I just finished reading Samuel Miller’s book Thoughts on Public Prayer. As the title suggests, the book does not offer a cohesive treatise on the topic, but a governing thesis nonetheless emerges: since prayer rivals preaching as the most important of a pastor’s public ministries, he ought to prepare his public prayers as carefully as he prepares his public sermons. The book functions loosely as a guide for preparing public prayers.
While Miller does not totally reject spontaneous public prayer, neither does he regard the practice as a desirable norm: spontaneous public prayers should be as rare as spontaneous public sermons. For Miller, privileging spontaneous pulpit discourse (whether prayer or preaching) over studied pulpit discourse is a troubling concession to pietism. That being said, however, Miller also takes a dim view of recited or liturgical prayers, repeatedly thrashing such prayers for their many demerits. Miller advocates instead for prayers extempore, that is, prayers carefully planned (even written), but freshly prepared for each occasion according to the wisdom of the minister.
Miller also rejects the popular idea that the best public prayers are simply shared private prayers. To pray publicly is to lead in prayer, and this demands constant attention to style and manner. Care must be exercised to ensure that nothing in the delivery of a public prayer interferes with the edification of those who hear it. If our public prayers feature halting rhetoric, poor grammar, and “undue prolixity,” a segment of our hearers will recoil from them and their minds will wander. If we use prayer expletives to excess (“O, Lord,” “we pray,” etc.), our listeners may learn to pray in vain repetitions. If our prayers are rambling and disorganized, our listeners will not learn the structure of private prayer and may neglect some of its “departments” (e.g., adoration, thanksgiving, petition, etc.). If public prayers are used to make announcements or even to teach doctrine, our listeners may begin to use their private prayer time to needlessly inform God of what he already knows. If our prayers are uniformly filled with high passion, vehemence, or other excesses, our listeners will not learn the discipline of ordinary prayer. Worst of all, if our public prayers seem perfunctory to our listeners, they may stop praying entirely.
Public prayer also teaches people indirectly about God himself—a fact that, in Miller’s studied opinion, should promote an elevated rather than a casual style of public prayer. Wit and silliness should be eliminated at all costs, together with all that is overly familiar or “amatory” (e.g., “Dear Jesus,” “Sweet Lord,” etc.). Above all we should avoid all that might possibly be viewed as crass, irreverent, or inappropriate to public discourse. Miller grieves over the lack of transcendence in his day and remarks that if the church abandons the gravitas appropriate to its meetings, God’s otherness might be lost entirely. One wonders what Miller would think of the contemporary church!
Positively, public prayers should be saturated with Scripture, organized, dignified, beautiful, and varied. Attention should be directed, by both thanksgiving and petition, to the advance of the Gospel, and all prayers should close with humble doxology and a thoughtful “Amen.” Above all, however, public prayer is rendered excellent by means of preparation and practice: personal study of informing Scriptures and of its exemplary prayers, and most especially the regular cultivation of private prayer.