And now, a word of prayer.

WORD OF PRAYER wərd ə preɪər noun. Prayer, usually meant to invoke God before a function.
2. Small sermon, disguised as a prayer. Brace yourself.

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 frequently say, “Before we do that, let’s have a word of prayer.”

By which they never mean one single word; it’s not literal. Neither is this gonna be a short prayer. “Words of prayer” tend to be mighty wordy.

Why’s it called “a word of prayer” instead of simply “a prayer,” as in “Before we do that let’s pray”? My guess is it used to mean a short prayer, like saying grace before a meal, but over time it got longer and longer. Just like when your boss tells you, “Can I have a word?” and it’s never just a word. Maybe the intent was for it to be short—or to sound short, so you won’t dismiss it with, “Don’t have time; sorry.” The same is true about words of prayer: It’s supposed to be a brief invocation, but 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 and lots of time.

And for most words of prayer, it’s in fact a sermon. Disguised as a prayer. It’s one of those public “prayers” where the petitioner isn’t talking to God so much as preaching to the listeners. Kinda like this.

Oh Lord God, we just wanna 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.

And so on, et cetera, ad nauseam.

What prompted this ode to grace? Probably ’cause somebody in the room said something which indicates they believe good karma gets ’em into heaven, and the orator decided to correct them. But not directly; passively. Or passive-aggressively, as the case now is.

So y’know how preachers often use “word” to mean lesson or sermon? (Mainly ’cause it’s used that way in the bible.) To them the “word of prayer” means it’s a prayer which includes a lesson. One which some of ’em actually think should include a lesson. Our “words of prayer” oughta be informative.

Plus they’re a great way to take advantage of the captive audience. Some people would never let people preach at ’em any other time. They’ll go to Sunday morning services, sing, stick money in the offering, listen to the special music, then find some excuse to duck out before the long boring hour-long lecture. Or fiddle with their phone.

Plus they’re an outlet for certain people who never get to preach. At one church I visited, the assistant pastor never got to preach, but he led the “word of prayer,” and used it for a 15-minute mini-sermon. At other chuches women aren’t allowed to preach, but they are allowed to pray, and take 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. Mt 6.5

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.

What about 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 it’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 a word of prayer takes too long. You never 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.