Helpful principles for writing public prayers

Begin with Christ

How does one best begin writing? Start with a posture of humility. Light a candle. Seek the mind of Christ. Pray to be ushered into the mystery of co-creating with God, a grace-filled process surpassing our understanding. Acknowledge this as a holy privilege to which God has called us.

We need an initial idea. Perhaps we feel richly blessed, so we start there. Perhaps a current event dominates the weekly news, and we begin there. Sometimes a neighbor is struggling with depression, a loved one is seriously ill, a dear friend dies, and we find it hard to think about anything else. Sometimes we don’t have a clue. A beginning point is imperative.

All too often we enter the composition process feeling uncertain where to start. It helps to offer a prayer something like this:

Jesus, help me know where to start. Help me remember my experiences of this week and the insights You’ve given me. Help me imagine myself standing before Your altar table, lifting to You the joys and concerns of the ones I’ve encountered. Put me in touch again with their heartaches, their happiness. Reveal to me what You would have me say on their behalf. Please, Holy Spirit, show me the way.

We receive great comfort in remembering we never craft our pastoral prayers alone. We have a Helpmate (John 14:16-17, 26), an Advocate when we don’t know what to pray.

When we labor diligently on our prayers, occasionally following worship someone will express appreciation. We are wise to simply smile and quietly thank them. We can take appropriate pride in the results of our labor, all the time remembering it was not our own doing. Mostly we are proud of God who provided every word that came out of our mouths and who promised they would not return empty (Isa 55:11). We are proud of God who refuses to be God apart from us, who uses us to continue creating something out of nothing (John 14:12). What amazing grace! And most amazing of all is that we get to be part of it!

Thank You, O God, for being You, and for loving us the way You do. Make us who lead others in prayer worthy not only of praying to You, but also for Your daughters and sons. Keep speaking. We’ll keep listening. Keep giving us Your words of grace and truth, accomplishing far more than we could ask or imagine.

Write Out the Prayer

Coming up with prayers is a labor of love. It doesn’t always come easily, and it can seem to take too long. Some days we think, “I don’t have time to write out my prayer. I’ll just wing it and trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” Yes, Jesus did counsel us not to worry beforehand about our words when called upon to speak publicly, that God’s spirit would provide (Mark 13:11). But he was talking about crisis situations demanding an immediate proclamation of the gospel. Normally we are not under such pressure. We have time to reflect and choose words carefully.

We want to present the very best expressions possible, demonstrating our love of God with heart, soul, strength, and mind! Why would we settle for less? This requires deliberate, thorough preparation. To write out a prayer ahead of time doesn’t mean we cannot still deliver it from memory. But the advanced groundwork may well produce a prayer of greater excellence and beauty.

Writing our prayer in advance helps keep us within appropriate time limitations whether in worship, during a meeting, or at a hospital bedside. It also gives us the assurance we won’t forget something we really want to say. Making time to write a priority is well worth our effort.

Know Your Goal

Before you begin, you must know why you’re doing what you’re doing. There are so many ways that a prayer time can be used. Keep your goal in mind to remain focused and deliberate. You’ll waste less time and reach a more satisfying conclusion this way.

It is most useful to take time with this question yourself, to determine what you must accomplish by leading your community in prayer, especially if it is a role that you will be occupying for any length of time, or with regulaiity. Some questions to consider are: Why is a prayer time included in your worship service at all? and What do you feel God is calling you to do with this opportunity?

After some consideration, your answers to these questions will guide you in moments when you are stuck, moments where you are forced to make dif- ficult decisions about what to include or not include. Your thoughtful preparation will ultimately help your congregation feel led with clear direction. In any case, no matter what your goal is, a few things are certain. Your goal is not to sit on a high horse of religiosity and show your community how holy you are. Your goal is not to shame or guilt others through prayer. You goal is not to preach a mini-sermon. Your goal is not to bring an agenda and manipulate others to fall in line with the leader. Your goal is never to misrepresent God or create a stumbling block in someone else’s faith life.

Here’s something to consider as part of your discernment: the leader of public prayer facilitates a conversation between the group and God. You are tasked with the remarkable privilege of giving voice to those praying along with you.

So, what is your goal as the one offering a public prayer on behalf of a gathered group? One possible response is: Your goal as a prayer leader is to facilitate a conversation between the group and God. Your goal is to help your community put words to what they are feeling about their faith life. Maybe you help them move forward by offering a bit of a challenge, or by voicing a thought or phrase that creates the space for a thoughtful pause. A little nudging, from time to time, is helpful.

More often than not, especially in the context of a worship service, your goal is to represent the community to God, lifting the prayers of the people. You offer to God words that convey the thoughts and feelings of the people who are gathered, their burdens and joys. When our pastoral prayers achieve this goal, congregants are able to connect with God more fully. They might think to themselves, “I have been feeling that exact thing, but I didn’t know how to express it to God!” What an opportunity we have to facilitate people’s honest self-expression to God, allowing them to voice lament, doubt, or fear.

In Life Together, the Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote about the importance of one person praying for others in Christian community:

It is his [her] responsibility to pray for the fellowship. So he will have to share the daily life of the fellowship; he must know the cares, the needs, the joys and thanksgivings, the petitions and hopes of the others. Their work and everything they bring with them must not be unknown to him. He prays as a brother among brothers. It will require practice and watchfulness, if he is not to confuse his own heart with the heart of the fellowship, if he is really to be guided solely by his responsibility to pray for the fellowship.[1]

Another possible response is: your goal as a prayer leader is to help prepare the congregation to hear the message of the sermon or experience the remaining elements of the worship service. Perhaps a confession is necessary, or perhaps the congregation can’t make room for more information or teaching until they know God has heard and received whatever concerns they walked into the sanctuary carrying. The prayer, then, is an opportunity to release and surrender those burdens and create space in the spirit for whatever is to be received by later elements of worship. In this situation, you think of the prayer as one element of a larger worship arc. That arc is heading in a particular direction and the prayer plays a specific role in building the desired experience throughout the hour of corporate worship.

It is important to remember that each different prayer assignment has its own context. The group’s needs and your goal for leading them in prayer will require revaluation. Each time you sit down before an open journal or a blank document to craft a prayer is a chance to pause, reflect, and remember why you are leading this community in prayer.

Imagine God’s Perspective

We must keep the needs of our hearers in mind, along with our goal for the prayer. But it is also important as we prepare a prayer to try as best as we can to view the task from God’s perspective. What concerns God—in the world and in this community of people? Where is God present in small moments and in massive sweeps of time, and how might our prayer reconnect people with God by recalling those moments? These four habits can help us imagine God’s perspective:

Stay Tuned to What’s Going on in the World. What is being reported in the news? Have there been tragedies? What are the current controversies? We hope to learn from as many perspectives as possible about what people might bring with them into the sanctuary. Try to imagine what breaks God’s heart as God watches over us as we pursue our self-centered agendas or drive our lives into a ditch.

What meetings did we attend this week? What topics might hold rel- evance to daily living, such as church finances, children’s ministry, recovery support groups, mission trips, marches for social justice, or a special worship service for senior adults living with dementia? Always keep listening to those speaking, to our own thoughts and feelings, and to God’s still small voice (1 Kgs 19:12).

Practice. It takes time to develop these habits. Be patient with yourself.

Pay Attention. The potential sources that shape a pastoral prayer are limitless. My father (Steve) used to say, “Son, you’ll learn something every day if you pay attention!” We miss too much. We cannot include everything every time. Great lines we are proud of writing end up on the cutting-room floor, saved for another week perhaps. That is why we keep files.

Regularly Read the Psalms. This is the great prayer book of our spiritual ancestors, a remarkable window into God’s eternal presence in the world. For good reason, Jesus memorized these prayers. They are useful for us in prayer-writing, too. We can imagine, for instance, how we might work the opening verses of Psalm 139 into our prayer: “O gracious Lord, You have searched us thoroughly. You understand us better than we’ll ever understand ourselves. You know our thoughts, our ambitions, our worries and fears.”

Or apply Psalm 51: “Have mercy upon us, O God. As we open our hearts before You, receive our confessions. Wash us. Cleanse us from our sins. Forgive us when we miss the mark.” Why not borrow thoughts from some of the greatest prayers ever written, paraphrasing them into our own words, words God can use and that people can grasp?

Keep a Prayer Journal. This is a mechanism for you to invite, and listen to, God’s voice intentionally. It is an opportunity to discern God’s perspective. Write your own prayer concerns, bits of prayer, full-length litanies—whatever resonates with you. Include things that move you to tears of sadness or joy. If you gain a new self-awareness, write it down. If God surprises you with an experience or an idea, that goes in. Sometimes a particular word, phrase, or sentence is given to us. Try always to anchor journal entries with a scripture reference that keeps you humble and connected to our tradition. We are not the first to walk these valleys and plateaus.

Understand the People and the Setting

To write a meaningful prayer you must know your audience and the situation they are in. Of course, your prayers will be written out of your own experience, but this book specifically addresses the task of leading a corporate prayer. This requires thoughtful consideration of context and people in the room.

Many of you are charged with writing and leading pastoral prayers for corporate worship in a local church, so the answer may seem obvious. But you must dig a little deeper: Who are they? What jobs do they occupy? What is their home life like? What is their faith background? What is their biblical literacy like? What challenges do they face in daily life?

To go even deeper, create mock profiles of imaginary people you will be leading in prayer. One might be a single mom with two young children at home, working a minimum-wage job and looking worn out when she walks into the sanctuary Sunday morning. She is questioning her faith and whether she believes in God, but it is well worth her time to have an hour of quiet. Plus, her children beg her to come to Sunday school each week. Another one might be a recently retired executive and top dog in town. He touts that he is excited for his frequent tee times at the local country club but, underneath it all, he is scared of a new routine and questioning his identity now that his career has come to an end. Make a few profiles of your own. Name them. Imagine them coming into worship, ardently seeking connection with the divine. For what do they need you to pray? How can you offer a prayer that nurtures and guides them into an honest self-expression to God, rather than lulls them to sleep?

You may be called to write and lead prayer for other settings as well. The audiences at a recovery center, high school commencement ceremony, civic community event, youth group, or a third-grade Sunday school class are distinct from one another. Do your best to understand these people and their needs, and to cater your prayer to them specifically. Do a bit of research if necessary. Make a phone call or send a few emails. The minimal time you spend will be remarkably helpful. You’ll learn to “read the room” before you’re even in the room. Once you have a basic understanding of the people and the situation, you’ll be able to discern how best to lead them in prayer. When people arrive at this event or in this setting, what will they be thinking, feel- ing? What stressors will they bring in the room with them? What connection to faith will they have? How will they feel about a prayer being offered at all? The more you can put yourselves into the shoes of your audience, the greater the chance you will offer a prayer that reflects the hearts of those on whose behalf you pray.

Once you’ve begun to understand the people and the setting, you can begin to zero in on the prayer itself. Consider these questions:

What kinds of language would it be best to use? Be intentional about the vocabulary you use. Even if you have a theological term in mind that would be perfect to use, avoid it at all costs. Your seminary professor would be impressed, but everyone else will be zoning out. (Except in the case of leading a prayer for your local seminary’s weekly worship service, perhaps.) Instead, keep the intention of that thought. Define it, use a layman’s description of that same concept and people will jump on board immediately. Use a thesaurus if you need to. It’s not cheating, it’s using your resources! The word sanctification, for example, feels haughty and overly religious. Transformation, on the other hand, is relatable and approachable. (We will cover word choice in greater detail in subsequent chapters.)

What would be tone-deaf or off-putting? What would make the whole room cringe, if you were to mention it? At the graveside service of a congregant who passed away of a heart attack, don’t pray a line about how “we are heart-sick over the grief that we face...” When leading a worship service at the local dementia care facility, where most residents are confined to a wheelchair, avoid using phrases in your prayer like “Give us courage to stand up for what we believe in...” Context matters and what works in some situations will absolutely fail in others!

It hurts when we get this wrong. I (Anne) was officiating the memorial service of a young man who had passed away tragically and unexpectedly. From my time spent with the family prior to the service, I knew they were distraught that their loved one had not been baptized. Yet, there I stood, ill- prepared, when I began to read the United Methodist prayer traditionally offered at the graveside:

As in baptism Name put on Christ, so in Christ may Name be clothed with glory.[2]

The implication in this prayer was that this man, their deceased beloved, would only gain access to heavenly glory if he’d been baptized. I had no intention of leading a prayer or guiding a service that would create concern about his entrance into eternal life with Christ. My hope, in fact, had been to offer peace, comfort, and grace. But my words were careless. I simply took the script I was accustomed to using, and cut and pasted it into my script for this particular occasion. Even if you are reusing prayers that you have prayed many other times in many other situations, I caution you to avoid cutting and pasting. Read through the words. Think about the words. Your context matters.

If your prayer indicates that you understand your audience and your setting, this is a sign of respect and thoughtfulness. By considering the people you serve, you are meeting folks where they are. That doesn’t mean you have to pretend to be them. We don’t recommend acting like a third-grader if you are praying with third-graders in Sunday school. You don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not. Instead, your role is to show that you know and understand whom you are praying with and to adjust your practices to meet the needs of those you serve.


If you would like to know more about this process of prayer writing and how to use it in your ministry, be sure to get a copy of Will You Pray with Me: A Guide for Those Who Pray in Public by Steve Langhofer and Anne Williams. Copyright © 2021 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (London: SCM, 1954), 63.

[2] The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 870.

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