A Reformation of Public Prayer for Evangelicals
I suggested earlier that some of what happens in public prayer among evangelicals is a bit amiss. It’s not necessarily evil or a terrible travesty that must be abolished lest we all find ourselves dragged down by demonic spirits. It’s just driven by things that aren’t quite what they ought to be in the long run, I think. Frequent insertions of “just” or titles for God or other such things may be indicative of fear and anxiety driving our prayers, and while the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, I’m not sure it’s the Lord we’re afraid of in such situations.
What then are we afraid of? Mark Summers in his comment hit on one possibility: the fear of silence. Silence does seem to make evangelicals uncomfortable in groups. Silence creates a space where we may not know exactly what it is we’re supposed to be doing, and the lack of structure is frightening to many. That space also allows for unpleasant emotions to rise up without distraction, and American culture is all about distracting away the bad feelings (or bad anything). No one wants to feel those negative emotions, so we fill the space with words. I’m reminded of Jesus’ admonition that we not pray just throwing out many words (Matt. 6:7). I think we unintentionally do just that. The possibility of embarrassing oneself or being chastised for some mistake in front of a crowd is terrifying to some, which means fear soars in public prayer, and with fear can come other emotions along with them. The prayer experience, then, becomes emotionally charged, and with that much energy in us, it’s got to go somewhere. All this leads to a constant stream of highly emotional prayer with the insertion of safe words like “just” or “Lord” and so on.
To deal with this, I think one needs first to recognize the emotions that are rising up when one prays in public. Am I scared when I get up to pray? I should acknowledge that, if not to the crowd, then at least in my heart with the Spirit. Then, having confessed at least to God what is happening in the heart, there is a greater cooperation with the comforting work of the Spirit.
The acknowledgment of space and silence in prayer being okay may also be warranted, both to oneself and to the group. With this, it might even be wise to specifically make space at the beginning to collect oneself and offer oneself to God before the prayer begins aloud. While this isn’t guaranteed to make all the nerves disappear, it offers God a place to meet you (and perhaps the group as well) and may help to focus the words that follow.
Prayer is listed among numerous groupings of spiritual disciplines, and any discipline takes practice. Perhaps public prayer, then, would be aided by practice, even if it’s not necessarily in public. It may help if we were to take time to speak prayers aloud to God as if we were in front of a crowd, even if the crowd isn’t there. This can help train the mind, body, and emotions to be more familiar with what comes.
Already we take our cue of what prayers should be like from those praying. But there is a rich tapestry of prayers that have been going on for thousands of years. Yet we do not generally study these prayers. At the very least, evangelicals could study the Psalms and see what kinds of prayers were being spoken in services in Old Testament times. In addition, there are thousands of prayers that are available from saints who have gone ahead of us in the years since the resurrection of Christ. The church is full of prayers of saints that we may study and grow comfortable with. We do not generally study how to pray. Even though we have classes on how to evangelize, preach, teach, study, etc. Is it not sensible that we should find models of prayer and study those as well? Then, with these prayers, often written by powerful theologians and thinkers and men and women who have meditated on and steeped much of their lives in the presence of Christ, we may find new and deep ideas and sentiments to carry before the Lord and present to Him in the presence of others. While there is nothing wrong with throwing up prayers in the spur of the moment and including whatever comes to mind at any given instant (I often end up praying about the dog before meals at home), the inclusion of others’ wisdom and experience may enrich what we say greatly and offer pearls to God, those around us, and our own souls.
I think the first step, however, beyond acknowledging and dealing with our fears and studying the prayers of those who have gone before us, we need to have an intention towards making public prayer a space that is more than just a time-filler for people to change sheet music worship or a formality used to start and end meetings. What might happen if we truly intended for those prayers to be spaces where the Lord were free to move in us and through us to impact or change hearts?
I must admit that this post feels a little bit gooey to me in some ways, but I hope the idea still manages to work its way through. What if we took public prayer seriously as a central facet of our worship and gatherings and worked at it so that God might use it powerfully? What if we studied prayer and were honest about how we feel about it? What might God do with it? And with us?