The following article originally appeared at Ministry Matters.

When I ask laypeople to write prayers for worship, I give them these instructions.

Group or corporate prayer is an important part of worship. The congregation is not just sitting back and relaxing while one person talks. They are allowing a person (or group of people) whom they trust to give voice to their joys, concerns and petitions.

If you have been asked to pray an offertory prayer, a pastoral prayer or an invocation in our church, you are welcome to find a prayer online or in a book and use it. You can also modify a prayer or write one yourself.

Lots of people think prayers should be off-the-cuff and spontaneous. This is okay in some cases, but if you were bringing a petition to a king, and speaking for a group of people, you would rehearse what you would say, right? You’d probably go over it in your head a hundred times. You’d write it down so that when you delivered your petition, you would come off as a competent representative of your people. I believe that’s the way we should approach corporate prayer. We are not praying “our own hearts.” We are praying for the assembled Body.

The main parts of a public prayer are:

1. Addressing God: Any conversation begins with a greeting or an address, even if it’s just “Hi, there.”

2. Talking to God: This is the “meat” of the prayer. It could be invocation: “Be present with us today.” It could be praise: “You are wonderful.” It could be complaint: “We are tired. Why don’t you hear us?” It could be thanksgiving: “Thanks for this amazing day.” It could be a request: “Bless Aunt Mary.” Anything you can imagine saying to God in a group is appropriate here.

3. Conclusion: There are a lot of formulas people use to “sign off,” but the simplest is just, “Amen,” which means “so be it.” In a group, the congregation will often echo your amen. Read some other prayers to see how folks conclude, and find a way that feels natural to you. “By the power of your Holy Spirit we pray” or “In the name of Jesus Christ” are common ways to end public prayer. The main thing is to avoid stumbling to the end, like: “So, anyway… yeah. I guess that’s it. Amen.” That’s fine for small group prayers or private prayers, but not when you are standing in for the voice of the congregation.

If you choose to write your own prayer, here are some guidelines:

1. Short is good. A paragraph that takes up one-third to one-quarter of a page of paper is probably long enough — that would be around a minute and a half. Pastoral prayers tend to be longer because you have more needs to address, and a diverse congregation with many different needs.

2. Use “we” language. You are speaking for the congregation, so this isn’t about you. It’s about we, the church. “We praise you today,” not “I praise you today.”

3. Let the images do the work. Rather than use a lot of abstract words, think about a single image you can paint with your language. “When we see parents pushing their kids in swings at the park, we remember your motherly love for us.” “We are sad, and the ache in our chests makes it hard to catch our breath.”

4. Use inclusive language. It’s okay to call God “Father,” or use “he,” as long as we remember to balance it out with gender-neutral or feminine imagery as well at other times. Avoid saying “Father and Mother God,” because that’s just overkill. Try instead, “God who loves us like a parent,” or “God who loves us like a mother.” You can also address your prayer to Jesus, in which case it’s fine to use masculine language, or the Holy Spirit, in which case I’d prefer you use feminine language. The main thing here is not to be “politically correct,” but to give people a chance to connect with God using imagery that will help them grow spiritually. Big Daddy God is fine, let’s just not overdo it or limit ourselves to one expression.

5. Think about your own experience. The best resource you have for writing prayers is your own experience and your own spiritual journey. Think about what you need to hear from God, and craft your prayer around that. So, if you’re writing the invocation, maybe you say, “Let us hear your voice, God. Speak our names.” If you’re writing the offertory prayer, maybe you say, “Help us let go our fear of not having enough, and trust in your abundance.” Let God inspire you through your own walk of faith.

6. Avoid preaching. While it’s okay to refer to Scripture or use biblical imagery, you aren’t doing this to teach or change attitudes. Again, remember that you are the voice of the congregation.

Advice for Small Group Leaders: Using the Magic Question

I’ve absorbed my share of sermons and essays that lament how we greet each other. “When you ask someone ‘How are you?’, do you really want to know?”, they ask.

No. No, I don’t.

I figure it’s pretty obvious to anyone who can read social context that “How are you?” isn’t actually a question. It’s a greeting. Sometimes we shorten it to “Howdy!” Imagine saying “Howdy” to someone only to have them stop, scratch their head, ruminate for a few minutes and reply, “Well, I feel a bit melancholy today, but I think it is because I didn’t get enough protein in my breakfast.” I wouldn’t want to lengthen the conversation.

For the ancient Romans, “Salve!” (sal-way) was the preferred greeting. It means “Health to you!” It’s also where we get the word “salvation.” We’ve simply turned a wish for health and well-being into a call-and-response rhetorical question.

Jesus gave his followers guidelines for how to show love for others in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:47 says, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” He uses greeting people who are not your brothers and sisters as an example of impartial love for all people. Greeting others demonstrates a loving attitude toward all people. It creates a culture of hospitality He did not say you needed to stop and have a therapy session.

Having said all that, there are times, especially in small group meetings, when I do want to encourage people to share. John Wesley’s “How is it with your soul?” is a bit abrupt in its intimacy. I’ve found that if I replace “How are you?” with the following question, people begin opening up to talk about their lives:

“How has your week been?”

Rather than saying “Fine,” or “Okay,” people tend to talk about specific events, feelings, and activities. Once we are having that conversation, I find it much easier to ask people where they see God active in their lives. We might even get around to addressing John Wesley’s “How is it with your soul?” question. It also creates opportunities to pray for specific things that people might not mention if the leader only asks for “prayer requests.”

I also like the freedom the question “How has your week been” gives to others. You are still free to answer “Fine,” if you don’t really want to go into detail.

I stumbled on this question about ten years ago when I was putting together a worship team that would pray before practice each week. I wanted our prayer time to be something more than the usual perfunctory words about the weather and playing well. I wanted the group to bond as a team, and to honestly pray for each other and to know what was going on with their team mates. I started beginning each practice with this question, and we’d spend the first thirty minutes of band practice praying for each other.

I noticed that after about six weeks, they started asking “How has your week been?” in other contexts. They started asking it of me. They started asking it of people during worship. That simple change of phrase did far more to change the culture of our congregation than a dozen sermons asking “Do you really care about the answer when you greet someone?”

Psychologist John Gottman talks about the importance of a married couple having their “magic ten minutes a day.” This is the time they spend reconnecting at the end of the day in a stress-reducing conversation, which can begin with a simple “How was your day?” I’ve started calling “How has your week been?” the magic question for small groups. Creating intimacy by hearing each other and praying with each other is part of building a successful small group.

It’s amazing how a fairly simple change of wording can shift the way we interact with each other.