It was a surprising realisation to me: that it’s good to think of public prayer as a performance.
It came from reading the apostle Paul’s letter to Corinth. In Corinth, church members used their gifts. Wonderful!
Not wonderful, according to Paul. The trouble was that they used gifts selfishly, for their own benefit. Gifts without love are a waste of time (1 Cor 13:1-3). Speaking to oneself is nothing like speaking to build up someone else (1 Cor 14:19). It seems the church in Corinth had it upside-down: they rejoiced in selfish solo prayer, they exalted gibberish in public talk.
Paul employed a musical image to show how wrong they were:
If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? (1 Cor 14:7-8)
These three instruments are for public performance. Muddy sound and unclear notes spoil the music. On a battle field, an indistinct bugle is dangerous. ‘Was that the signal to attack, or to run away really fast?’ How much more confusing it is when words are unintelligible!
So when we speak in church – including words of prayer – God wants us to perform well. To be clear is to love our listeners. To be clear is required to build up our listeners.
I admit once more my surprise: I did not expect that God would promote the idea of public prayer as, at least partly, a performance.
Why? Because performance often conveys the feel of being self-absorbed. It carries the faint aroma of look at me! The startling truth is that non-performance is more likely to be selfish in Christian settings. I choose not ‘to perform’ because: I am not worthy (please praise my false humility); it would be selfish (please note my false piety); it distracts from my personal walk with God (be impressed by my spirituality).
The great advantage of thinking of prayer as performance is that I – a redeemed sinner – am forced to consider your needs. I have to plan for what helps them, instead of what helps myself. It’s for your sake that I use the PA system. It’s for the benefit of others that I eliminate prayer’s annoying verbal tics: we do pray; yeah, Lord, like …; I just ask; inJesus’name&forhisgloryAmen.
A well-performed prayer is communal. It is fellowship in the grace of God, the joyous privilege of drawing near to our Father as his children. It’s not too obvious to say that doing good job in leading prayer is, yes, good.