Faults to Avoid in Public Prayer
Samuel Miller was the second professor at the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church in Princeton, NJ--what is now Princeton Theological Seminary. He was one of the most prolific and able of 19th Century Reformed theologians. Among the most beneficial of his works are those that focus on special aspects of pastoral ministry, namely, his books on The Ruling Elder and his work on Public Prayer. It is from the latter of these works that the church of our day so desperately needs to glean. While prayer in public worship services has virtually vanished from the evangelical church, Miller's reflections remain valuable for those churches in which prayers of invocation, confession, adoration, thanksgiving and supplication continue to be offered. Miller includes, in this work, an invaluable section on "Frequent Faults of Public Prayer." In this section, Miller set out 18 common mistakes that ministers, elders and deacons should labor to avoid when leading the congregation in public prayer.
1. Avoid vain repetition. The one leading in prayer should be careful not to say, "O Father," "Holy Father" or "Lord" over and over and over again.
2. Avoid hesitation and stumbling. The one leading in prayer should spend time on the prayer prior to the service so that he does not come across unprepared.
3. Avoid ungrammatical expressions. For example, the one leading in prayer should avoid such phrases as “Grant to give us…” “Grant to impart to us…” Grant and give are verbs expressing the same thing. This is a redundant and inaccurate use of language.
4. Avoid disorder. We need regularity and order in our prayer. The ACTS acronym is helpful: Include prayers of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication (i.e. Petition and Intercession). By following an order, the one leading in prayer can help those he is leading pray along unhindered.
5. Avoid praying in minute detail for certain things. Balance out prayers in general. Especially for a Lord's Day morning service. It is good to pray according to the same general nature for all the things for which the one leading prays. If there is a man or woman who has a terminal sickness, it is sufficient to plead with the Lord to heal that individual. There is no need to go into all the specifics of that with what he or she is dealing.
6. Avoid Excessive length. Miller includes a hilarious illustration about George Whitefield. While in America on one of his itinerate visits, Whitefield stayed at the house of a certain man who asked if he could lead everyone in family worship. Apparently this man started to pray and kept on praying and praying and praying. After the prayer, Whitefield went up to man and said, "Sir, you prayed me right into a spirit of prayer and then you prayed me right out of it." He then corrected the man for trying to pray a long prayer out of pretense to be seen by Whitefield. This is a good reminder for all who lead in public prayer. We are praying to the Lord and are not heard for our many words.
7. Avoid high, poetic and imaginary figurative language. Here, the one leading should avoid Shakespearean language or other theatrical wording or features. This can and often is a great distraction to the masses--even though some will praise men for doing so. It is a hinderance, rather than a help to lead others in public prayer.
8. Avoid party politics and personalities. Stay away from political conflicts and personal attacks. This should be self-evident, though sadly it is often not in our day.
9. Avoid romance language. Do not heap up words like, "Sweet Jesus," "Dear Jesus," or "Precious Jesus" in order to try to sweeten a public prayer with emotionally charged language. The Lord does not need this and neither do His people. Ricky Bobby's blasphemous prayer in Talladega Nights comes to mind!
10. Avoid humor and sarcasm. Don’t pray snarky prayers for political leaders with whom we disagree. Many have used prayer to demean a political leader or party. This is not the place in which demeaning words thrown under humor should appear.
11. Avoid introducing too much didactic statements—whether Scriptural or not. Miller explained that "the public prayer is not a theological lecture addressed to the One who sits on the throne of grace." It is a prayer, not a sermon. While the one leading should pray Scripture back to the Lord, it is to the Lord that he is praying--not to the people to be heard by them.
12. Avoid making it a point to pray the more difficult doctrines. This is related to the former fault. Again, the prayer is to the Lord not a sermon to the people. For instance, some might use public prayer to emphasize the truth of the doctrine of election. This is not the purpose of public prayer. If the doctrine of election finds its way into the prayer, it should be natural to the prayer and not the one leading trying to hobby horse on difficult doctrines. There is need for an Apostolic balance of doctrine in our prayers just as there is in our preaching.
13. Avoid too much familiarity. This comes by way of how we address the Lord. There is a need for deep childlikeness mixed with reverent humility and a sense of unworthiness. Luther was said to have prayed with reverent boldness and with childlike humility.
14. Avoid overly humble or abasing prayer. Miller gives the following examples from prayers he had heard personally: “Lord, assist your servant, one of the most weak and unworthy of men, a very child in spiritual things, in attempting to open and apply the Scriptures.” “Help him, in all his weakness and ignorance, rightly dividing the word of truth.” Also elders and deacons need to avoid praying these sorts of prayers about the minister who is about to preach. For instance, Miller said that he had heard ruling elders praying things like, “Lord, help our minister in preaching for us today. You know that he is one of the weakest and most unworthy of men; you know he is but a child in spiritual things…” The litmus test is this: Whatever, then, any man might be willing to say of himself in his closet, let him never utter anything in prayer in the pulpit respecting himself, which he would not be willing that any and every person should say of him in similar circumstances.
15. Avoid all flattery. Miller strongly insists that "flattery in any man and on any occasion is criminal." Perhaps the closest thing that we find to this today is the introductions of speakers at Conferences.
16. Avoid not praying to the occasion with unfitting requests. Sometimes men will pray things that are not appropriate to the current situation or setting. If it is a Thanksgiving service then prayers of thanksgiving should be prayed. If it is a Christmas service, prayers including references to aspects of the incarnation should be prayed. Make sure the content fits the moment.
17. Avoid flippancy and lack of reverence. While this is hard to describe, it is often found in air and manner or heard in a man's tone.
18. Avoid too much rapidity and vehemence. Miller explained that “words ‘few,’ ‘well considered’ and ‘well ordered,’ are the inspired characteristics of a good prayer.” He went on to say that when men pray too quickly or with too much excitment, it becomes a distraction to those he is trying to lead.
In his conclusion to this section, Miller explained that he would rather criticize his own denomination and other Reformed Presbyterians than criticize ministers in other denominations when it comes to these things. Those who think that they were most advanced in public prayer are often those who need these correctives the most. It would benefit all of us, no matter how much prayer we may have in our worship services to read Miller's work and labor to avoid the faults that he set out.