Praying out loud is one of the most intimidating things for people new to group. And why wouldn't it be? We (and by "we" I mean Christians who've been in groups for a while) treat it like a public speech or a poetry slam or something. We expect—or at least hope for—eloquence, beauty, and wit. Some part of us likes religiosity. We prefer five-dollar words to fifty-cent ones. Too often in group, praying publicly can be a kind of performance piece. Those new to community sense the pressure.
Let me offer up a confession: If eloquence, beauty, and wit are the standards by which public prayer is judged, I'm mediocre . . . on my best days.
That's because I can't plan out what I'm going to say ahead of time. I used to, but I can't anymore. Doing so plays into many of my greatest weaknesses. I'm an editor by trade. I get paid to manipulate language. I'm good at it. But editing prayer isn't a healthy activity for me for these reasons:
- It's image management. I want to sound smart and wise when I pray. Who doesn't? But what kind of prayer can I offer God if I'm primarily concerned with how I'm perceived by the people sitting in a semi-circle beside me with their heads bowed? Not a particularly genuine one, that's for sure. And why does it really matter if I stumble over my words when I pray? Why does it really matter what others think?
- It's an attempt to dress up what's going on in my heart in religious robes before presenting it to God. Editing is the art of creating clarity by stripping away the rough edges and unnecessary bits of language. It's like sculpting. Chip away at some ugly, unwieldy block of words for long enough and you may just end up with something beautiful and profound. But I'm convinced that, when it comes to prayer, God wants to hear our rough drafts. He's okay with the unrefined bits because he knows what we're trying to say. He just wants us to go ahead and say it. Cleaning things up ahead of time is just a way for me to exert control, but God wants me to give him control.
- It's not relational. I rarely plan out what I'm going to say to people I love. We just talk. When I plan out a prayer, I tend to treat God less like my heavenly Father and more like someone I'm trying to sell a timeshare in Florida. That's no way for me to treat the creator of the universe.
- It prevents me from being fully present. There was a time in my group experiences when I spent most of prayer time ignoring what everyone else was praying so I could think through what I would say. Have you ever done this? Yeah, I know. Don't feel bad. It's not just you. But let's face it: if that's not missing the entire point of praying with others, I'm not sure what is.
Now, what I'm not saying is that people who pray eloquently are poseurs or terrible human beings. Some people are gifted that way. They can reel off amazing impromptu prayers. I'm not one of those people. What I've learned over the years is that trying to be one of those people isn't particularly healthy for me. It doesn't do me any good.
When I look at how Jesus instructs the disciples to pray in Matthew 6:5–15, I think his advice boils down to three points:
- Focus on God.
- Keep it simple.
- Keep it real.
For me, that means embracing my mediocrity as a public pray-er, rather than trying to fix it.
So, as you encourage your group members to open up and pray aloud in group, don't forget to let them know they don't have to be eloquent. They just need to focus on God, keep it simple, and keep it real.