Spurgeon was once asked what he would do if forced to give up either the sermon or the pastoral prayer. His answer was the sermon would just have to go. Ministers might keep this priority in mind before they turn over the prayers of the church to others, even ruling elders, who by gifts and calling are not theologically, biblically, or rhetorically equipped for the task. Perhaps only a diminished sense of the value of public prayer led us to imagine they might be otherwise.
If we are honest, most of us would have to admit that the public prayers of our church are often endured rather than enjoyed. The various prayers we hear week by week can be the low points in our public services. Whereas sermons are well-ordered, well-expressed, and delivered with urgency, the prayers are often the opposite: disordered, poorly phrased, carelessly arranged, trite, predictable, and surprisingly limited in range, neglecting whole categories of concern. The sermon may be compelling; the prayers are not. The sermon may be fervent; the prayers are in monotone and tedious. Public prayer today is in a sorry condition.
What can be done? Let me offer several suggestions that may help us first to think correctly about public prayer and then to start delivering those prayers in a way that will edify the congregation.
Public prayer needs to be understood by the minister of the church as a form of public speech. Like the sermon, it is meant to edify the congregation. A well-intended but false piety will limit the audience of one’s prayers to God alone. This begs to be corrected. Like private prayer, public prayer is addressed to God. Unlike private prayer, it is delivered in the hearing of the congregation. Consequently, public prayer should be calculated to bless and establish the congregation. Whatever else 1 Corinthians 14 teaches, the Apostle Paul insists that songs and prayers in public worship must edify the church (1 Cor. 14:13–19). The older pastoral theologies (ones authored by, for example, Fairburn, Murphy, Porter, Shedd, and Spurgeon) and preaching manuals (ones authored by, for example, Doddridge, Dabney, Dale, Beecher, and Broadus) include public prayer in their treatment of preaching. Ministers should be as careful to edify their listeners in their public prayer as in their public preaching.
Much public prayer seems to be delivered spontaneously, meaning haphazardly, without forethought or order; one sentence seems to follow another randomly, without logic or meaningful connection. Disorder, however, is no more effective in praying than in preaching. Listeners shouldn’t be wondering, “Where is he going?” If the congregation is to “hang” with the preacher, if it is to pray with him and be edified, some thematic order is necessary.
It helps if those who lead in public prayer ask “What kind of prayer is this?” Is it a prayer of praise? Then stick to praise, developing it thematically from the attributes and works of God. Is it a prayer of confession? Of thanksgiving? Of intercession? Of illumination? Or is it a benediction? Develop the prayer within the genre, rather than bouncing from one genre to the next so that all the prayers end up sounding alike. If the prayer combines genres, as is the case with the “pastoral prayer,” then progress systematically from confession of sin to the five-fold intercessions for: the sanctification of the saints; the church and its ministry; the sick; the civil authorities; and Christian mission around the world. Order in public prayer will help the congregation to follow along, to not be distracted by disorder, and consequently to be edified.