Principles for Public Prayer 

Reading from Matthew 6:5-8: “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.  But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.  But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.  Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.”

Though there are many examples in the Bible of public prayer which was proper and acceptable to God, Jesus makes clear in Matthew chapter 6:5-8 that prayer should not be unnecessarily public.  It should also not be unnecessarily lengthy when done in public, should not be ostentatious ever, and it should not be a predictable formality.  

It is evident that loud public prayer, especially when that is the predictable norm, violates every single one of these principles.  It is irreverent to scream at God in private.  It must be irreverent to scream at Him publicly too.  One who is regularly screaming out loud publicly in prayer is showing off to men.  How could it be otherwise?  Do those who do this actually believe God is hard of hearing?  

I suppose some people scream at God privately too when they are praying.  Yet this is a heathen practice derived from a degraded, heathen view of God.  Heathens typically think they can manipulate God.  Remember the prophets of Baal in  their showdown with Elijah in 1 Kings chapter 18.

1 Kings 18:25-29: “And Elijah said unto the prophets of Baal, Choose you one bullock for yourselves, and dress it first; for ye are many; and call on the name of your gods, but put no fire under.  And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made.  And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.  And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them.  And it came to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded.”

That passage was used in our message exposing and rebuking emotionalism.  And that is because the error of emotionalism and improper prayer are closely connected.  The concept that God would hear man’s prayer and work in response to an effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man is Biblical.  But the concept that man can persuade God to answer his prayer through being longer, louder, more eloquent, or through cutting oneself or through any type of ritual is a heathen concept stemming from a degraded, heathen view of God.

Romans 1:22-23: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.”

Acts 17:24-25: “God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshiped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.”

Psalm 51:16-17: “For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”

That is not teaching that Jews under the Mosaic Law should not have offered the sacrifices which God had prescribed for them.  He had a good reason to command that they offered these, even though He did not need them.  Exercising a living faith in Him means heeding His instructions, along with recognizing that we will never make God our debtor.  The concept that God would be in debt to man is a heathen concept, though hardly anyone would ever come right out and say “I think God is in debt to me.”  The prophets of Baal proved they had this attitude by their shouting and cutting themselves when praying.  The Jews who rejected Jesus had this mentality by thinking the sacrifices prescribed under the Law of Moses could take away their sins.  They didn’t heed their own Law (and most Jews do not so unto this day) which was intended as a schoolmaster to Christ as well as a continuous lesson in overcoming a degraded, heathen view of God.  

Psalm 66:18: “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.”

No amount of shouting will persuade God to hear the prayers of one regards sin in their heart.  And if we have clean hands and a pure heart, we don’t need to shout whether we are praying in public or in private.

Don’t mistake passion for God to be glorified with much emotion shouting, as if they are equal to each other.  Certain situations warrant that the demonstration of such passion be accompanied by emotion, but as was said in the teaching on emotionalism, the pre-planned emotional movement of a congregation is a key element of emotionalism.  It is essential that such be avoided.  And predictable shouting in prayer is a key example of pre-planned emotional movement of a congregation.  And that is not to mention how shouting in prayer is typically inappropriate due to how it communicates the degraded heathen view of God which was talked about.  It is also important that we control our emotions and only release them when circumstances warrant that (an example will be given in a moment).  

I wouldn’t fault someone for screaming in prayer when someone’s life is in danger or in other inherently dramatic circumstances.  Yet we need to not shout in prayer, except in those extreme circumstances which are clear and obvious exceptions to the rule (I wouldn’t fault someone for shouting if someone’s life is in immediate danger), for the sake of exercising self-control, disciplining our passions, and being sober.  Matthew 6:5-8 shows that we should not seek to cause a scene by prayer.  Screaming while praying actually epitomizes causing a scene as much as anything can.

1 Corinthians 14 and John 11: The audience does need to hear you when you pray publicly.  Solomon probably needed to shout so the great crowd present could hear his prayer when he dedicated the Temple.

Don’t separate meeting personality from your personality otherwise.  Doing so to a significant degree is actually evidence that one lacks a true walk with God and genuine Christian spirituality altogether.  I can picture some emotionalist hearing this and saying “God is to be praised!  We need to let loose or we don’t value how great God is.”  

They are only proving how empty they are altogether.  We should be passionate about praising God and walking in the truth before Him all of the time.  Most of the time doing this involves emotional restraint and certainly not emotional release.  And it certainly never involves deliberate emotional manipulation and manufacturing as is certainly practiced by those whom shouting in prayer is the norm for.  If we have a genuine walk with God, coming to the meeting should not change our personality.  In fact, one necessary aspect of a genuine walk of faith before God is not altering our personality to appear more spiritual before people, including at the church meeting.

Romans 2:28-29: For he is not a Jew (a true, faithful worshiper of God), which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.”

We should also avoid unnecessary eloquence in public prayer. Not doing this is seeking vainglory and promoting strife in competition.  If you are praying and you’re about to say something that sounds eloquent, and you can think of a less eloquent way to pray the same thing, choose the less eloquent way.  

It is the same when it comes to length.  Choose the shorter, more concise way of expressing your prayer rather than the longer one if you’re not sure which route to take.

Ecclesiastes 5:1-2: “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil.  Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.”

Everyone praying out loud at the same time is not good and probably couldn’t ever be good.  It is confusing and disordered if they are praying different things.  It is no more than a ritual if they are praying the same thing.  Everyone praying the same thing encourages going through the motions.  We shouldn’t encourage that.

“Our Father” prayer in Matthew chapter six is given right after Jesus had warned us not to use vain repetitions when we pray like the heathen do.  The “Our Father” prayer is not to be prayed as a formula.  That is indeed vain repetition.  It is intended to establish priorities.  That is what it should be used for.  Reciting it together makes it a ritual whereby people go through the motions.  The prayer thus becomes empty, the very opposite as a guide to establishing our priorities before God.  You might pray that prayer privately to help get your own priorities in order and give you words to pray when you know you need to pray but can’t think of what to say, but praying it together as a congregation is a ritual which inevitably will be empty, vain repetition.  

We shouldn’t preach sermons to God in private or in public when we pray.  Sermonizing God, as well as yelling at Him, are actually attempts to manipulate Him.  Clarifying statements for the sake of others is different.  The goal in prayer though is to praise God and make requests to Him, not to teach the congregation.  It is not showing proper honor towards God to confound the two.

Don’t let prayer time become a show or an opportunity for people to take over the meeting.  The time of public prayer is a way for people who want to be preeminent in a church meeting to take over.  Don’t let women use public prayer to take the lead in the church (1 Timothy 2:11-14) nor let anyone pray so long and/or often and/or in any way whereby they essentially take over the church meeting.

Overall, public prayer is a necessary aspect of having a faithful Christian church.  But it should never be done in a way that encourages showing off or involves displays of emotionalism.  Church leaders have a responsibility to nip these things at the bud when they are becoming evident and deal with them in a circumspect, wise way.  This is not saying they embarrass anyone publicly if it is at all possible to correct them in a private way, but they definitely shouldn’t let these things become normal and patterns in their church.  

People should be taught to pray in public in a way that is not unnecessarily impressive and not inconsistent with how we ought to pray alone in our prayer closets (where we should be doing most of our praying).  

Aaron’s email is: [email protected]