By Yeow Chin Kiong
Leading prayer is a very important responsibility, for other brethren are supposed to agree with the prayer in its entirety by affirming “Amen” (meaning “So be it” or “Let it be so”) at its conclusion. The one leading prayer should take pains to prepare the contents of his prayer, checking facts of particular matters to be touched upon and writing it down if he is not confident he can remember all he has to say. Particularly important are details of persons and happenings he will be mentioning. Needless to say, it is embarrassing to ask for the safe return of a brother who has already arrived home and is present among those assembled and being led in prayer! Also, a long pause at the pulpit to recollect the names of those needing God’s help for their medical challenges is unnerving for the brethren assembling, to say the least!
We are to pray to God the Father in the name of Jesus Christ. This is clear from Jesus’ words of instruction and hope to His disciples just before His crucifixion and His subsequent resurrection: “Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice. And your joy no one will take from you. And in that day you will ask Me nothing. Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full….. In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came forth from God.” (John 16:22-24, 26-27).Again, the Lord assured them, “… whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14).As a consequence, we should not address our prayer to Jesus Christ, but to God only. And, our prayers should always end with, “In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, we pray…” (or words with similar meaning).
In leading prayer we must take care of our pronouns, bearing in mind that we are addressing God the Father. We should refer to God, the Person addressed, in the second person singular (“Thou”, “You”, “Your”) and take care not to absentmindedly refer to Him in prayer in the third person singular pronoun (“His”, “Him”). For instance, it would be incorrect to pray, “Father, we are grateful for your guidance through Your revealed word, and are assured that the Bible as God’s word will see us through this time of trials and show us His grace”. There is a confusion of personal pronouns here. The prayer should be, “Father, we are grateful for your guidance through Your revealed word, and are assured that the Bible as Your word will see us through this time of trials and show us Your grace”.
Another mistake to avoid is the use the first person singular pronoun “I” in leading prayers. It is not “my” prayer but “ours”. A public prayer should use the first person plural, “we” throughout, as it is not the prayer of any individual but that of all who will conclude with, “Amen”. In a related matter, those who lead public prayer should, where appropriate and necessary, tell the congregation if there are specifics that he will mention in the prayer he is about to lead (or else make a somewhat detail mention of the matter within his prayer itself). Imagine the puzzlement of members of the congregation, all of whom are expected to say “Amen” to a request in public prayer that includes, “…. And grant brother ___ recovery from his illness…” when the brethren are not aware that brother ___ was unwell! “We” should know what “we” are saying “Amen” to!
As far as the immediate purpose of prayer is concerned, we must keep in mind that our prayer fits it well. A prayer preceding the Lord’s Supper is hardly the appropriate time to thank the Father for a brother’s recovery from a health challenge, being as inappropriate as requesting at the beginning of worship assembly for safe passage of a visiting preacher back to his home country after a sermon he has yet to preach!
Suffices it to add that leading a prayer is not delivering a sermon,- not even a very short one! It is not the time nor occasion to share wise thoughts, nor quote passages of scripture (with or without scripture reference). As regards the contents of the prayer and their arrangement, keep them to the time-tested “ACTS” of prayer: Adoration (praise to God), Confession (of our creaturely weaknesses and inadequacies), Thanksgiving (gratitude for what God has done) and Supplication (requests).
Leading prayers is serious business as we are addressing God the Father on His throne, speaking on behalf of all His children then assembled. Bad enough some brethren are prone by force of habit to say “amen” to anything and everything we mention in the prayer; worse it is that we are absentminded or on auto mode while leading the brethren’s thoughts! Leading prayer is a heavy moral responsibility that requires adequate preparation before one stands in front of the brethren and undivided attentiveness for the duration of the prayer. Things to avoid include mentioning wrong facts, usage of bad turns of phrases, repetition of matters and other shortcomings which naturally result from relying on memory and habit instead of having one’s prayer written down.
Bearing in mind the general matters about leading prayer touched upon before this, prayers at specific points of the assembly should be appropriate to the matter at hand. Quite obviously, it is inappropriate to mention anything besides our Lord’s sacrifice upon the Cross and its consequences in the prayer just before the congregational partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Similarly, it is awkward to express gratitude for a preacher’s sermon in the beginning prayer, that is, before he delivers it from the pulpit! And, it would be incorrect to refer only to the “Lord’s Supper” (which comprises two distinct elements,- the bread and the fruit of the vine) when we are only praying for one element, before saying a separate prayer for the second.
Typically, prayers are led to begin an assembly of the brethren (be it on the first day of the week or on any other day) and again at the end of the meeting. The ACTS framework of contents is an expedient that fits both the “beginning prayer” and its complement at the ending of the coming-together, with, of course, a request made only in the “ending prayer” that our Father be with us throughout the period “until we meet again”.
Supplication (i.e. requests) for specific matters areseldom included within the beginning and ending prayers unless they have to do with a grave matter of considerable urgency and concern. An example of a “grave matter” here would be a just-received message that a brother had been hospitalized earlier in the day. Even then, it would be good if the one leading the prayer could provide sufficient details to the assembly about the urgent matter before he begins leading the brethren’s thoughts in prayer. Needless to say, it would be good also to personally confirm the facts and the latest situation before including such specific matters in the opening or closing prayer. Also, It is somewhat inappropriate to enumerate the details of a request within a prayer, necessarily lengthening it at the expense of other requests yet to be mentioned.
For a people committed to “calling Bible things by Bible names”, all our prayers should use Bible terminology. Because of the great amount of denominational baggage of meanings attached to words like “miracle” (for any overcoming of a medical challenge or difficult situation), “pastor”(for any level of congregational leadership) and “Eucharist” (for the Lord’s Supper), they should altogether be avoided from prayers.
In leading prayer, as in everything we do, the Lord’s name,- or authority,- is the basis for Christians doing it (Colossians 3:17). Only prayers made according to the will of God will be heard by Him (1 John 5:14-15). As a consequence, what we say while leading prayers must be doctrinally correct, with the Holy Scriptures being our only guide. It is simply not right, for example, to request for “the Holy Spirit’s guidance” or for the Lord’s coming again to be “hastened” (i.e. “hurried” or caused to happen sooner than it otherwise would). The former suggests that the Holy Spirit acts directly upon the faithful today in ways other than through the scriptures which He has inspired men to record, while the latter is tantamount to desiring the Father to alter His all-knowing purpose and all-wise plan of the ages, no less. As in all of life, in sermons and Bible lessons, and no less in prayer, we must take pains to be scripturally correct.
Leading the Closing Prayer
The closing prayer ought to be one of gratitude to God for the session of assembled worship about to be concluded. As for supplication, it is appropriate to request for the Father’s care upon brethren and guests alike for the rest of the days ahead until,- if it is His will,- the brethren are assembled again. Request, too, that the non-Christians in the midst of the assembly might have opportunity to consider the message of salvation as it applies to each of them personally.
As in the opening prayer, only the most urgent prayers for individuals mentioned by name should be included in the closing prayer. And, also as in the opening prayer, it would be good to be guided by a written prayer prepared beforehand, avoiding the awkwardness of forgetfulness while leading the assembly in prayer.
Scripture Reading before the Sermon
In many congregations, the delivery of the Sunday sermon is preceded by a reading of a portion of scripture. The passage on a particular Lord’s Day may be one of a series of on-going readings from entire books of the Bible or a portion of a book (like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 to 7). Or, the verses read might be directly related to the sermon topic. It is useful to those assembled,- especially non-Christians and visiting brethren,- for the scripture reader to mention which it is,- a scheduled reading or a passage which introduces the sermon.
As with all quoting of the text of God’s word from the pulpit, the scriptures should be read correctly and clearly, and not rushed through. As in the leading of prayers, a hurried reading from the pulpit gives the impression that the reader just wants to get it over with. Whatever its length, every passage of scripture is a serious communication from God which must be handled aright (2 Timothy 2:15) and delivered respectfully.
Read from the Bible version which the entire congregation has agreed to use, so that the brethren can read along with you. It is customary to mention the scripture reference (the book, chapter and verse) before beginning the reading of the text. It may be necessary to repeat mentioning the reference if it appears that some of the assembly are having a problem turning to the text.
If the text relates to the sermon-topic, some words of introduction to the passage and its connection to the sermon may be useful, especially if the passage is one not often used or studied (such as verses from the historical books of the Old Testaments or verses which mention less familiar persons or places). Avoid, however, spending an inordinate amount of time explaining the background to the text; that is the job of the preacher.
If the scripture reading is of a lengthy, multi-versed passage, it makes for smooth, uninterrupted reading if no reference is made to the verse number intermittently. Clear reading makes it easy for the brethren to follow through a passage, whatever its length.