Generations ago, the pastoral prayer held a place in the church almost as significant as the sermon. Pastors were to write two main orations each Sunday: a prayer offered to God for the people, and a sermon offered to the people for God.
The pastoral prayer has a shepherding function. In it, the shepherd or elder prays for God’s scattered flock. The pastoral prayer also has a discipleship function in that it teaches people about God and how we should speak to him both for ourselves and for others.
The prayer should not only communicate your shepherdly or fatherly love for the gathered people, but should demonstrate deep and absolute trust in God’s shepherdly and fatherly love for his own.
Here is my list of pointers:
- Make it clear that you are talking to God – Spend the significant majority of your time appreciating God or interceding for people. Eliminate as much descriptive language about ourselves as possible.
- Pray in Trinitarian and Christocentric ways – Start with focusing on being Christ-centered and cross-centered. Then, as your ability to articulate theological truths grows, try to build a more Trinitarian structure into your prayer.
- Pray big – Pray world-sized, nation-sized, and movement-sized prayers. Don’t be afraid to pray for rulers and governors, international persecution, major disasters, and other macro issues that will definitely be on people’s minds. Also, don’t be afraid to pray about what your church is doing. Pray your ministry model. Pray your mission statement and vision. Get people’s hearts looking up to what’s bigger than themselves and what you believe God is passionate about. This helps make a more poignant contrast when you turn to the infirmities and needs of individual people and pray as though God cares deeply about them also.
- Pray small – Make sure you talk about what people are feeling and experiencing. People are disappointed, anxious, suffering from illnesses, having trouble with children, dealing with addictions, and so on. People are also having nice moments for which they should be thankful.
- Invite people to talk to God themselves – I like to end the “praying small” section with something that Roman Catholic churches often do, a few moments of silence for people to offer their own personalized prayers to God. Invite people to offer personal prayers of repentance, thankfulness, need, trust, resolution – whatever is an active and healthy response of faith for them in the moment.
- Don’t rush, and don’t be wordy – D. A. Carson, one of my seminary professors, would always start his prayers with about 4 to 6 seconds of silence. It allows one to gather his thoughts, to demonstrate a non-flippancy in speaking to the divine king, and to be more focused about what one prays. You can’t cover everything, and you shouldn’t be nervous.
- Be realistic about people’s attention span – Most people have an attention span of less than a minute unless you reset it. So either pray for that long, or inculcate some kind of structure in your prayer. There are a lot of ways to do that. You can use a Trinitarian structure. You can “pray big” and then “pray small.” You can pray, invite silence, and end with the Lord’s prayer recited together. You can pray through a few verses of Scripture. You can pray a theme. There are lots of ways of building attention resets into prayers. But in order for them to work, people have to feel a sense of movement, like they’re going from one thing to the next.
- Be colloquial but not flippant – Use normal language, but don’t be flippantly familiar with the triune God of all creation. You need to communicate intimacy with humility, deep relationship without disrespectful familiarity. Too much of “thee and thou” and people will think you’re faking it. Too much flippancy, and people will believe the God you pray to is weightless.
- Use Scripture – If possible, pray the themes, points and burdens of the passage that will be or has been preached on. This will connect the prayer and the preaching to God’s written word, and help demonstrate to people the importance and centrality of the Scriptures in our relationship to God.
- Be aware of non-Christians – Recognize that you are not just speaking in the presence of Christians. Recognize their presence in what you do pray, and when appropriate, pray for them specifically. Also, don’t use exclusionary language when you can think of a creative way to avoid it, but don’t use vague language that leaves the opportunity for wrong impressions.
- Pray for your enemies and those whom people in your church may not like – When a political party is in control that may not represent the majority of those gathered, pray for it’s leaders and supporters. Pray consciously for people whose races or economic classes are not well represented in your church.
- Structure without recitation – I find that both completely extemporaneous and completely written pastoral prayers tend to struggle equally. It’s hard to give the former a sense of clarity and direction, and it’s hard to make the latter seem heartfelt and authentic. For most people, an outline of the logical movement of the prayer with some Scriptures written down is sufficient structure for an extemporaneous prayer that maintains focus and direction.
Obviously, a lot more could be said about this practice. But attention to these considerations can focus us toward helpful and God-honoring pastoral prayer.