Praying in public is hard. Praying in public week after week is very hard. Praying in public week after week in a fresh and edifying way is almost impossible. Ask any pastor. Preaching is easy, in comparison. Here are some things I’ve found helpful:
1. Slow down: You don’t need to speak like Sean Hannity. Slowing down helps you think before you speak. “Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and you upon earth: therefore let your words be few” (Eccl. 5:2). Better to say less and mean it, than to fill the prayer with meaningless cliches and well-worn phrases. (Bonus point: the slower you speak, the less words you need to find!).
2. Pause: When you speak to your wife, you probably do pause (I hope) from time to time between sentences. And when you transition from one subject to another, you probably take at least a small breath in between. Why not do this also in prayer? Those praying with you will appreciate the time to reflect on what you’ve said and to pray it on heavenwards themselves before you move on.
3. Use God’s name carefully: Many Christians, especially older Christians, find it painful to hear “Lord” or “Father God” used as the capital letter, comma, semi-colon, and full stop of every sentence in a prayer. It is something young Christians and young pastors are prone to default to, unthinkingly, as they understandably struggle for words in public prayer. Some years ago, a kind older Christian pointed out my own tendency to do this. As soon as it was pointed out to me, I was horrified at the careless and thoughtless way I was using God’s name. I was most certainly breaking the third commandment. Once I started to slow down and pause more, I did this much less.
4. Vary your use of God’s name: We have many to choose from: Father, Lord, God, Almighty, Sovereign, King, Shepherd, Rock, Most High, Jehovah, etc. Find a book on all the names of God and freshen your prayers by selecting a few to use in prayer.
5. Be specific: I still use the well-worn ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) to guide many of my prayers (both in private and public). Sometimes I vary the order, often depending on what has just been sung. But within each of these four divisions, I would suggest being as specific as possible. If you stick with general phrases of adoration, confession, etc., then you will soon sound samey. Avoid that by picking one attribute or name of God to worship Him with. Pick one of the ten commandments and confess sin in relation to it. Pick one area of life (children, marriages, work, health) to thank God for. Same goes for supplication.
6. Don’t feel you have to cover every base every week: You do not need to pray for the same people every week, or the same groups of people every week. That’s a sure fire way to predictable prayers. God knows our needs and we don’t need to remind Him every week.
7. Memorize a verse of Scripture: It’s amazing how even one verse of Scripture can re-vitalize our prayers as we use it to worship God, plead His promises, etc. A prayer quoting Scripture after Scripture is not usually a prayer. But to use one verse in this way can be edifying.
8. Remember neglected groups: The bereaved, the sick, the old, the persecuted are part of prayer’s staple diet. But there are other groups, equally needy, yet often forgotten. Pray for the unemployed, the stay-at-home moms, special needs children, the carers (for special needs children and elderly parents), single men and women, etc.
9. Internationalize your prayers: I’m sure we all pray for “world missions” and for the “persecuted throughout the world.” But what about picking one nation from time to time. Find out about the missions there, or the details of the persecution, and then pray for that nation for a week or maybe for a few weeks.
10. Start in private: If your private prayers are stale, your public prayers will smell moldy too. Try to find a time and place where you can pray out loud (not loudly!). I find that makes me more lively and engaged in my prayers. If I just pray silently, it is all too easy to drift off, mumble on, and end up just talking with myself. Praying out loud in private will help you to detect bad habits before you go out to pray in public. And make sure you are not praying for longer in public than you ever do in private.