In 2012, researchers at the University of Nebraska-Omaha asked 815 college students to identify their three greatest fears. Far more than they feared heights, flying, deep water, and even death, the students feared “speaking before a group.”
If public speaking is the general population’s greatest fear, public praying very well may be its Christian equivalent. And this fear is not restricted to ordinarily timid people. Even leaders sometimes have trouble leading in prayer.
Stonewall Jackson’s Story
According to S.C. Gwynne’s Rebel Yell, Stonewall Jackson’s pastor once urged more congregation members to lead in prayer during the church prayer meeting. Afterward, Jackson went to see him, explaining to the pastor his fear of praying publicly. “But,” Jackson said, “if you think it my duty, then I shall waive my reluctance and make the effort to lead in prayer, however painful it might be.”
At the next meeting, the pastor called on Jackson. His prayer was “faltering, agonizing, [and] cringe-inducing.” For several weeks, the pastor didn’t ask him to pray again, not wanting to subject Jackson to what was obviously an ordeal.
So Jackson went back to see him. “My comfort or discomfort is not the question,” he protested. “If it is my duty to lead in prayer, then I must persevere in it until I learn to do it aright, and I wish you to discard all consideration for my feelings.” From then on, Jackson doggedly continued to lead in prayer, and, though Gwynne reports that he was never eloquent, he managed to become competent.
When it comes to praying out loud in a group, we must begin where Jackson did. In order to gain competence in public prayer, we have to know what we are doing and be convinced that it is an opportunity for our joy and the good of others. Only then will we be constrained to practice until we “learn to do it aright.”
What We Do
What are we doing when we pray publicly? Whether we are praying at a church prayer meeting, a time of family worship with our children, or a gathering at the bedside of a sick and suffering Christian sister, our task is to express to God the unified desire of everyone in the room. The one who prays out loud is the mouthpiece, speaking on behalf of the group, and he is the leader, bringing everyone’s hearts together to the Throne of Grace.
In a group, the prayer of one person becomes the prayer of every person. When I lead in prayer, it is not my job to impress the other people. I don’t have to wow them with my eloquence or amaze them with my theology. I don’t have to prove my spiritual stamina with long prayers or my spiritual brokenness with short ones. It’s not about me.
Instead, I have the privilege of praying aloud while my brothers and sisters stand with me, praying the same thing in their hearts.
Acts 4:24 tells us that the early church at prayer “raised their voice to God with one accord” (NKJV). From the initial “Heavenly Father” to the concluding “in Jesus’s name, amen” a public prayer is the united supplication of everyone.
Why We Should
Stonewall Jackson began to pray publicly because he was convinced that it was his duty. This same duty — and opportunity — belongs to us. If you are a pastor or an elder, you are called to pray aloud with your church (Acts 6:4). If you are a mother or a father, you are called to pray aloud with your children (Deuteronomy 6:6–7). If you are a child, you are called to pray aloud with your friends (Psalm 8:2, Matthew 21:15–16). If you are a member of Christ’s church, there will come a time when — ready or not — you will be called to pray aloud with a suffering brother or sister (James 5:16). If the Lord has opened your lips, you are called to pray out loud with someone.
But beyond simply seeing our audible prayer as a duty, we should also see it as our privilege and a valuable means of serving one another — even as a joy. When we pray together, we encourage one another by our faith, we teach one other by our theology, we love one other by our concern, and we point one another to the God who tenderly receives the feeble cries of his beloved children.
How We Can
So how can we waive our reluctance and make the effort to pray aloud? Here are a few simple bullets to get you started:
Pray for God’s help. When you know you will have an opportunity to lead others in prayer, pray ahead of time that God would give you the ability to do it clearly and helpfully.
Resolve to pray. Unless you intend to pray, you likely never will. The silent gaps at prayer meeting will quickly slip away, and your hesitation will pass the privilege to someone else. Instead, determine beforehand that you will pray aloud if given the chance.
Consider what you will pray. Think beforehand about what thanksgiving, what confession, or what request is the concern of the group. Remember, you are expressing what you hope to be the united desire of everyone.
Consider how you will pray. Search God’s word to see what confidence you have in offering that particular prayer. Does God promise to give his Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13)? Then ask God to fulfill his promise. Does God show his inclination to heal (James 5:14–15)? Then ask for it on the basis of that declaration. Does God tell us to pray for something (as in Matthew 9:38)? Then pray boldly, bringing his command before his throne.
Remember that Jesus is praying too. In corporate prayer, we have the assurance of Christ’s presence (Matthew 18:20) and the promise of his intercession (Hebrews 7:25). A Christian never — never! — prays alone.
Just pray. John Owen memorably said that “the prayers of the [weakest] saints may be useful to the greatest apostle.” We serve a God who hears the prayers of widows and orphans, who welcomes the hosannas of little children, and who uses them all to accomplish his great purposes.
Brothers and sisters, let us pray.