Public prayers and the art of conversation

There is much more to learn about one of the most challenging tasks in corporate worship.

By Mike Greer

Real conversation is an art form and requires a host of honed skills. We are all painfully aware of how rare thoughtful and meaningful conversations are these days. Most of us have learned that when conversing in public it is best to keep the focus of our conversation on the weather or on sports. Even then we know that we should be careful when we are tempted to bring up polarizing issues like global warming and financial compensation for college athletes.

Many of us lament the fact that genuine dialogue has been replaced by argumentation, pontification, accusation, denigration and sometimes even condemnation. We are often troubled by the realization that in this polarized culture we are frequently talking at one another rather than to one another.

There may be some ways in which these realities affect our worship life as well. As a retired Baptist minister I now feel it is relatively safe to share one of my pet peeves about public worship. Here I am addressing my fellow pastors. In my experience many preachers don’t seem to know the difference between a sermon and a public prayer. When ministers begin prayer with, “Lord, you know that ….” and then revisit their sermon outline, they invariably lose me. At that “you know” moment I always say to myself, “Of course God knows. God knows everything.”

When it is obvious that the preacher is still talking to me and my fellow worshippers in his or her prayer, I am extremely uncomfortable. I know that I am not worthy to be the addressee of any prayer. I would suggest that the period of pastoral prayer is not just a way to summarize, to finalize the sermon or even a means to transition from the sermon to a response time. It is an opportunity to usher the congregation into an intimate conversation with the living Lord.

I have learned from gifted pastors and lay worship leaders numerous invaluable lessons about leading in public prayers. I have learned that public prayers ought to contain an abundance of sincere expressions of gratitude to God. I have learned that our worship should sometimes include a moment of silence so that together we may listen for the Spirit’s still, small voice, even if this makes for bad TV. I have learned that public prayers can assist the congregation in its need to confess and to find forgiveness in times of communal failure.

I have learned that prayer can remind us to be open to the gift of divine healing in times of congregational grief over significant losses. I have learned that important congregational decisions must always be accompanied by honest conversations that include sincere congregational conversations with God. I have learned that we should specifically pray for the world of people that is beyond our own parochial concerns. In doing so we are protected from a narcissistic form of faith that fails to focus upon the larger universal concerns of our compassionate Redeemer. I have learned that public prayers may be spontaneous or they may be written down and well thought out ahead of time.

In defense of all who dare to undertake this daunting sacred task of leading public prayers, the responsibility of leading in public prayer is the most challenging assignment that there is in corporate worship. I rarely feel that I have succeeded when asked to be a guide in this essential aspect of worship. I always have a sense that there is much more to learn about doing this worship assignment well. I am comforted by the reminder that Jesus was also reluctant to lead in public prayers. When pressed by his disciples he relented and gave them a model prayer.

I would like to invite you to use the comment forum found below to share some of your thoughts about leading public prayers. I have a feeling that we all, clergy and laity alike, have much to learn from one another in a conversation about what we have discovered in our efforts to lead and to participate in communal conversations with God.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.