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July 1984 · Vol. 13 No. 3 · pp. 33–43 

When You Pray . . .

Jacob A. Loewen


In Matthew 6:1-17, at the very heart of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says some very serious things about praying, especially praying in public. What he says amounts to some rather somber warnings about the dangers which this kind of praying entails. In fact, he concludes that in general, praying is better done alone in one’s own room rather than in public.

Most people who will read this will probably be regular churchgoers, and likely as not, they will also pray regularly, or at least listen to prayers regularly in church. Remember that often the very familiarity—this is the way we’ve always done it—can cause us to feel that Jesus is not talking about us or to us in this case. The truth of the matter is that he is talking precisely to the likes of us who pray in church regularly.

First let us summarize some of the things about which Jesus feels he must warn us:

  1. Public display of piety, including prayer, can readily become directed at the people who witness it rather than at God (verses 1, 5, and 16).
  2. Praying in public places easily slips into hypocrisy (verses 2, 5, and 16).
  3. Public praying quickly becomes a contest for the most beautiful and the most pious expressions—Jesus calls this ‘heaping up empty phrases’ (verse 7).
  4. The length of one’s prayer is readily confused with the degree of one’s piety (verse 7).
  5. Public prayer is often an insult to an all-knowing God because it tries to tell him things as if he didn’t know, was unobservant, or had plain forgotten them (verse 8).
  6. It amounts to an appeal to God to review the praying person’s relationship with his fellows, for example, asking for forgiveness from God when one has failed to forgive his fellows, instantly shorts out the person’s own prayer for forgiveness (verses 12 and 14).

If we now add Luke 18: 10-14 to the Matthew passage already cited, we find that Jesus gives us examples both of what he considers effective and ineffective public prayer.

The tax collector, deeply ashamed of his lifestyle, prayed: ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ His prayer was short, personal, to the point, {34} from the heart, and it was effective—he went away forgiven.

On the other hand, the Pharisee, a seemingly regular and experienced pray-er was, according to Jesus, merely piling up guilt and damnation by means of his prayer because: (1) he was lying: (a) in addressing God when in fact he was addressing the people around him (for, as Jesus said, people like him were more concerned about the praise of men than the praise of God [John 16: 42-43]), (b) in thanking God when he was really patting himself on the back; (2) he was utterly blind to his own sin before God—God did not see him as any less sinful than the other man whom the Pharisee labelled ‘a sinner;’ (3) he was insulting God’s intelligence by reminding him about his regular acts of piety that an all-knowing God was already fully aware of.

In order to help us understand a little bit more fully what principles of communication underlie the criticism of public prayer that Jesus makes, I would like to look at praying in public through the eyes of modern communications research. (See H.H. Clark and T.B. Carlson, ‘Hearers and Speech Acts,’ Language 58: 332-373, 1982.) Some of its ‘scientific’ findings can set the problems Jesus talks about into everyday experience and thus may make us more aware of why Jesus is saying what he says.

People Often Intentionally Misaddress What They Say

Such misaddressing of communication takes a variety of forms, for example, the addressee can be real but he has only an incidental or instrumental function because the speaker’s real aim is to give a message to others who are hearing the exchange.

When the mayor of a city gives a medal for bravery to a fireman on the evening TV news saying: ‘On behalf of the citizens of this community I want to thank you for your heroic effort in last Thursday’s fire.’ etc., etc., the communication in this event is not really directed at the brave fireman, it is directed at the public which is watching the event. The instrumental function of the addressee is even more apparent in court proceedings when a lawyer interrogates a witness. Ostensibly he is talking to the witness, but in actual fact everyone knows that the lawyer is trying to tell something to the judge and to the jury.

In fact, people learn this kind of misaddressing very early in life. Recently our two-and-a-half year old grandson was at our home for dinner. He knew that in order to be excused from the table after he had finishing eating, he must thank the hostess for the meal; so while his grandmother was in the kitchen and not hearing what he said, he called after her: ‘Ta ta, gamma,’ and then looked expectantly at his father and mother for permission to leave the table. The communication was ostensibly directed at his grandmother, but the child was totally unconcerned about whether grandmother heard or did not hear his statement, he was trying to secure release from the table from his parents {35} and he was only using the address to his grandmother as a means to achieve that end.

Even more serious is the situation where the addressee is entirely fictitious, for example, when a mother says to a three-month-old baby in front of the father: ‘Don’t you think your daddy should change your diaper?’ The speech is overtly addressed at the baby, but it is a fictitious address because the baby does not understand what is being said nor is it really involved in the communication. The speech is directed at the father—it is an indirect request for him to change the baby’s diaper.

The same can be said of the father who says to the dog in front of his teen-age son: ‘Lassie, John is just going to take you for a walk’. In this case the dog is being addressed, but it too is a fictitious addressee. The father is really speaking to the son telling him to take the dog for a walk.

Many societies across the world, who have prohibitions of direct speech between certain categories of people, use the mechanism of fictitious addressees when circumstances demand that such people communicate. For example, one day we watched our servant in Africa as he met his mother-in-law on our front yard. Their culture forbids the two to speak to each other directly, and if they must communicate, they have to do so through a third party, often a fictitious addressee. The servant immediately went down on his knees and since there was no third person at hand, he addressed the nearest tree and said: ‘Tree, greet my wife’s mother;’ and the mother-in-law responded in kind, saying: ‘Tree, greet the husband of my daughter.’ Their entire conversation was then carried out through this fictitious intermediary.

If we now apply these principles to prayer, I think Jesus is saying that many, if not most of the prayers in public fall into the first category where God, the actual addressee, has merely incidental or instrumental function. The prayer is really addressed at the people who are hearing it. For example, very frequently the minister will be preparing the audience for the sermon of his choice in his opening prayer. If he, indeed, was seeking the Lord’s direction in the preparation of his sermon, then God, of course, is completely informed as to what he is going to preach and the minister need not tell him; it is the audience who needs the background for what he is going to say.

Or it may be the elder or deacon who in the closing prayer ‘preaches’ the sermon he thinks the pastor should have preached instead of the one that was actually delivered.

In fact, one sometimes wonders whether a good portion of the prayers that are uttered in public do not really fall into the second category where God, the addressee, has a more or less entirely fictitious function.

The fictitious addressee is probably at its most blatant in the familiar setting of table prayer. Many families have a wall hanging in their dining room saying ‘God is a silent guest at every meal’. If God were really present {36} at our table, as we say that he is, would we really then use the vocative when we pray? Wouldn’t we then just look up and say ‘thank you?’ This is what we would do if we were speaking to a person who is present and who is paying attention.

The Use of the Vocative Address

In our daily conversations we use the vocative of address (that is, addressing a person by name or by title) for a number of purposes: (a) to gain the attention of a person to whom we want to speak; (b) to direct a remark to a specific addressee when there are several potential addressees present. In a longer discourse it may be necessary to repeat the address to make sure that everyone realizes the comments are still being directed at the same person; (c) to signal a change of addressee in the course of an ongoing conversation where there are several participants.

When we pray in public our communication is axiomatically directed at God (or at one of the other members of the Trinity), and invariably some divine name is invoked, but as Jesus indicated in Matthew 6:1-17, and as we have said earlier in this paper, we often misaddress our speech. We perform our piety for the eyes and ears of those around us rather than the God whom we are addressing.

Communication specialists tell us that the vocative performs several other functions in addition to those that we have listed above. For example, the British usually like to maintain a kind of psychological reserve, or to speak more formally, and so they address the person with a title like ‘Sir, Mr. X.’ or ‘Mr. Chairman,’ etc., while North Americans tend to prefer a more familiar approach and so they usually use the person’s first name. We can see something similar in prayer in the choice one makes between the different possible names of deity, such as God versus Jesus. Jesus is by far the more intimate form of address.

Furthermore, since the kind of address and the tone of its delivery are used to indicate the degree of intimacy or the psychological distance between speaker and addressee, the address can be used to project intimacy even where this does not exist, for example, ‘dearest Jesus’ rather than ‘dear God’ is designed to create the impression of greater intimacy.

However, in truly intimate speech between two friends, vocatives are much less frequent than in ordinary conversation, and those that do occur, often are special expressions limited to such intimate communications. For example, a husband and wife or intimate friends often have special endearment labels that they use for each other when they are talking among themselves. When people praying in public try to project intimacy with God by adding endearment qualifiers, like ‘dearest Jesus,’ but then go on to fill in all the background and all the ‘shared’ details (see next section) their prayers, if occurring in a normal, daily-life context, would be experienced as artificial and insincere. {37}

The frequency of the use of the vocative is also a significant indicator according to communication specialists. High-pressure salesmen, con men and the like keep on using most familiar vocatives as part of their sales pitch. As a result North Americans tend to react negatively to the overfrequent use of the vocative and tend to assume that someone is trying to ‘sell them something.’ Some people address God with almost every statement they make, and some even say God or Lord at the beginning and at the end of each statement. Does this overfrequent use of the vocative in prayer mean the same thing it does in ordinary conversation?

Shared Information in Communication

The degree of common experience between two people usually determines how much background information or how much detail they will provide when they talk with each other. Usually the greater the amount of common experience or shared information, the greater the amount of information that will be left implicit. For this reason it is often impossible to make sense out of a conversation between intimate friends because they have so much in common and thus leave so much implicit that an outsider does not have enough explicit information to know what they are really talking about. One hears and understands all the words they say, but one cannot decipher the message because one lacks the necessary shared information. It is said that someone once listened by the keyhole of Spurgeon’s bedroom to learn how this great man of God prayed. When Spurgeon finished his sermon preparation he got up, went to the window, looked up and said; ‘Between you and me things remain as usual. Good night.’

The converse of this also operates—the greater the feeling of psychological distance between two people in conversation, the more background information and the greater the amount of detail they will put into their verbal exchanges. This is most significant for praying. If true intimacy rests on large amounts of shared experience and knowledge, then intimate prayer would be next to impossible to understand in public. The fact that public prayer tends to be relatively complete in the information it offers is a strong indication: (a) that it is not really directed at God at all because surely he knows all the things the people are saying. It is addressed laterally, to the others in the congregation who hear the prayer and with whom the one praying is not as intimate, or (b) if it is really directed at God, it speaks of an enormous feeling of psychological distance between the one praying and the God to whom the prayer is addressed. The very explicitness of the prayer contradicts the intimacy the one praying is trying to project. {38}

Is Our Prayer a Recording? If one uses the analogy of types of telephone communication we can say that there are person-to-person prayers, station-to-station prayers, and sometimes “this is a recording” prayers. Ordinarily we expect prayers to be person-to-person communications. However, if one observes praying carefully, one cannot escape the feeling that large portions of our prayers are prerecorded.

Conclusion. When Jesus expressed these warnings about public praying he is not telling us to stop praying in public. He does suggest that we will be less likely to go wrong if we take most of our praying into our own room, close the door, and speak to our heavenly Father under “four eyes,” or if we do it in a circle of “two or three” people with whom we share confidence.


The above analysis grew out of group study and reflections. Even though it had only very limited private circulation, it elicited a surprisingly large number of comments which basically said: “What you have said is very true, but . . .” Here are some of the “buts:”

  1. but you should recognize that public prayer is still a very meaningful experience for many many people.
  2. but what you are saying will undermine my grandmother’s faith in prayer and that would be dead wrong.
  3. but the church and most church people will feel that they must reject what you say out of hand, because it attacks the way “they have always been doing it.”
  4. but even if our way of praying in public today should turn out
  5. but you haven’t said anything about what we can or should do about it.

In fact, a number of people were concerned enough to be willing to spend several evenings brainstorming about the last ‘but.’ What follows now is a product of that joint effort.

Three General Considerations

First, the group decided that there is no one simple answer to this question, because there are many kinds and very different occasions for public prayer, each with its own separate answer for ‘What can we do about it?’ The group identified at least four contexts for separate treatment. They are:

  1. First and foremost of course, is prayer as one element in public religious services. However, even in this setting alone, there are a whole host of different kinds of prayers, such as invocations, end-of-service benedictions, dedicatory prayers for things or people, offertory prayers {39} before or after the collection, pastoral prayers, in-unison congregational prayers, antiphonal prayers, and in some churches also individual prayers.
  2. Next, are prayer meetings—special meetings at which prayer by individuals is the principal activity.
  3. Then there are invocations and/or benedictions at public civic functions.
  4. Finally there is table grace at banquets and other festive occasions.

Next, the discussions uncovered what seems to be a major malpractice in our public praying in church, namely, that we have carried over the criteria for private or small-group praying, which demand that prayer be personal, intimate, open, and spontaneous, into public praying. This is especially true for those churches who stress informality and intimacy with God in their style of worship. In some cases the practice seems to be a left-over from the time when the congregations were rural and small and when the community lived in what anthropologists call ‘face-to-face’ social settings in which everyone knows everyone else and also knows about everyone else. In such settings a supposedly ‘personal’ prayer spoken in public by a leader was often the easiest nondirect method for a community to communicate its feelings and desires to an individual or a group; or for a repentant singled-out person it could be the occasion to announce his or her change of heart publicly, but under the umbrella of divine sanction. However, in our large urbanized congregations where people may no longer know even the name of the person sharing the pew with them, a public prayer of confession dealing with a specific personal failure may not only be embarrassing, it may even be very counter-productive. On the other hand, even if the same confession were made in public cloaked in veiled generalities, the consequences might be even worse. At best the audience would experience such ‘honesty’ as superficial, irrelevant or even phony.

Of course, we need to recognize that we have some poets and other word-artists in our midst who can speak about human or personal experiences in such heart-touching ways that hearers can readily identify with what they are saying. Sad to say, such pray-ers are few and far between.

Thirdly, the discussions pointed out that we must recognize that at least in our own Mennonite Brethren churches our parishioners are a lot more sophisticated today than they used to be in our fathers’ rural farming days. Not only is the general level of education higher, but also our exposure to good literature is greater (even our church papers reflect that fact), not to mention the sophisticated word-smithing with which certain radio addresses, TV programs and professional journals constantly bombard us. All these factors have worked together to make our public much more discriminating in oral performance. If we hope {40} to achieve audience identification with a public prayer in church, or even more, if we want to move the audience to meaningful emotional participation in a spoken prayer, our prayer will have to be thought-out, well-formed, and esthetically appealing. Such prayers can usually not be produced impromptu, even by very experienced pray-ers.

Public Prayer as Part of Worship Services

As we have already pointed out, praying in church involves a wide variety of prayers, each of which brings with it its specific demands. But before we detail these demands, maybe a word about the physical setting which can make public praying more meaningful.

Recently I read a church bulletin announcing that the pews were to be cushioned. It certainly will be more comfortable for sitting, but will it foster better praying? Probably not. For better praying how about installing kneeling benches? Several of us still remember how in our youth we usually knelt for prayer in church. I find that for myself, the very act of kneeling does something to condition me emotionally for praying (maybe the Greek word proskuneo ‘bow in front of’ should be taken more literally). After reading the first draft of this paper my wife said that she always feels she has a head start toward a worship experience when she enters a church where she can kneel down and utter a silent personal prayer. It might be interesting to find out how many of our parishioners feel the same way.

Invocations and pastoral prayers are basically designed (or at least should be so designed) to help the would-be worshippers develop a mind-set conducive to worship. This means that the one praying should recognize that he or she is not really speaking on his or her own behalf, but rather on behalf of the entire assembly. This is why it is so wrong for a pastor to use this prayer to introduce his sermon topic, or for that matter, for anyone else to actually deliver a mini-sermon on some favorite topic of his. The one praying should attempt to capture and to reflect the concerns, hopes, joys and burdens, which the congregation at large is feeling. The degree to which the opening or pastoral prayer succeeds in enlisting the sentiments of the assembly, to that degree the statements made will find approving re-echo in the hearts of the individual hearers and by the same token will launch them in a meaningful worship experience.

The Lord’s Prayer. Many congregations use the Lord’s prayer to provide opportunity for congregational participation in prayer. This is very worthwhile both in the choice of the prayer and in the opportunity for group participation. However, since this prayer is so widely used, it may also become very routine and mechanical. Would it be useful if each congregation periodically developed its own prayer (or even several different prayers) for in-unison praying? Many churches have printed scripture readings and prayers from the Bible in their hymnbooks, {41} could not such locally developed in-unison prayers be pasted into the cover of the hymnbook or duplicated in the church bulletin so that the entire congregation could participate in praying them aloud? Eventually many people would be able to speak this prayer from memory, just as they now do with the Lord’s prayer.

If we really feel that audience participation is a worthwhile aid to worship, how about structuring a prayer session in which a leader prompts the congregation with a topic for prayer, such as, prayer for a sick person, a missionary, a personal need, and then leaves a short period of silence during which each one individually prays silently for the person or item of his choice. A series of such prompting categories followed by periods of silence can combine the benefits of both a personal and a group experience at prayer. Here it is important to gauge fairly accurately the amount of silent time needed by the people. Too much time will destroy the continuity for some, too little time will frustrate others. In general, as people get used to this kind of praying, they tend to appreciate more silent time.

For those of us who like to think of prayer not only as talking to God, but also hearing from him, the above format can be very useful for listening to God. Once a congregation has learned to pray during a period of silence, a special period for listening to God speak to us can be introduced. The group found the concomitant method of everyone in the audience saying his own prayer aloud simultaneously as practised by some churches to be far less appealing.

By now it should have become very apparent that our group felt that impromptu prayers which are personal in content, have very little place in our larger urbanized churches. To be sure, special occasions may arise where a spontaneously formed prayer is just the thing, but this must be viewed as the exception rather than the rule. The group therefore suggests that the one charged with speaking a prayer in public should spend as much time trying to identify with the feelings and needs of their fellow parishioners as we expect the pastor to spend on his sermon preparation. A well formulated, smooth-flowing prayer whose content expresses the needs and feelings of the hearers can be a truly meaningful worship experience. In fact, one can predict that a well-formed expression from a prayer can readily become the delectable morsel from Sunday’s banquet which individuals will repeat and relish over and over again during the week.

Offertory prayers. Most North Americans are somewhat self-conscious about the offering. At best they consider it a ‘necessary evil,’ rather than a truly helpful part of a genuine worship experience. In fact, many churches downplay the offering by such devices as envelopes, or by collection boxes at the entrance which more or less eliminate the offering from the worship program. Here I think we have something to learn from African Christians. Many of them come from cultures in which they practiced sacrifices before becoming Christians and for these {42} people the collection in church is the ‘new’ sacrifice which no church-attending person would ever think of missing. So while the choir sings a long song enumerating the manifold blessings of God, the entire congregation, one bench at a time, walks up to the altar and there each one personally deposits an offering, in cash or in kind, openly and visibly, before the watching church elders. When all have ‘sacrificed’, they dedicate their gift in an antiphonally spoken or sung dedicatory prayer. I have often felt that in these settings, the collection, rather than the sermon, was the high point of the worship service.

Prayer Meetings

Some years ago I attended a prayer meeting in Latin America in which the people attending were of both Latin and North American origin. The atmosphere was warm and friendly and everyone introduced himself and then shared some need from his or her life as a prayer request. We had been doing this for about forty-five minutes, when the leader suddenly realized how our time was flying. He suggested that we rush through the requests of those remaining in order to leave enough time for prayer. At that point I suggested that we assume that God was present and was listening to our detailed request, so that we now merely needed to let someone tell God that this was the extent of our list and that we wanted him to exercise his will on it. The people of Spanish origin immediately agreed that there was no need for us to set apart a special time for repeating all our requests to God because the latter had surely heard all we had said when the prayer requests were made. However the North American leader wasn’t so sure, saying that he thought it would be better if we at least summarized the requests to God in prayer. And since he was the leader, that is just what he did. He rushed through the rest of the people’s requests and then he enumerated the whole list to God in the traditional prayer formula.

Personally, I found this experience most instructive. It showed me that many of us still treat prayer as a kind of ritual, if not, magical formula, rather than straightforward communication with God. Our suggestion for prayer meetings thus is, let’s keep our prayer groups small, so that we can be informal and conversational in our approach to God. If necessary, let’s set out the symbolic chair for the good Lord and then let’s assume that he is present listening to all we say and that there is no need to repeat things to him with a special prayer formula. If we did, indeed, learn to use this approach in our prayer meetings, we would soon recognize that it is not God who needs to hear detailed prayer requests, it is we the people who need to hear them, because all too often God wants to use one of us to answer someone else’s prayer request. Furthermore, by hearing about someone else’s need, we can often recognize our own identical or at least similar need, then “the God who {43} looks into the heart” will “hear” also our need, even though we have only grudgingly admitted it to ourselves in silence.

The next two settings for public prayer share the characteristic that prayer on such occasions is more a conventional ritual rather than a setting in which one expects to communicate meaningfully with God. This is not to say that ritual prayer cannot also be very significant. It is significant, but we need to be aware of its basic ritual nature, for in ritual, well-formedness and flawless delivery become all the more important. To achieve this, the one praying will have to do his homework well.

Invocations and Benedictions at Public Civic Functions

Prayers at civic functions should be short, esthetically appealing and they should speak to the specific occasion in terms with which the majority of the community can readily identify. This means that personal and sectarian views which tend to divide rather than unite, should be avoided. There is no question but that a carefully elaborated prayer that speaks to the hearers both in content and in its esthetic form will provide spiritual uplift to any community event. Because our modern communities tend to be so heterogeneous and include people of faiths other than Christianity, it usually is unwise to use even the Lord’s prayer.

Table Grace at Banquets and other Festive Occasions

Like prayers at civic functions, prayers at social functions are also largely ritual in nature. For this reason they should be brief and to the point. If a table prayer is known to the majority of the group, it can be spoken in unison. If the group is fairly homogeneous and a sung prayer by the group is possible, the latter is often one of the most desirable alternatives, because it involves everyone actively in the ritual and in such cases it often is the personal participation, rather than the content, that makes it meaningful.

For assemblies like camping groups or retreats where people will be together over a period of time, it may be well worthwhile to learn one or two new sung or spoken table prayers. They can do a lot to help build a group spirit, much like a theme song does. There is no doubt that good table prayers both sung and spoken are badly needed.

Finally, joining hands while each one breathes his own prayer during a thirty second silence can also provide a very meaningful table prayer experience, especially on the first or the final meeting of a group, or if the group is very diverse in its religious preferences.

Therefore let us pray in such a meaningful way that “while we are yet speaking, the Lord will hear us” (Isa. 65:24).

Jacob A. Loewen, a translation consultant, is currently on assignment in Togo, West Africa.

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