If you've ever been to any kind of Bible study or church function where prayer was involved, you have probably found yourself in that awkward situation of having to pray aloud. You sit there nervously, head bowed, listening to the people around you, knowing that it'll be your turn any second. What will you do? Stay quiet until it is so awkward that someone else prays instead? Fumble and stutter through mumbled words?
Then you start to think: "Hey, didn't Jesus condemn the Pharisees for praying out loud? Should we really be doing this? Maybe praying out loud is a sin!" It's true that in the New Testament, Jesus called out some of the Pharisees, telling them that their public prayers were totally unacceptable.
But then Jesus Himself prayed out loud occasionally (see John 17) and so did the apostles (Acts 8:15; 16:25; 20:36). Acts 1:14 says, "They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers." Later, they prayed together in order to figure out who was going to take Judas' place (Acts 1:24).
So if praying out loud is fine for Jesus and His apostles, why was He getting on the Pharisees' case? Were they "doing it wrong"? Well, sort of.
In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable about two men praying out loud: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'" (Luke 18:10-12)
Pause here for a second. Did you see that? The Pharisee was basically insulting the tax collector who was standing right next to him (and any other "sinners" within earshot)! Just because it's said as a prayer, that doesn't make it all right to disrespect. Let's keep going:
"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." (Luke 18:13-14)
Did you notice the difference? The Pharisee was praying aloud to make himself look good to those around him. The tax collector also prayed aloud, but he was speaking honestly to God. Jesus tells us that God accepted the tax collector's prayer, but not that of the Pharisee because of their differing spirits. The Pharisee was arrogant; the tax collector was humble.
So it wasn't the praying out loud in public that was the sin, but rather the attitude of the praying person.
When I first started working at a church, I was terrified to pray out loud during staff meetings. While others were praying, I would obsess over what I was going to say, totally ignoring what anybody else said. Then when it came to my turn, I would try very hard to say just the right words and include everything I was "supposed" to include. Ugh. Very stressful and absolutely not from my heart. It was like I was making a mini speech—not actually talking to God.
That's definitely not the kind of prayer Jesus wants us to pray! Matthew 6:5 says, "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full."
These people were praying just so that other people would think they were spiritual. I may not have "loved" standing and praying, but I was trying to make my prayers "acceptable," and that's not the point of prayer. We shouldn't pray to be heard by others but rather to be heard by God.
In Luke 20:46-47, Jesus warns about acting like you're better than everyone else because you can pray so well. He talks about the scribes, "who like to walk around in long robes" and speak long prayers, yet deep down, they were hypocrites. These pretentious people acted like they loved God, then turned around and oppressed God's people.
To use praying aloud as a way to show off or impress others or to cut someone else down is definitely a sin. But an honest prayer from a humble heart is one that pleases God and can even encourage the people who hear it (Jeremiah 19:12; Psalm 51:17).
Yeah, it can be scary having to pray in front of people. If you are really uncomfortable about it, you can just say so from the beginning and opt out. Good friends should not judge you for being shy. You can keep prayer as something private between you and God.
If you want to get over your fear of praying aloud, consider this: Are you praying very often on your own? If we're not praying to God when we're alone, praying won't come naturally. If we aren't used to talking to Him, the words will be stumbling out of our mouths because they aren't used to being there.
The key to fixing any public speaking anxiety is knowing your subject. If you are familiar with what you're talking about, then it's easier to talk about it. With prayers, it's not so much knowing your subject, but being comfortable with the act of praying. If you don't pray often, you might be afraid of being judged on how you pray or that your words will be examined. If you're out of practice, so to speak, and haven't prayed much in general, then it's probably going to be intimidating to pray with others.
You could try praying out loud when you're alone to loosen up your voice. ☺ But truly, when you're talking to God, He has no expectations except that you have a humble heart and attitude about it (Hebrews 10:22; Proverbs 15:29). Don't say words just to talk; actually talk directly to God.
When you're praying, imagine that it is just you and God—no one listening. Whether you're praying aloud with others or praying alone, put yourself in a bubble and speak only to your Heavenly Father. He will always be listening, and even if you don't know what to say, He knows your heart and exactly what you mean.
Praying out loud in public or in front of other people is not necessarily a sin. What we do with our praying mouths is not what's in question, but rather the attitude of our hearts when we pray. Prayer is for God alone, not for showing off and saying all the "right" words in front of everybody (Matthew 6:5). Talk directly to God when you pray, and don't worry about who else is listening.
Cat is the web producer and editor of 412teens.org. She loves audiobooks, feeding the people she cares about, and using Christmas lights to illuminate a room. When Catiana is not writing, cooking, or drawing, she enjoys spending time with her two teenage kids, five socially-awkward cats, and her amazing friend-amily.