How To Pray In Public

Updated: Jul 19, 2020

March, 2018

In surveys of common fears, public speaking consistently ranks higher than dying. But one form of address can transform the even bravest soul into quivering Jell-O: prayer.

I’m inevitably the designated prayer-giver when people gather and want things kicked off respectably. It goes with the territory. Clergy are understood as professionals at that kind of thing, or folks assume our prayers carry more freight. They really don’t, but I appreciate the thought.

Of course, I’ve had experiences when the most appropriate words escaped me. Once I was invited to pray for the National Christmas Tree – the one placed in front of the White House - as it paused in my Texas town while traversing the country on a huge flatbed trailer.

Thousands arrived to gawk, take selfies, and of course, drink beer. I thought it was a little odd to pray for a tree, but folks in Texas demand an earnest prayer to open every cultural event, from rattlesnake round-ups to tractor-pulls.

In my prayer, I asked God to remind us the noble fir had unwillingly sacrificed its life. I was merely trying to be environmentally conscious, but I was not invited back.

Having committed many public prayer faux pas, I’ve learned a thing or two. So, here are some basic tips if you’re asked to pray in front of other people:

1. Be yourself. Authenticity matters more than eloquence. Prayer is not an opportunity to impress others, but an honest and humble conversation with the essence of loving-kindness.

2. Give thanks. Even on solemn occasions, be thankful for those gathered and for the moment to focus on what matters. At happy events, be exuberant with the joy of sharing life together.

3. Don’t be a comedian. God has a great sense of humor (How else to explain penguins?), but a lot of people don’t – especially when it comes to religion.

4. Keep it short. You’ll be everyone’s hero.

5. Know and respect your audience. I’ve heard prayers presuming everyone gathered - Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and none of the above - follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Breaking news: they don’t. Our neighbors hold many beliefs. Honoring that fact in a public prayer won’t diminish your personal faith one iota. A simple “Amen” will always suffice.

6. Don’t reprimand. A prayer is not a scolding sermon. It’s not your place to tear anyone down or issue tickets for a guilt trip, but to lift folks up. Speak hope, not hate.

7. Follow the TPGB structure: Thanks: for the occasion and the people gathered. Presence: acknowledge God being there. Guidance: ask for wisdom. Blessing: let good things happen.

8. Prepare in advance, jot down your prayer, and practice. Written prayers are no less heartfelt than extemporaneous ones. Even MLK used notes. If you’re rushed, see # 7. When all else fails, pretend you’re chatting with your favorite wealthy aunt. Works every time. Take a deep breath and you’ll do great.

Finally, remember it’s an honor to be asked. Prayer isn’t called for at every occasion (except in Texas!), but when it is, a door has opened for you to welcome everyone in love. That’s a prayer we can all offer, very well.

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