When You Pray...: Some questions to consider before leading God's people in prayer

It's happened. YouVe been asked by the worship team or pastor of your church to lead in prayer in a worship service or other public meeting. "Me?" you think to yourself, your heart pounding. "Pray in front of all those people? Isn't that the pastor's job?"

Don't worry Your reaction is not unusual. Most people are a little nervous about the idea of praying in public. Once you've calmed down and had a chance to think about this challenge, though, you actually may begin to view it as a great opportunity—even a privilege. Leading God's people in prayer will allow you to share in Christ's office of priest, and the biblical teaching of the priesthood of believers has always been a core doctrine in the life of the church. Of course you exercise that office whenever you come to God in prayer on behalf of others. But in a worship service or other gathering of believers, you become a leader of the royal priesthood when you bring God's people to the throne of grace.

As you prepare for this new opportunity, it may be helpful to ask yourself some of the following questions about prayer and, using your answers, to write out your prayer before the service or meeting. [See "Pray It Write," p. 3.]


Who Is Praying?

YouVe been talking to God in prayer for as long as you've been a believer, perhaps longer. And you've prayed for others in your family or in your network of relationships. Does anything change when you lead in public prayer?

Yes. For one thing, the pronouns. When you are praying in a private setting, you use the singular "I" as you address your praise and needs to God. But as leader in prayer, you become the spokesperson and priest for the congregation or the group. You're not merely an individual praying for the group now, but a participant, praying with them. So the personal pronoun becomes plural and changes to "we" and "us" and "our." You're bringing the whole group before God, so speak as part of a group of petitioners.

How Do I Speak?

Through prayer, God invites us into a conversation, a dialogue. Your tone of voice ought to be respectful—after all, this isn't just any friend you're talking to. But you don't have to speak with a "holy tone," or with a voice that sounds forced or unnatural. Use your own voice, the tone you'd use when talking to a special, trusted friend who you know wants to hear you and speak to you.

It's very unlikely that you would repeat the same words over and over again in a conversation with a friend. So avoid repetition in your prayer as well. Phrases like "we just pray" included in almost every sentence, not only lack specific meaning, but also can be distracting to those you are leading. And a repetitive use of one of God's names—"Jesus" or "Lord" or even "Father"—will sound more like a form of punctuation than natural address. How often does your best friend need to have his or her name mentioned before he or she knows who you're talking to? Remember Jesus' warning and promise about prayer in Matthew 6:7-8:

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

If a more formal use of language, complete with "thees" and "thous," is all you've ever used in prayer, it might be best not to make a radical change in your style just before you pray in public. However, make sure your grammar and the other words you use fit that style. It's difficult to follow a prayer in which the person keeps switching back and forth, mixing the formal with the more contemporary and informal.

If you're at all open to a change, it might be helpful to begin using common pronouns and grammar in your private prayers.It may take some time before you're comfortable praying that way in public. But it might well be worth the effort. Remember that young people, and especially new believers, are probably going to be praying with you and that those older, more formal patterns of speech are completely foreign to them. You want to lead all of God's people in your prayer.

To Whom Do I Pray?

Whom are you addressing when you pray? Answering this question takes a little more thought than just saying, "God." In your public prayer, your forms of address ought to reflect biblical teachings about prayer. Should you direct your prayers to the Lord? To Jesus? To God the Father? To the Spirit? The church's greater awareness of the Holy Spirit's work in recent years has led some to pray directly to the Spirit. Others, in a desire to be more personal in prayer, direct their petitions and praise to Jesus the Son. Is there a biblically correct way to address God?

The Bible supplies no hard and fast rules for how we address God in our prayers. However, we can make some simple observations that may be helpful:

  • Prayers spoken specifically to Jesus are very infrequent in the Bible (Acts 7:59; Rev. 22:20), even if you count Saul's question to Jesus at his conversion (Acts 9:5) and Ananias's response to Jesus (v. 10).
  • The Holy Spirit is never specifically addressed in prayer in the Bible.
  • Yet nowhere does Scripture say that we may not pray to Jesus or to the Holy Spirit.

It may be helpful to take a look at a few other biblical passages as well. In John 14 through 16, Jesus says that the Spirit will be sent to believers from the Father to testify to Jesus, and that the Spirit will work in the minds of believers to teach them, remind them, and guide them. No mention is made of praying to the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells his disciples that they may pray to him (14:14), and he will answer. But in 16:23, he seems to indicate that their prayers, from that point on, should be directed to God the Father in the name of Jesus (see also Eph. 5:20; Col. 3:17). When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray (Matt. 6:9; Luke 11:2), he replied, "When you pray, say: '(Our) Father....'"

In Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6, Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit helps us cry out to "Abba, Father." Paul also teaches in Ephesians 6:18 that our prayers should be "in the Spirit," directed and instructed by him and even motivated by the Spirit's power. Together, these teachings have formed the traditional Reformed way of addressing God in prayer—to the Father, thmugh or in the name of the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. The Westminster Larger Catechism tells us that we are to pray "unto God, in the name of Christ, by the help of his Spirit" (Q&A 178).

Does this mean you should not lead others in prayer directly to the Holy Spirit or to Jesus the Son? After all, a fair number of our hymns—especially those about the Holy Spirit—are prayers sung to the second or third persons of the Trinity. Leon Morris, a trustworthy New Testament scholar, states that

some object to the idea of praying to
Christ in His own name, but there is
good Old Testament precedent for this in
that the Father is appealed to 'for his [the
Father's] names sake!"

The New International Commentary on the Nezu Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), p. 647

Morris cites Psalm 25:11 and Psalm 79:9 as examples. Petitions or praise that are spoken to either the Son or the Spirit because of their specific work or their person might be very appropriate. Morris adds two helpful notes. First, he reminds us that "for Christians, prayer is normally addressed to the Father in the name of the Son," and that such prayer is all- prevailing. Second, he states that any time we approach God in prayer, no matter which person is addressed, we do so "on the basis of the Son's atoning work" (p. 708). Jesus' death is the reason we pray, and because of his resurrection and reign, we can be sure that God hears and will answer.

A Special Father?

Another question to ask at this point: Are there people in the congregation or group for whom the term "Father" will be difficult and/or distracting because of its connotations? To speak of God as our Father is viewed as sexist by some believers who see it as an instance in which male-dominant language is allowed. Others, like a number of women in the congregation I serve, hear the name "Father" and immediately think of their own fathers who physically or sexually abused them. Such thoughts or ideas attached to the name Father will cause these people to be distracted from prayer or even scandalized by the prayer unless we lead with sensitivity.

As prayer leader, I often attach modifiers to the Father's name when I pray in the worship service. I may refer to God as the shepherding Father, the gentle or loving Father, or the perfect Father.

Addressing God as "bur Father" in prayer can bring healing to those who suffer the ravages of a human father's power plays or abuse. But such healing will require consistent and thought-out

care and love both before you speak and as you pray.

Similar objections have been raised against addressing God or even Jesus as "Lord." The term may connote misused or abusive power to some people. But eliminating the word from our prayers would nullify the New Testament recognition of Jesus as "Lord."

You will never be aware of every hurt, especially those hidden in the hearts and minds of the group. But again, be sensitive as you speak to God—especially as you are speaking on behalf of all the people who are gathered.

What Do I Pray For?

There is a mnemonic device that many people have found useful in organizing the content of their prayers. It's the word ACTS, and the letters stand for

  • Adoration—giving praise to God;
  • Confession—being open about our sin before God and seeking forgiveness;

  • Thanksgiving—showing our gratitude to God for his gifts; and
  • Supplication—making our needs and the needs of others known to God.

Your use of this device will be shaped by the specific needs of the group you are leading.

As leader in prayer, your role is that of priest and intercessor, not teacher. Resist the temptation to instruct people now that you think you have their undivided attention! Prayer may not be manipulation of God's people. Along the same line, be natural about expressing your emotions in your prayer. Certain subjects or needs may call for shared anguish or great joy. But tricking or forcing people into experiencing an emotion is off-limits for a priest of God.


Do It All in Jesus' Name

Hopefully with some time to think and plan, you can say "yes" to the challenge of the worship team and lead your congregation in prayer. If you do, you can be sure they will all be praying for you, too! Just remember to "do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Col. 3:17).


Reformed Worship 31 © March 1994, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.