When you gotta pray in public.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 July 2022

You might have an amazing, consistent prayer life. You might have regular deep, meaningful conversations with God.

Nah, who are we kidding? You might suck at it. All your prayers are short little “God, can I have [IMMEDIATE DESIRE]?” whenever your wallet can’t immediately answer your requests. And maybe you remember to say grace. And yeah, when someone else at church is praying, you agree with them. That’s about it.

Then, terror of terrors, it comes time to speak to God in front of other people. The small group leader tells you, “Hey, could you lead us in prayer?” and you quickly look behind yourself to confirm the leader was totally speaking to someone else… and when it turns out nope, it’s you, you outwardly say, “Yeah no problem,” and inwardly freak out a little.

Totally normal.

No, it doesn’t mean you suck as a Christian. (Being irreligious does.) You’re praying in front of others. That’s a form of public speaking—the number one fear of all Americans, in survey after survey. People are more afraid of public speaking than death. Than death. Jerry Seinfeld once joked that at a funeral, more people would rather be in the casket than give the eulogy.

So if you’re anxious about public speaking—you don’t know what to say, or you did but as soon as you stood up you blanked out, or you’re anxious about what people might think when you mess up, or you feel you might have an utter meltdown and collapse in tears and even your own pee: This is normal. Yeah, maybe we Christians in particular oughta have more courage than this, but it’s normal to not want to speak or pray to a crowd. You’re not a freak. Relax.

Okay, so how do we deal with this? Glad you asked.

You can say no, you realize.

Here’s something not every Christian is aware we can do… but of course we can. Imagine yourself in a small group, and the leader is just wrapping things up.

LEADER. “…Wow, look at the time. Okay, we’d better end this. Thanks for coming.” [to you] “Hey, could you close us in prayer?”
YOU. “No thank you. Could you choose someone else please?”
LEADER. [surprised] “Oh. Okay, no problem. Marte, could you close us in prayer?…”

Yeah, answering “no” is gonna catch ’em by surprise, because next to nobody says no. Even if we really don’t wanna, people almost always—grudgingly—pray anyway.

Because we’d feel guilty if we didn’t. Which makes no sense. If we’re not ready, for any reason, “No” is a completely reasonable response. Guilt is not.

Part of the reason for this guilt is peer pressure: Nobody else says no. Nobody else ever says no. It’s gonna feel super weird being the only person to ever say no. People might wonder what’s wrong with us. We worry we might get some awkward phone call later from the pastor: “Hey, is everything okay? You’re not angry at God or something, are you?”

Again, these are all irrational fears. I guarantee you, apart from the initial surprise, nobody’s really gonna think anything about you asking not to pray. In fact a number of them are gonna totally respect you for saying no. Even wish they had the nerve to say no.

Of course, another of those irrational fears is where we imagine some ridiculous worst-case scenario where the group leader condemns us for not praying. “You’re saying no to prayer? You faithless heretic. Get out! Never return!” That’s not gonna happen. (And in the extremely rare case it actually does, your church is a cult, so you definitely should get out.)

The actual worst-case scenario is some small group leader who lacks spiritual maturity. Shouldn’t happen, ever, but it does. Or your leader is mature, but has a lapse in judgment.

YOU. “No thank you. Could you choose someone else please?”
LEADER. “No, I called on you. Doesn’t need to be a long prayer. Just whatever’s in your heart. Please.”

Oh, whatever’s in my heart? Okay. “Lord Jesus, could you rebuke this bully on my behalf?”

Sarcasm aside, the proper response to such a person is to repeat yourself: “No thank you. Choose someone else please.” And if they keep pressing: “No; I’m going to leave now.” Then leave. Don’t go back to that group till the leader realizes what they did wrong, and apologizes. They may not, and whoever’s in charge of them likewise may not… so yeah, you’ll have to find another church. I did say this was the worst-case scenario, y’know.

Still, if your church isn’t a cult, this isn’t gonna happen. Your small group leader is gonna be gracious and gentle enough to realize, “Oh, you’re not ready right now; of course I can choose someone else. Or do it myself.” And that’ll be that.

Rote prayers are your friends!

Another really simple option is to have a prayer already memorized. Or, if your memory sucks, have it on your phone, ready to read the instant you’re called upon.

I taught you about rote prayers already, right? 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 the 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 whenever someone asks ’em to pray. Pastors included! There are hundreds of prayer books out there, with prayers for all sorts of occasions. Whenever pastors and chaplains are new to public prayer and nervous about it, they totally memorize those prayer-book prayers. Or memorize which page to turn to. And that’s precisely what they pray.

Sometimes obviously what they pray. I knew a chaplain who had five go-to prayers memorized. 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 of these rote prayers, and riffed on them as he prayed. 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 GUIDANCE. 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.

AFTER A LESSON. God our Teacher, we ask that the word we’ve heard today with our physical ears, may through your grace be grafted inwardly in our hearts. Have your wisdom bring forth in us the fruit of good living, to the honor and praise of your name. In the name of Jesus, amen.

WHEN PEOPLE HAVE REQUESTS. Almighty God, who promises to hear the petitions of those who ask in your Son’s name: We beg you to mercifully hear us, who now make our prayers and supplications to you. Grant that the things we ask of you in faith, if they be your will, may be effectually obtained. Meet our needs, give us relief, give us hope, and show yourself strong. 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 humanity: Look with pity on the sorrows of your servants, for whom our prayers are offered. Remember them, Lord, in mercy. Nourish their souls with patience. Comfort them with a sense of your goodness. Lift up your face to see them, and give him peace. In the name of Jesus, amen.

BEFORE MEALS. Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub. Yea, God!

I adapted ’em from prayer books. (Well okay, not that last one. Learned it in Sunday school.) You can track down some others on your own. Whenever you hear someone give a really good prayer—one which you can use on all sorts of occasions—feel free to swipe it.

Or write 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. Easy solution: Write your own!

Here’s your basic outline:

  1. 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.
  2. ACKNOWLEDGMENT. Usually folks dive right into the prayer requests, but I like to follow Jesus’s lead and admit there’s something a little bit artificial going on when we’re doing public prayer.
John 11.41-42 KJV
41B And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. 42 And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.
  1. ’Cause public prayer is putting on a bit of a show, and it’s not the way Jesus ideally wants us to pray. Mt 6.5-6 He prefers we keep it in private. But when God needs to be addressed in public, let’s just admit there’s a little bit of playacting going on, thank God for listening regardless, and then move on to the
  2. REQUESTS. Which might be simple, like “Thanks for the lunch,” or “Bless the missions team,” or “As we travel, please keep Pastor from texting and driving, and killing 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.”)
  3. NO PADDING! I know; you’re gonna be tempted to make your prayer long and eloquent, because of the mistaken belief longer is better. It is not. Jesus told us not to. Mt 6.7 Stick with Jesus—and stick to the point.
  4. END IT. “In the name of Jesus, amen.” We bring up Jesus’s name ’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 silly. But pastors love that shtick, ’cause it’s like a holy version of Simon Says. If you wanna do it too… fine. Silliness doesn’t hurt.

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 a public speaking phobia. Actually, the only cure—and you’re not gonna like it—is public speaking. Lots and lots of it! 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. Even if you do, crowds will usually dismiss it. They don’t wanna see you fail… and to be honest, they’re not really thinking about you anyway. People are largely only 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 SO BORING. Don’t be any of those people, and you’ll do fine.

Lead prayer enough times, and you’ll grow to have no trouble leading prayer. Won’t even need your rote prayers.

In any event, all this advice’ll get you prepared.