Christianese which nearly always means, “And now, a really long prayer.”
- Word of prayer /wərd ə preɪər/ n. Prayer, usually meant to invoke God before a function.
- 2. Small sermon, disguised as a prayer. Brace yourself.
From time to time, right before we do something important, like take a meeting, drive someplace, eat lunch, get a really large tattoo on our back, or whatever, Christians will often say, “Before we do that, let’s have a word of prayer.”
Nope, they don’t mean it literally: It won’t be one single word. At all. For darn sure it’s not gonna be short. Words of prayer tend to be awfully wordy.
Why “a word of prayer,” instead of simply “a prayer”? My guess is it originally meant a short prayer. Y’know, like when somebody stops you and says, “Can I have a word—just a word—with you?” They intend for it to be short. Or at least sound short, so you don’t respond, “Too busy,” and keep going. But depending on the person who wants “just a word with you,” the conversation might be mighty long. Some of them have no idea “just a word” means brevity. I once had a boss whose “just a word” could turn into hours-long meetings.
The same is true of a word of prayer. The petitioner might intend to be short, because the food’s getting cold. In the hands of certain people, who couldn’t be brief even if you strapped a time bomb to their genitals, a word of prayer is just gonna take time. Lots of time. Lots and lots of time.
True of most Christians.
A common phenomena is the “word of prayer” which is actually a sermon disguised as a prayer. It’s one of those public “prayers” where the orators are no longer actually talking to God. They’re preaching. Kinda like this.
Oh Lord God, we just thank you for your grace… Your grace, which is your unmerited favor, Lord. It’s what you think about us. It’s what you’ve saved us by… Lord, let everyone in this room recognize we’re not saved by our good works, by our good attitudes, by right thinking, even by right theology, but by your grace. Lord, let us not condemn ourselves for our sins, or condemn others for their sins,* but recognize we and they are all saved by your grace. Lord, make us aware of your grace. Teach everyone in this room how amazing it is.
(*Left unsaid: “…like that last person just prayed.” ’Cause you’ll find a lot of sermon-prayers are passive-aggressive responses after someone else just prayed or said something which rubbed ’em the wrong way.)
People justify it because “word” often implies lesson or sermon—like it does in the bible. So, they figure, a word of prayer should include a lesson. Your “word of prayer” oughta be informative.
You’ll find a lot of “words of prayer” are used as a handy way to take advantage of the captive audience. Sometimes it’s because nobody will let ’em preach any other time: At one church I visited, the assistant pastor led the “word of prayer” during the service, so he gave a little 15-minute mini-sermon, ’cause the lead pastor never let him preach. At another, women weren’t allowed to preach, but they were allowed to pray, and took advantage.
I can’t say I blame them, but I still discourage sermon-prayers. Let’s be blunt: They’re hypocrisy. Ain’t nobody talking to God right now. I know; when people sermon-pray they’re often doing it with the best of intentions. They wanna share something God showed them. They wanna offer encouragement or correction. Thing is, they’re going about it the wrong way. Sermons are sermons, and prayers are prayers. Crossing the two means you’re putting on a show for others to watch, and as I recall, Jesus doesn’t approve.
Such people need to stop pretending to pray, address the other person—or the group—and share their information, then go back to prayer. They should do this, but don’t.
Usually ’cause they’re spiritually immature. Years ago in this one prayer group I attended regularly, there was a fellow named Fred (name not changed; I’m totally ratting him out) who regularly did the sermon-prayer thingy. He was one of those overzealous young theologians who liked his prayers to be theologically correct. And formal; lots of “thou” and “thine.” My present-day-English, blunt, confessional, definitely-not-Calvinist prayers weirded him out a whole lot. He felt duty-bound to correct me by following my prayers with his declarations of who God really is. Hardly just me; he corrected lots of others. I remember one night he and some other guy got into what was basically a sermon-prayer duel. It was amusing… but very wrong.
Fred’s a good example why sermon-prayers don’t always work. I knew Fred was immature, kinda like the neighborhood brat who runs round shouting “Butthole butthole butthole!” in the hopes of getting the wrong kind of attention. So I just ignored him. I used the time he wasted to actually pray, silently. Lots of apologies. Requests for God to strike Fred dumb, followed by take-backs. Requests for the strength to resist temptation… ’cause it was such evil fun to say “theologically incorrect” things in prayer, purely to make Fred flinch.
Anywho, avoid this preaching-disguised-as-prayer behavior. Resist the temptation to lapse into it. If you lead a prayer group, quench this behavior: “Are you talking to God, or to us? Because if you have something to say, say it. Don’t disguise it as prayer.” And if you aren’t the leader, ask the group leader to address it. ’Cause it is hypocrisy.
When you’re trapped in a long prayer.
In the United States (and I’ve seen this in a few other countries), when people pray, everyone else is expected to hold still, like a massive game of Christian Freeze Tag, and wait for the petitioner to be done. Can’t do anything till they’re done. Must stand there, with head bowed and eyes closed (and watering), and wait. Patiently. Wait and wait and wait.
That’s the custom. It’s a stupid custom. I ignore it.
Some folks think that’s rude of me. I don’t care. Sermon-prayers are hypocrisy. Long public prayers are hypocrisy. And since we’re talking about fake prayers, why do I have to stand at attention as if it’s a real prayer? Dude ain’t talking to God, so I ain’t waiting to eat. “Amen.” Dig in.
You’re not trapped when the “word of prayer” is growing ever longer. You don’t have to leave your eyes closed the whole time. Open your eyes sometime and look round the room: You’ll find a lot of the people have their eyes open, waiting out the prayer leader. And some of ’em are doing other stuff. Not because they’re not devout, but because, like me, they know they’re not immobilized. They can listen to the prayer—they can even pray along—and shop for handguns on their smartphones. Y’know, multitasking.
I will say that sometimes long prayers can be useful pauses in our hurry-hurry-hurry culture. Nobody wants to stop for a few minutes; time’s a-wasting! So when the prayer leader is yammering away, these longer-than-average prayer times can be really good for those of us who need to stop and pay attention to God for longer stretches.
You don’t have to listen to their mini-sermons. Pray your own prayers. Take that time for your own devotions. Read your bible. If you can block ’em out and focus, you can even use it for meditation time. Can be nice.