“Unspoken.”

High school youth group services can vary. My previous church’s youth services looked exactly like the adult services: There’d be worship music, then the youth pastor would deliver a sermon. When I was in high school, the service was way more informal: We’d play a game for a half hour, then sit down, sing a few worship choruses while the pastor led on acoustic guitar, then he’d present a short message, pray, and then we’d hang out till our parents picked us up—at which point the kids who could drive, drove home.

Before the pastor prayed, he’d take prayer requests. Got anything to ask of God? Want a real live capital-P PASTOR to pray about it?—’cause surely Jesus hears his prayers, if anyone’s. Here’s your chance kids. Pitch him anything.

So we would.

  • Big test coming up; we want God’s help, either in improving our memory, or compensating for our rotten study habits.
  • Big game coming up; we want God’s help to do our best, and of course we’d like him to confound our opponents.
  • God help this kid I know whose dating life is a wreck (followed by some gossip about the juicy details, which the gossiper assumed is totally permissible because it’s a “prayer request”—yeah right).
  • God help this kid I know whose family life is a shambles.
  • God help me, ’cause I have stress for one of the myriad reasons kids stress.
  • “Unspoken.”

Wasn’t always the same kid every week who said “Unspoken.” Sometimes it was more than one kid. What’s it mean? It’s short for “unspoken prayer request.” We wanted to ask God for something, and wanted our pastor to include it—“God, please take care of all the unspoken needs tonight”—but we wanted it it remain solely between ourselves and God. Everybody else didn’t need to know what it was. God knows. That’s enough.

I was not the best Christian in high school. More of a giant hypocrite. But I’d invite friends from school to my church’s youth group, ’cause it was fun. Some were Christian and knew all about unspoken requests. And some wouldn’t, so I was called upon to be their tour guide to the Evangelical subculture.

One particular week, some kid—let’s call him Mervyn—had been the only one to ask for an “unspoken,” and I got the expected question from my high school friend.

HE. “What’s ‘unspoken’ mean?”
ME. “He needs God’s help for something embarrassing. My guess is he’s trying to give up porn.”
A DOZEN OTHER KIDS. [overhearing] Tremendous laughter.

’Cause Mervyn really did need to give up all the porn. But for about a year thereafter, this became the regular youth group joke about what “unspoken” really means. Whenever someone said “Unspoken,” whether it was Mervyn or not, someone in the group would say under their breath, “Porn.” Followed by giggles, and an irritated look from the youth pastor. He didn’t know what just happened, but he didn’t trust it was anything wholesome. Eventually he did find out, and read us the riot act.

But I admit to this day, whenever someone contributes “Unspoken” as a prayer request, a little voice in the back of my head pipes up, “Porn.” It amuses me. Bad Christian.

“Unspoken” indicates an unsafe environment.

Here’s the problem with unspoken prayer requests: Bad Christians like me.

Whatever Mervyn’s prayer request was, he really wanted prayer for it, but he didn’t trust the group.

Nor should he have, considering there were jerks like me in it, who’d make fun instead of being sympathetic and supportive. Or other jerks who’d take what he said in confidence, and blab it everywhere. Either way, if you share real problems, they’d be all over the school by morning.

Some prayer groups just aren’t trustworthy. Youth groups are absolutely one of them. Because they’re kids! By their very definition they’re full of immature Christians; they’re immature human beings, so of course they’re gonna be immature Christians. Doesn’t matter how “mature” some of those kids behave. I know from experience: Their general lack of intellectual, emotional, and physical maturity is gonna have an effect on their spiritual maturity. Kids won’t believe this; I know I certainly didn’t believe it when I was a kid. Still true though.

And we can have immature Christians at any age. And of course they can attend any prayer meeting. They’re exactly the reason such a thing as an unspoken prayer request must exist. Yeah, they shouldn’t need to exist; churches should be safe spaces, full of safe, compassionate people. But we aren’t. Because churches minister to sinners. So don’t be surprised when you discover sinners in there!—spoiling things.

Some prayer groups are trustworthy, and in these groups we should be able to unburden ourselves. So pay attention to which sort of people are in your prayer groups. Are they solid people? Can they keep confidences? (Can you?) If you don’t know any such Christians, go find them. If you can’t find ’em in your church, perhaps you need to switch churches. The unspoken request should be an emergency measure, not a usual feature. Go find some Christians you can be real with.

And when you discover rotten apples in the bunch, do make sure to warn the prayer leader immediately.

Confess!

Y’see, part of the purpose of group prayer is that we make our requests to God together. We agree about these requests, and pray as a group for ’em.

Most of the time, our agreement is pretty automatic. Christians don’t usually bring inappropriate requests to our prayer groups. We tend to know better. Say I’m really angry with my wife, and I really wish God would push her down a flight of stairs. I know that’s not an appropriate prayer request, so I won’t make it. I have that much commonsense, anyway.

Now let’s say I lack commonsense; I’m too angry to think straight. Well, the group will know better, refuse to pray for any such thing, and try to talk me down. They won’t pray for the wife to take a tumble, but they will pray I learn to control my anger, among other things.

Now imagine I replace “God, shove her down the stairs” with “I have an unspoken prayer request.” What’s the prayer group gonna do? Reject the request and talk me down? Unless the Holy Spirit warns one of them there’s something off about me, they’re gonna assume I’m praying for something worthy, and pray, “Lord, you know Leslie’s need. Please grant his request.”

But don’t worry: God’s not dumb. He has no intention of saying yes to any such thing. He’ll ignore my request. But what happened to the prayer group’s ability to correct me and minister to me? Ain’t there. I stole it from them.

Okay, let me pick a less looney example. Say my car broke down, and I need a mechanic but can’t afford one, and I pridefully don’t want the group to know how poor I am. (Or I really don’t want them to know me all that well. Either way.) So instead of sharing my real need, I turn it into an unspoken request. Again, they’ll pray for it, and God may help me with it, or not; up to him. But again: What happened to the prayer group’s ability to minister to me? There might be a mechanic among them, or one of them might know one. One might be able to loan me a car, or give me a ride, or even give me money. I could get all sorts of practical help if there are generous Christians in the room. In fact the Spirit’s usual way of answering such prayer requests is through these Christians.

But unless the Spirit tells on me, none of this is gonna happen. And that’s on me, not on God. I need to be forthcoming, not withholding. We all do.

Same with sin. Everybody sins. But few people care to confess any sins in a prayer group. We’re afraid of what people will think of us. Unnecessarily so: In nearly every case, people think, “Big deal. I’ve done worse.” Yet we always assume they’ll be horrified—as if they’ve never sinned in their lives, and we’re too foul to be in such company. It’s an irrational fear. ’Cause it’s the Fear, the devil messing with us lest we act in faith.

When you join a prayer group, avoid unspoken prayer requests whenever possible. Confess. Share what you can. Don’t cut your fellow Christians off from a chance to minister, to remind us God forgives all, to encourage us to go and sin no more. And watch God use your boldness to help you grow.