught you about rote prayers already, right? And at the time you might’ve thought, “Psh, memorized prayers. How formal. How ritualistic. How impersonal. I’m gonna pray off the top of my head, and tell God what I feel at that moment. I don’t see any use for memorized prayers.” Well, when you’re staring at a crowd of Christians who’re waiting for you to say something to God, don’t you wish you had a good prayer memorized?
In fact lots of Christians already do. That’s why they’re so bloody eloquent when someone asks ’em to pray. Pastors included. There are hundreds of prayer books out there, with prayers for all sorts of occasions. When pastors and chaplains are new to public prayer and nervous about it, a lot of times they memorize those prayers. That’s what they pray. Sometimes obviously what they pray: I knew a chaplain who had five go-to prayers memorized, and they were the only prayers he prayed. (And when he prayed them, man alive did he mean them.) Over time, he got comfortable with the basic outline, and riffed on them a little. But the outline of every prayer still largely came from those five rote prayers.
So in your case: Put some rote prayers in you. And when it comes time to pray in public, trot ’em out.
For God’s leadership. Lord God, direct us in all our doings with your most gracious favor. Further us with your continual help, that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy name, and by thy mercy finally obtain everlasting life. In the name of Jesus, amen.
For after a lesson. Almighty God, we ask that the word we’ve heard today with our outwards ears, my through your grace be grafted inwardly in our hearts. Have them bring forth in us the fruit of good living, to the honor and praise of your name. In the name of Jesus, amen.
For prayer requests. Almighty God, who promises to hear the petitions of those who ask in your Son’s name: We beseech you to mercifully incline your ear to us, who now make our prayers and supplications to you. Grant that those things which we’ve faithfully asked, according to your will, may be effectually obtained, to the relief of our necessity, and to the setting forth of your glory. In the name of Jesus, amen.
For mercy. Merciful Father, who teaches us in your holy word that you don’t willingly afflict or grieve the children of men: Look with pity on the sorrows of your servant, for whom our prayers are offered. Remember them, Lord, in mercy. Nourish their soul with patience. Comfort them with a sense of your goodness. Lift up your countenance upon them and give him peace. In the name of Jesus, amen.
Before meals. Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub. Yea, God!
Those are adapted from prayer books. (Well okay, not that last one.) And you can track down some on your own. Whenever you hear someone give a good prayer, one which you can use on all sorts of occasions, go ahead and swipe it.
Composing your own.
Okay, sometimes the idea of someone else’s rote prayers just bugs you. ’Cause they’re not your words; they’re someone else’s.
Well that’s fine. Write your own rote prayer. Have it memorized for the times you’ll need it. Here’s your basic outline.
- Salutation, like “Dear God,” or “Lord Jesus,” or “Our great comforter, oh precious Holy Spirit,” or however you ordinarily address the deity. Don’t show off though.
- Acknowledgement. Usually folks dive into the prayer requests, but I tend to follow Jesus’s lead and admit there’s something a little bit artificial going on.
John 11.41-42 KWL
- 41 So they lifted up the stone, and Jesus lifted up his eyes.
- He said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 I know; you always hear me.
- But I say this because of the crowd around, so they’d believe you sent me.”
- ’Cause public prayer is putting on a bit of a show, and it’s not the way Jesus ideally wants us to pray.
Mt 6.5-6He prefers it private. But when we pray in public, it’s because God needs to be addressed in public, so let’s just admit this is the case, thank God for listening, and then move on to the
- Prayer requests. Might be simple, like “Thanks for the lunch,” or “Bless the missions team,” or “God, as we drive to the conference, please keep Pastor from texting and driving lest he kill us all.” You know what you need to pray for. (If there’s a bunch of requests, ’cause you’re in a prayer ministry or something, someone should’ve written them down. Read them off the list. But if there’s no such list, go with the generic, “You know everyone’s needs. We trust you with them.”)
- No padding! I know; you’re gonna be tempted to make your prayer long, because of the mistaken belief longer is better. It is not. Jesus told us not to.
Mt 6.7Follow him. Stick to the point.
- Wrap it up. “In the name of Jesus, amen.” We bring up Jesus ’cause we want it clear whom we’re praying through, and we say amen because the average person doesn’t realize the prayer is over without it. If you wanna do the “And all God’s people said…” so everyone else has to say amen with you, know your audience: Do that only in a roomful of Christians. Pagans will just stare at you funny. As they should; it’s stupid. But pastors love that shtick, ’cause it’s like a holy version of Simon Says. If you wanna do it too… well, that’s on you.
It’s also okay to grab one of those prayer-book prayers and adapt it to your circumstances. Just remember: If you pray it, mean it. Never pray anything you don’t mean.
No, memorizing prayers won’t cure your public speaking phobia. Actually, the only cure—and you’re not gonna like it—is public speaking. Get yourself in front of a crowd on a regular basis, and get over yourself. Gradually you’ll learn it’s really nothing to be afraid of: You’re not gonna embarrass yourself; and even if you do, crowds will usually dismiss it. They don’t wanna see you fail—because they’re not really thinking about you. They’re thinking about themselves: They don’t wanna be bored. (Or offended.) A stammering, nervous speaker isn’t amusing; it’s uncomfortable. A hesitant speaker, with lots of pauses and “ums,” is boring. A person who prays crazy-long prayers is
Lead prayer enough times, and you’ll grow to have no trouble leading prayer. Won’t even need your rote prayers.
In any event, this’ll get you prepared.