I have seen few things within the bounds of Christian fellowship that cause as much anxiety (particularly for new believers) as public prayer. There are many who do not feel confident in their ability to pray “well enough” to express themselves in prayer within the fellowship. There may be a number of reasons for this. Some people, for example, do not feel comfortable with any type of public speaking. In fact, in some surveys public speaking is listed as the #1 fear even coming in ahead of the fear of death. If it is true that many people would rather die than speak publicly then it should not be a surprise that there is often a high level of anxiety about praying out loud. My purpose in this post, however, is not to address people who are shy about praying for that reason. I would rather address another reason why some people do not like to pray out loud.
Many people I have met have told me that they do not feel “qualified” to lead a prayer. They are nervous that they don’t know how to do it properly or don’t believe themselves to be spiritually adequate for the task. It is true that there are certain forms and structures to prayer that can be observed from the scripture and are beneficial to imitate. There are certain characteristics that can be identified with mature prayer and we should seek to grow in that way. That being said, however, no Christian should be ashamed of any honest and unpretentious prayer. The basis of our privilege to come before the Lord in prayer, and the basis of His answers to prayer, are to be found within Him and not in our own qualifications or methods.
People who have never read his work often demonize John Calvin as a cold and academic theologian. In reality Calvin’s theology is generally informed by his passionate dedication to his pastorate and his pastoral concerns. In the section on prayer in The Institutes Calvin addresses the widespread neglect of prayer among people, observing that “the generality of men prefer to wander up and down, forsaking the fountain of living waters, and hewing out to themselves broken cisterns, rather than embrace the divine liberality voluntarily offered to them.” The words of encouragement and exhortation he offers to those who are hesitant to pray in general can be equally be applied to those who hesitate to pray in fellowship due to their self doubt.
“God declares that his ear is open to our prayers, and that he is delighted as with a sacrifice of sweet savor when we cast our cares upon him. The special benefit of these promises we receive when we frame our prayer, not timorously or doubtingly, but when trusting to his word whose majesty might otherwise deter us, we are bold to call him Father, he himself deigning to suggest this most delightful name. Fortified by such invitations it remains for us to know that we have therein sufficient materials for prayer, since our prayers depend on no merit of our own, but all their worth and hope of success are founded and depend on the promises of God, so that they need no other support, and require not to look up and down on this hand and on that. It must therefore be fixed in our minds, that though we equal not the lauded sanctity of patriarchs, prophets, and apostles, yet as the command to pray is common to us as well as them, and faith is common, so if we lean on the word of God, we are in respect of this privilege their associates. For God declaring, as has already been seen, that he will listen and be favorable to all, encourages the most wretched to hope that they shall obtain what they ask; and, accordingly, we should attend to the general forms of expression, which, as it is commonly expressed, exclude none from first to last; only let there be sincerity of heart, self-dissatisfaction humility, and faith, that we may not, by the hypocrisy of a deceitful prayer, profane the name of God. Our most merciful Father will not reject those whom he not only encourages to come, but urges in every possible way.” (Calvin Institutes Book 3, Chapter 20)
Let us focus not on our own feebleness (which is a given) but on His promises. If you are one of those who has felt a burden to join in open prayer but hesitated because of self-doubt I encourage you to step out in faith and to do it. If you are overly nervous about making a mistake (which you don’t need to be) then find a passage of scripture that expresses a truth that is encouraging to you and begin your prayer by reading it. That will help you to overcome the nervousness of getting started (which is usually the most difficult part) and will ensure you have an infallible doctrinal foundation to work from.
If you are a veteran public prayer I pray that you would encourage others who might like to participate but are nervous. May the Lord be glorified through the prayers of His people.