Leading Public Prayer

I promised you Wednesday the second half of that 1942 George Buttrick essay on prayer, the section that deals specifically with the wording of public prayers in the assembly. Buttrick was an English-born Congregational preacher who served nearly 30 years as pastor of New York’s Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. He also served as Preacher to the University at Harvard. Here it is:

“With what burden and awe we should prepare the prayers for public worship! Therein is the grievous failure, not to say disgrace, of Protestantism. ‘Brother So-and-so will lead us in prayer’; whereupon Brother So-and-so, in too many instances, offers God a slipshodness and a jumble, sometimes almost a brash irreverence, and has the temerity to call it prayer. Where public prayer is undisciplined, corporate public worship decays.

There is necessary preparation both of the pray-er and the prayer. What are its steps?

The minister and the congregation should explore the wealth of prayers, ‘free’ and liturgical, offered through the years. Wisdom was not born with us. There are collects of St. Chrysostom which are the perfect bloom of devotion. They cannot be touched without being spoiled. They can only be prayed, in gratitude for men who pray for us better than we pray for ourselves.

Furthermore, prayers should spring from prior inquiry. What are the blessings for which we should praise God? What are the sins which should find corporate confession? What are the conflicts and sorrows that should be upborne in corporate intercession? As that last question is asked the compassionate minister will see the faces of his people and the tragic need of the world until intercession then and there interrupts his ponderings.

Then the minister must plan and write prayers as rigorously as sermons. The language should be wrought. God may be pleased with a clumsy prayer, but not when the clumsiness comes with sloth or a casual mind. The planning of a prayer should be deliberate and clearly drawn. Later, in public utterance, the prayer may break its bounds to ‘take heaven by storm,’ but only if the bounds have first been set. How can petition and intercession be real unless it is specific and ordered?

The needs of the Church are many and urgent. But they might all be met by the leaven of genuine corporate prayer.”




  1. dbyrnes

    Good stuff – right up to the part about the casual mind where I got convicted. In front of the congregation? Not that I recall. Before a meal or with the kids at bedtime? Undoubtedly. That may not be the ‘corporate’ Buttrick was referring to but I’ll use it for those purposes just the same.

    Thanks for not taking the right turn hole-shot this morning. I know you thought about it.

  2. Allan

    As long as you know I could have. Very easily.

  3. Mel

    The tone of this essay bothers me. It’s as if men are evaluating the effectiveness of the led prayer in the same manner as you would any other public oration.

    The problem with that is men lack the single ability that God possesses… the ability to see into the heart.

    All the claims made here by Buttrick assume that the unpolished appearance of the offered prayer equate into an insincere effort of the part of the one leading it.

    “… men who pray for us better than we pray for ourselves.”

    The arrogance behind that statement is astonishing. As if your words can communicate the turmoil in my soul more effectively then the wrenching of my heart.

    ” How can petition and intercession be real unless it is specific and ordered?”

    I’ve seen grown men stand and weep with nary a word spoken led more effective and “real” public prayer than any that would meet with the approval of the writer of this essay.

  4. Allan

    I respectfully submit that you’re missing the point.

    He’s not judging anybody’s hearts. He’s judging their preparation. Buttrick writes, “God may be pleased with a clumsy prayer, but not when the clumsiness comes with sloth or a casual mind.” That whole last paragraph in which that statement is found sums it up for me. And I don’t see any of it as arrogance. I see great humility and reverence in his essay.

    The grown men standing and weeping of whom you speak, I assume, are weeping as a result of “specific and ordered” thought and reflection as they approach the throne of our God. There would be no weeping if they took the matter of leading the prayer casually or flippantly. And Buttrick doesn’t disparage the emotional prayer or even the spontaneous prayer. In fact, he clearly states that a planned prayer should be allowed to “break its bounds to take heaven by storm.” But only after careful and deliberate planning.

    As for his statements regarding pray-ers who pray better for us than we can for ourselves, he’s dead-on absolutely correct. This past Wednesday night in our Oasis assembly we prayed to our God together four different times as a congregation. And not one of the prayers came from the words of anybody in the building. We prayed the prayers straight out of Psalm 146, 1 Chronicles 16, Daniel 9, and Psalm 20. If you can find or write or pray better prayers of praise, thanksgiving, confession, and petition than those four, then possibly you have a point to argue. Buttrick’s position is not one of arrogance. Arrogance is to think nobody has ever done it or can do it better than me.

  5. Mel

    Clarify for me.

    There’s God. Then there’s Jesus and between Him and I there needs to be someone else?

  6. Allan

    Come on, Mel. It’s not any different from what’s going to happen Sunday morning. Somebody’s going to lead you and several hundred of your brothers and sisters in prayer to God from that platform at the front of our worship center. Are you in or out?

    It’s just much more appropriate if the one leading us in prayer, leading us as we approach God’s throne, has put some careful thought and planning into what he’s doing for us and with us in leading us.

  7. Mel

    I get that Allan and I confess I’m being difficult.

    It’s not being led in prayer I object to…it’s the evaluation of the man leading the prayer when the common practice is to hit up the man while walking into assembly or by sending out an email a few hours before. Then have the man get up and led a prayer that someone else decides is clumsy so they say you just need to let someone with more talent do it…

    …that’s what I object to.

  8. Allan

    Hey, the point of the essay should be directed as much to those planning our worship assemblies as anyone. It kills me to hear someone ask a brother to lead a prayer or read a passage from Scripture five minutes before they need him to do it. It’s wrong.

    And Buttrick never once said anything about anybody’s talent or lack of talent. Talent has nothing to do with it. Not one part of the essay, Mel, says anything about talent.

  9. Mel

    I guess I misread it Allan. It just seems that sometimes we strive too hard to polish the worship service and it comes at the expense of those who need to participate in order to grow.

    I agree 100% that we owe God all of our effort whether it be in prayer, song (speaking of worship service decaying there’s a hot topic…), or anything else.

    I just ademently believe people need to be allowed to be clumsy and uncoordinated in order to grow in experience and comfort.

  10. Rob's Dad

    Thank you both for this exchange – I am truly amazed and appreciative (honest – no schtick). If we should give someone ample notice to prepare (and we should), then can’t we also move out of the “usual list of suspects”? Ask someone to lead a prayer who hasn’t been up there before. Give them a week to prepare and if something comes up and they don’t make it in, then ask an Elder or a Deacon to fill in. There are plenty of people in the family so you should be able to have a fresh face and a fresh perspective each week (even allowing for the person who is too shy to even think about leading a public prayer). You might see the different ends of the time and subject spectrums yet it would be worth it.

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