In a recent conversation with my pastor, I recalled an event I attended as a journalist where a civic organization's chaplain, not a clergyman, said grace before barbecue was served. It was a painful memory. The poor man rambled at length, frequently repeating the phrases "Father God" and "we just want" and really not asking for much in particular. At times he seemed to get stuck in a kind of verbal thicket and had to mouth sweet nothings in order to keep up a semblance of saying something while he clearly didn't have a thought in his head.
Apart from an argument from Scripture, and indeed the words of Jesus, that could readily demolish this thinking in him who has ears to hear, the main problem with this is that most people are so very, very bad at ex corde prayer. The thought of being asked to say grace in front of a group of people must, and should, give them cold sweats. The experience of having to listen to them trying, regardless of their inadequacy to the task, should school us not to ask that of them. It's hard on the rest of us, and it makes a hash of the Golden Rule. We wouldn't want to be put in their position; why do we do it to them?
Now I can say all this with righteous detachment, because I do in fact know how to pray off-script, and how to sound good doing it. And though I don't accept it as given that such prayers are any better than, say, the prayer the Lord Himself taught us, I'm not above sharing a few pointers that, with a bit of practice, should be able to help anybody pray in public without the benefit of notes or rote memory, and without making a pitiful fist of it.
In short, here are a few tips on how you, too, can pray in public without sounding like a complete ass.
1. Stop and think. Even if you must pray without a net, that doesn't mean you shouldn't have some preparation. Take a moment to prepare yourself mentally. Insist on having a good five minutes to think, without someone talking at you and without being expected to talk. Excuse yourself from the room, say, to freshen up in the bathroom, and enjoy a moment of privacy with your own thoughts. Or just close your eyes and take a time out.
Use this time to decide where your prayer is going to begin and where it's going to end, and if you can, try to visualize something like a route between the two points. If the mob is clamoring to hear you pray and they are too inconsiderate to grant you a moment's leave or reprieve, let your fallback strategy be to call on everyone to share with you a moment of silence while they frame their own petitions in their heart; then use that moment to frame yours.
2. Don't be caught without a book. Even if you know the group would frown on being led in a prayer read out of it, you should have it with you. A good first choice is the Bible. A close second, a hymnal or prayer-book. A distant third, a book of sermons, devotions or spiritual exercises. If there's any risk that you will be called forward to pray - say, because the regular chaplain or minister became unavailable on short notice and you're the next best thing - such a book should be as much part of your survival kit as road flares and bottled water.
In the first place, having something to hang onto may help control the panic. In the second place, you can use part of your five minutes of thinking time to rifle through the book in search of a quotation to use as a jumping off place or an organizing metaphor, or even to give you an idea what to pray about. "Lord, you told the prophet Isaiah that the breath of your mouth will slay the wicked. Breathe mercifully on this conference of the Halitosis Sufferers Prayer Circle..."
3. Prepare in advance for even the slight possibility you will be called on to pray in front of a group. You can do this, first of all, by making a habit of praying daily, or even oftener. Pray aloud and listen to yourself. Record yourself praying and listen to the playback. Write down your prayers and read them later. Note ways your praying could be improved and work on those. Second of all, you can prepare for prayer by studying. Be first and foremost a student of Scripture, armed with a wide range of biblical references as well as the theological raw material of prayer. Liturgy, theological literature and the written prayers of previous generations can also be useful models to study.
Observe, for example, the structure of collects, those stylized liturgical prayers that compress so much thought into so few words. If you remember to do all the things a collect does - addressing God by name, asking for something He is sure to give, stating an appropriate precedent or rationale for that assurance, and closing with a doxology - you won't go too far wrong. And if you can manage to tie all these parts together in a unity, as though each part of the prayer were a piece of evidence in a lawsuit, you might even pull it off with real style.
4. If you get stuck, stop talking. Needing to fill every second with blab is a rookie mistake. Some of the most effective prayers can be ones in which each sentence is set off by a pause at least as long as itself. Breathe deeply, stay calm, and think. Use the pause to plan the next sentence or two. And who knows, your hearers may find it makes you sound deep.
If you find that you've run clean out of ideas and can't seem to find a way out of your prayer, head straight for the exit. I don't mean run out of the room; I mean just end the prayer, preferably before the point where everyone else realizes what a hard time you're having and becomes uncomfortable for you. Having a stock outro like, "In your most holy name, Lord Jesus, Amen" could save your bacon. With a little more thought and preparation you could finesse a "Whatever else we should ask, we leave in Your loving hands," or a "Help us to trust you with humble and thankful hearts," etc.
5. Actually pray. I've said this in a previous post on this topic, so I won't belabor it here; but really, if you're going to take the podium to pray on behalf of any group of people, it behooves you to understand just what you're about. Praying is, at the simplest level, asking God for stuff. It can be spiritual stuff; it can be material stuff. But if you don't actually ask God for anything, you haven't prayed. You can put forth petition after petition thanking God for this and praising God for that, and it's all very well; but you haven't hit the target until you actually make a request.
So if you're going to pray in public, and you give yourself the necessary five minutes to order your thoughts, try not to let even one of those minutes pass without thinking of something for which to pray. You're not ready if all you've got to say is, "Father God, we just want to thank you for what an awesome God you are, and for bringing us all here to share this incredible food or to do this excellent work, or whatever, but Father God, gee whiz, Lord, you're just the greatest," and so on and on and on.
6. Earn extra credit by being brief. Speech is silver; silence is golden. While having a single thought in your head may mark an improvement over most impromptu public prayers, holding yourself to just the one, or at most two or three, could save you from becoming annoyingly long-winded. The way of virtue lies not in having much to say, or saying many words, or filling many minutes, but in getting right to the point and making it pointedly.
It isn't enough to sit down and shut up when you've run out of things to say; it is just as important to stop short of saying more than necessary. Those who asked you to stand up probably didn't mean to hear you rattle off a harangue listing all 1,001 sins of spiritual pride; they will thank you for restricting it to a statement of the general topic and a request for help staying humble by the Lord who knows all about that.
7. Fight the cliche. Contend for all you're worth against the besetting sin of triteness. If the whole point of being required to pray off the cuff is to avoid vain repetition of empty formulas, whence comes this wasting illness of constantly repeating the phrases "Father God" and "we just want"? (These are only a couple examples.) The "Our Father" addresses God with more spiritual depth, and it doesn't come off sounding like a whiny excuse. But if you're bound and determined to ignore Jesus' command to "Pray this way," then at least engage your native reason.
Not that I'm accepting, even for the sake of argument, the assumption that Jesus forbids the slightest taint of ritual; but if you're going to go with that assumption, then when you repeat such faddish mumbo-jumbo you are in effect sinning against your own conscience. To scurrilously misapply Luther's words, if you must sin, sin boldly and use the rituals Christ Himself instituted rather than those popularized by mediocre religious pundits of our time. Or, at a hazard, come up with a wider variety of synonyms for "Father God" and "we just want." You don't have to read them out loud, but those collects I mentioned can help you collect a nice assortment of those synonyms, such as "Heavenly Father" and "we beseech you."
8. Act like you believe. Pray with assurance. Don't whine pitifully. Don't emote dramatically (unless you can't help it). Don't cajole God like a sullen teenager who already knows before he asks his Dad for the car keys that the likeliest answer will be No. Don't argue like a lawyer who has to convince a jury with an airtight case. To be sure, there is Tip No. 9 to contend with, but don't let that stop you from following Jesus' example, again in the Our Father, and submitting your requests to God with boldness and confidence. "Dear God, give us this, grant us that, protect us from the other thing, and because we know You can and because we know You care we all say Amen."
9. Don't be presumptuous. Be careful to check your demands against the revealed and hidden will of God. If what you're going to ask for runs contrary to God's revealed will, swallow it and reconsider. If what you're going to ask for may or may not be His will - and here it helps to have done your homework as per Tip No. 3 - hearken to Jesus' example and conclude, "Not our will, but Your will be done."
In Miracles, C. S. Lewis makes an interesting case that because God is all-knowing and we are not, we can pray for a result that has already happened (only we don't know about it) without falling guilty of tempting God. For example, we can pray that Grandma made it on the plane from which we hope to collect her at the airport in a little while, even after the plane has departed, because even though that has already either happened or not, from our point of view it is still an open question while before God all of time lies open like a book. He, Lewis says, can take prayers received at 10 a.m. into account while shaping the events of 9 a.m.
That's a mindblowing idea, and a wonderful comfort, but it doesn't give us a blank check to tempt God. So be careful not to demand anything of him in prayer that is frustrated by our own deliberate actions, or that conflicts with what we know about Him, or that requires Him to reveal more about His will for our contingent reality than He has promised to reveal at this time. Be careful, for example, not to attempt to blackmail God into doing favors for us, or giving us signs, or fulfilling our desires, in order to justify our faith in Him. If He hasn't promised it in so many words, we submit it to His loving Fatherly will and we accept whatever answer He gives us, even if it be "No."
10. Don't Actually Be an Ass. You can't fix stupid. You can't train pigs to sing opera; you'll only ruin the music and annoy the pigs. And it is futile to expect false teachers and misinterpreters of Scripture to straighten up for even one little prayer.
I am learning to think of biblical hermeneutics as a set of philosophical axioms that are permanently fixed in one's mind, in many cases before an exegete even begins to approach the text. No argument is likely to alter the way they think about things once they have begun. So on a certain level, it is pointless to suggest that to pray in public without sounding like an ass it helps not to be one, or to advise them not to mess it all up by applying bad theology and twisted biblical exegesis to the task of prayer. They'll teach what they teach and read the text the way they read it and that's that. So what this tip really amounts to is posterior protection. Did you follow all my tips and still couldn't pray your way out of square corner? You may want to consider the possibility that your problem goes deeper and there is no ten-step process to fix it. Instead of advice, I can only offer the prayer that God will operate on you to "cast down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5).