I’ve always handled the invocation at the beginning of our worship services. However, it’s not until recently that I have incorporated a pastoral prayer. Dan Brown’s article prodded me in this direction. Consequently, I have been doing some reading on the subject. In Lecture to My Students, Spurgeon provides these gems on public prayer (Lecture Four):
On the importance of skilled prayer
Let me, therefore, very earnestly caution you, beloved brethren, against spoiling your services by your prayers: make it your solemn resolve that all the engagements of the sanctuary shall be of the best kind.
On the false notion that extemporaneous (“free”) prayer is inherently inferior to liturgical (i.e., pre-packaged) prayers (this is one of my favorites and also one of the most convicting)
Had free prayer been universally of a higher order a liturgy would never have been thought of, and to-day forms of prayer have no better apology than the feebleness of extemporaneous devotions. The secret is that we are not so really devout at heart as we should be. Habitual communion with God must be maintained, or our public prayers will be vapid [i.e., flat or dull] or formal. If there be no melting of the glacier high up in the ravines of the mountain, there will be no descending rivulets to cheer the plain. Private prayer is the drill ground for our more public exercises, neither can we long neglect it without being out of order when before the people.
On humilty in public prayer
We may speak boldly with God, but still he is in heaven and we are upon earth, and we are to avoid presumption.
On the danger of eloquence for the sake of the audience in public prayer
Beware of having an eye to the auditors; beware of becoming rhetorical to please the listeners. Prayer must not be transformed into an ‘oblique sermon’. It is little short of blasphemy to make devotion an occasion for display . . . Remember the people in your prayers, but do not mould your supplications to win their esteem.
On the “sickening superabundance of endearing words”
When ‘Dear Lord,’ and ‘Blessed Lord,’ and ‘Sweet Lord,’ come over and over again as vain repetitions, they are among the worst of blots . . . A profusion of ‘ohs!’ and other interjections may be well dispensed with; young speakers are often at fault here.
On actually praying, not preaching, when you pray
Preach in the sermon and pray in the prayer
On the importance of the pastor praying (admittedly, a debatable point but it seems to grow out of the importance of prayer not out of a false clergy/laity dichotomy. Spurgeon will go on to say, “Thus much I have said in order to impress upon you that you must highly esteem public prayer, and seek of the Lord for the gifts and graces necessary to its right discharge”)
I endeavor invariably to take all the service myself for my own sake, and I think also for the peoples. I do not believe that ‘anybody will do for the praying.’ No, sirs, it is my solemn conviction that the prayer is one of the most weighty, useful, and honourable parts of the service, and that I ought to be even more considered than the sermon.
On the selection of other men to pray (in the rare occasion from Spurgeon’s perspective)
Appoint the ablest men to pray, and let the sermon be slurred sooner than the approach to heaven.
On the content of public prayer
As I have said before, there is no need to make the public prayer a gazette of the week’s events, or a register of the births, deaths, and marriages of your people, but the general movements that have taken place in the congregation should be noted by the minister’s careful heart.
On the length of public prayer (Here he recounts that the Puritans would pray for 45 minutes or longer because they did not know if that occasion might be the last time they pray before the assembly. For his day, Spurgeon contends that 25 minutes is inexcusable; 20 minutes is lengthy but acceptable on rare occasions. Considering the generations that have followed since the time of his lectures, even his recommendation ought to be reconsidered and shortened to 3-5 minutes.)
We are now speaking of those public prayers which come before or after the sermon, and for these ten minutes is a better limit than fifteen. Only one in a thousand would complain of you for being too short, while scores will murmur at your being wearisome in length. ‘He prayed me into a good frame of mind,’ George Whitefield once said of a certain preacher, ‘and if he had stopped there, it would have been very well; but he prayed me out of it again by keeping on.’ . . . It is necessary in prayer to drawnear unto God, but it is not required of you to prolong your speech till everyone is longing to hear the word ‘Amen.’
On quoting Scripture during public prayer
I cannot, however, leave the point without urging upon you literal accuracy in all quotations from the word of God. It ought to be a point of honour among ministers always to quote Scripture correctly. It is difficult to always be correct, and because it is difficult, it should be all the more the object of our care.. . If you cannot makeextracts from Scripture correctly, why quote it at all in your petitions? Make use of an expression fresh from your own mind, and it will be quite as acceptable to God as a scriptural phrase defaced or clipped.
On the ordering of public prayer
In order to prevent custom and routine from being enthroned among us, it will be well to vary the order of service as much as possible . . . we will not be bound to sing here and pray there, but will vary the order of service to prevent monotony.
On one’s personality in public prayer
Never imitate those who are earnest. You know a good man who groans, and another whose voice grows shrill when he is carried away with zeal, but do not therefore moan or squeak in order to appear as zealous as they are. Just be natural the whole way through, and ask of God to be guided in it all.
On the impact of private prayer on our public prayer
I feel, my brethren, that we ought to prepare ourselves by private prayer for public praying By living near to God we ought to maintain prayerfulness of spirit, and then we shall not fail in our vocal pleadings.
On genuine piety manifested in public prayer and a bad sermon (com’on brothers, you know we all need to hear this one)
Let your petitions be plain and heart-felt; and while your people may sometimes feel that the sermon was below the mark, may they also feel that the prayer compensated for it all.