Unthinking Patterns of Public Prayer

Public PrayerThere’s a certain pattern that creeps out when Evangelicals pray in public.  Such prayers come out peppered with two things, a title or name and the word, just, repeated throughout.  It’s not uncommon for worship leaders to pray this way, but I think it’s fairly common in almost any Evangelical who happens to be praying with an audience.  You’ll hear prayers like,

Jesus, we just want to worship you this morning, and praise your name, Jesus.  You are so holy, and we just bow before you, because there is no one else who is worthy.  And so, Jesus, we just offer ourselves to you, and we lift up your name, Jesus. …

There’s nothing really wrong with this kind of prayer, but I feel like there’s something underneath those prayers that isn’t ideal.  It’s sort of an awkward way of talking when you step back and look at it.  In a recent service, out of curiosity, I counted the number of times “God” showed up during the prayers, and it averaged out to one every four and a half seconds.  When we talk to another person, we don’t use their name every few seconds, and I imagine the word, just, doesn’t show up every time we state our intention to do something.  So why does it show up in prayers?

Some of these are really heartfelt prayers, and I do appreciate the heart and intention behind them.  However, I suspect that there might be more than a desire to praise God or express our hearts to Him driving it.  If that’s the case, then if those things could be faced in some positive manner, then subsequent prayers might be that much more heartfelt, that much more dedicated to the God that they are intended to honor.  But what is underneath them?

I think the first issue is that it’s somehow managed to work its way into Evangelical culture.  Despite the awkwardness (at least to me) of such prayers, they have become something of a standard from those praying in public, even among worship leaders.  When those are praying in public present their prayers in this fashion, then those who decide to begin praying for the first time in public probably pick up those same habits, intentionally or not, simply to get a feel for how go about this art-form.  That’s no worse than an infant mimicking the sounds her parents make in order to learn how to speak, but if Mom and Dad are using poor grammar, then this little girl may grow up with the same bad habits.  Likewise with prayers of “Lord” and “just”.  It’s, first of all, learned, but the model may not be the best.

Beyond this learned pattern, I imagine there are other issues.  One idea that has occurred to me is that such pepperings are a form of emphasis.  Lots of languages have flavoring words.  Germans occasionally throw in ‘mal’, as I understand it, for emphasis or nuance of some sort.  Is this an unthinking attempt to do the same, but lacking a word, we throw in “just”?  Maybe.  It’s what I feel like when I do it every now and again (kicking myself when it slips out).  Other languages use repetition for emphasis.  The Psalms and Proverbs have a sort of means of doing this when they use couplets that say the same thing or the use of “six” followed by “seven” (see Prov. 6:16).  Maybe we want something to accentuate what we’re saying, and this word or the repeating of God’s name may be the best English has to offer.

I suspect, however, that there is a more fundamental and perhaps simpler reason for why this habit exists.  I suspect that these flavoring words are a sort of defense against the anxiety of public prayer.  I know I don’t throw in these flavoring words when I’m praying alone, even if it is out loud.  So perhaps these are some kind of unconscious safety nets we throw out for ourselves.  Public prayer can be freaky.  It’s a form of public speaking, and people are terrified of that.  So we get anxious.  We want some way of alleviating that anxiety, so we (unconsciously) look for things that are familiar or places we can come back to that offer a foundation to stand on.  The justs and names/titles may offer that, a sort of anchor that we can come back to that makes us feel more secure.  Don’t know what to say?  Well, you can always jump back to a “Jesus”.  That’s good, right?  That’s a bit of a security, to know you can return to that one word.

Still, we’re called to let fear be cast out by the love of God (1 John 4:18).  Paul calls us to not be anxious, but when we are, to bring those concerns to God (Phil. 4:6).  Peter says something similar (1 Peter 5:7).  So part of the goal of our spiritual lives is to not be ruled by fear but by love.  Therefore, if these public prayers are anxiety-driven in some way, is there a better way?  I suspect so, but since this post is already long enough, I’ll throw out my suggestions (okay, so many of them are actually my genius wife’s suggestions) later on.


One response

  1. Going back to one of your earlier posts, let me suggest another reason for the repeated words. . .aversion to silence. I think those leading public prayer often are trying to figure out what to say next, and they don’t want to stop and be silent while their next words come to mind. Silence during public prayer is uncomfortable: “Is he done?” “Can I sit down?” As a result, the pray-er interjects these filler words to give the next thought or phrase time to come into focus. Repeated words or phrases are better than “uhh”. . .or silence.

    September 15, 2009 at 5:07 am

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