Quite frequently, I find myself leading songs for my local congregation. This is, in general, a task I greatly enjoy. As a person with some interest in liturgical matters, I tend to be interested in the order and structure of formal community worship. As someone who likes to flap my arms around to keep time and sing as well as introduce the speakers, there is a lot to enjoy about selecting appropriate songs and finding it wonderful when there is a close connection between a message and the music that I have chosen without knowing what the message will be. I enjoy watching and listening to the congregation as a whole sing and to the piano and other instruments (if they happen to be playing; they weren’t today) making beautiful music from the usually familiar songs in our hymnal. Yet there is one thing I greatly dislike about leading songs, and that is having to find people to give the opening and closing prayers.
One would not think that this should be a serious problem. Let us do some rough estimation of some numbers. If you attend services every week as well as on the holy days throughout the year, you will hear roughly 60 opening prayers and 60 closing prayers during the course of a single year. If you have been attending church for two decades, you will have heard roughly 1200 opening prayers and the same number of closing prayers, and the longer you have attended services, the more you will have heard. Most of these prayers have a similar form. Although there will be some variation based on the particular style of the person giving the prayer, there will be a lot of similarities between the prayers. They will generally open by speaking to our heavenly Father and close with a reference to the prayer being in the name of our Lord and Savior and elder Brother and sooncoming King, Jesus Christ. In between there may be references to guests, our brethren around the world, prayer requests, a prayer that the messages will be heard and applied, gratitude, and so on.
Yet while anyone in a congregation will have heard likely thousands of prayers during the course of the time as a member of various congregations, most of which will be broadly similar and substantially alike, it is not an easy task to find people willing to give prayers. When I am standing on the stage before services looking around for someone to ask to give a prayer, I feel like some kind of eagle on an eyrie looking for some kind of small and slow prey animal. And undoubtedly some of the people who see that particular sharp-eyed look probably feel like some sort of prey animal who has caught the unfortunate interest of a hungry bird of prey who is swooping in for the kill. It really shouldn’t be this way. There is something different about giving corporate prayers for a congregation than giving individual prayers. No one is grading someone for their eloquence, and no one who is paying attention to the services should be without at least some understanding of how such a prayer should be structured. While it is a serious matter to speak on behalf of an entire congregation to God, it is not as if anyone is going to make one feel embarrassed or ashamed because one doesn’t speak easily in such matters.
Why is it so hard to find people who are willing to give prayers? For one, there are some people who simply seem very shy and timid about speaking in front of an audience. Sometimes this shyness comes off as awkwardness, something I can relate to, and sometimes it is covered by a particularly aggressive attitude of flatly refusing to give prayers. At other times people seem to think that if they have been struggling particularly mightily that it would be wrong for them to give such a prayer on behalf of a congregation. Some people manage to successfully avoid giving prayers by making sure that they are not dressed for it, since showing up to church without a suit and tie will generally preclude one from being asked to give a prayer. Others see my eye aiming at their direction and they manage to find some sort of quiet place to hide out until my hunting expedition is done. I know that other songleaders have the same problem because many of them ask me to give a closing prayer, sometimes apologetically because they know that I will not refuse them, which is the surest way to end up on the short list to do a task that few people seem to want to do.
And why is that? Why wouldn’t someone want to speak on behalf of the congregation? I have always found it interesting to participate in the ceremonies of community worship. In growing up the adult men of my family–my father, maternal grandfather, and maternal uncle–were all regularly asked to give prayers or to lead hymns or to give sermonettes. It was viewed as an honor and an aspect of serving the congregation that was expected. I grew up, not unreasonably, expecting that this service would someday come to me to do, and so I wanted to do it well. I went to an extra lecture that taught how to lead songs properly when I was at the Ambassador Bible Center (now Ambassador Bible College) because I figured the task would eventually be mine to do and I wanted to make sure I did it competently. And I was not raised to be the sort of person who dodged opportunities at service, especially when I knew I was capable of doing them. For whatever reason, not everyone feels the same, whether they do not feel capable or because they do not want to take the time to improve in such areas if they lack the skill to do so at present. Asking someone to give a prayer feels like asking a girl to dance, with about the same odds of rejection. How to improve the odds seems like a worthy thing for us to ponder and consider.