“Would you pray for us?”
When you are asked that question, how does it make you feel? Are you scared? Excited? Perhaps you don’t know what to say? Public prayer is an interesting thing. We know that we should pray together, but so often we aren’t sure what to do or say, and so we feel nervous that we are going to get things wrong.
One of the problems that we encounter when we don’t know what to say and/or are feeling nervous is that we try to imitate others and sound big and important in our prayer. We are in front of other people and we are talking to God. Some of us may feel that it is awkward enough to talk to God in private, never mind in a crowd. I find that particularly if we are not the first person to pray in a group or if we are praying with people who are older or whom we consider to be “more spiritual” than us, we land up putting on a show.
I am a big fan of using people as examples to make things more practical and understandable. Take a look at what is said about the Pharisees in the book of Matthew.
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of people, to be seen by them. Otherwise you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” – Matthew 6:1
“Whenever you pray you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people.” – Matthew 6:4a
“When you pray, don’t babble like the idolaters, since they imagine they will be heard by their many words. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask Him” – Matthew 6:7-8
Now some people use the verses above, as well as the ones that surround them in Matthew 6 to argue that we shouldn’t pray in public. I disagree. I think this is more about the attitude we have in praying. If you look at the words I have bolded in the above verses, you will see that I’m making two points.
- Praying in public should not be a show
- Praying in public should be purposeful
What do I mean by these statements?
1. Praying in public should not be a show
The Pharisees (or the hypocrites as they are sometimes called) were very carefully praying in such a way as to make themselves look good and important and righteousness. They were praying in a “look at me” fashion. Their focus was more on how they sounded and how they looked than it was about talking to God.
I personally think this relates very well to a modern context. When I hear people praying in a public setting, they tend to use words that they would never use if they were just talking to me, or even if they were making a public speech. I have heard everything from using different variations for the name of God every few words, to making big and bold sentences with words that the average non-theologian does not know.
Now some people just like using big words, and if you’re one of those people, that’s pretty cool. Others seem to feel the need to talk in a way that shows their righteousness. I don’t believe that there is an intentional pridefulness in their prayers, but I do think that they are trying to show themselves as worthy to pray. There is a felt need to sound more spiritual and more holy than we would normally sound when we are praying in front of other people.
One problem with this is that the person praying loses their focus. Their prayer becomes something of a show and something that they are scared to mess up, when really it should just be expressing the thoughts of the group in a clear and constructive way. The other problem with this is that those listening lose their focus. If someone has to follow the elaborate prayer, they may be worrying that they will not be good enough; if someone doesn’t understand, they may be focusing on their confusion; if someone has a short attention span (which let’s admit, most of us teenagers do), you may have lost them in your long prayer. In the end, has the prayer achieved the purpose it should have? Who has gotten the glory?
2. Praying in public should be purposeful
I think when we pray among others, we start to feel a little bit awkward and so we try to say a lot more than actually needs to be said. In doing this, we end up using repetition. Interestingly enough, when I asked people about what annoys them the most when they hear others praying, the most common answer was “unnecessary repetition”.
When we pray in public we need to try and be purposeful in what we are saying. This is true whenever we are praying, but the significance here lies in helping others to pray alongside you. If you keep saying the same thing over and over again, they are going to lose their focus on God and begin thinking about whatever word, phrase, or idea you keep repeating.
It may be nerve-wracking, but we need to learn to take a deep breath and think through each and every sentence before we say it. It will help others who are listening to us, it stops us from trying to “inform” God of things as if He needed to know all the details, and it will probably even help us when we are praying because we are less likely to stumble over our words and feel embarrassed.
A Tip From AJ
I know that praying in public can seem scary. I don’t really like to be asked to pray in front of people. But remember that you are still just talking to God. Stop fearing that you are going to get it wrong and just talk to God the way you would respectfully talk to someone else.