Confessions of a Prayer-Averse Minister

Confessions of a Prayer-Averse Minister December 7, 2011

I’m sitting in the airport as I write this, halfway between home and Philadelphia, where I’m joining dozens of other author/speakers at Tony Campolo’s Red Letter Christians retreat. Frankly, I was shocked I was even invited, particularly when I browsed the list of invitees.

Bruce Reyes Chow, Tony Jones, Peter Rollins, Rachel Held Evans, Gareth Higgins, Shane Claiborne, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Spencer Burke, Jay Bakker, Diana Butler Bass…

Oh yeah, and Tony Campolo.

Not sure how I got included as a stowaway in such a list of esteemed thinkers, I quickly submitted my RSVP before they could change my mind. I was excited to see the schedule, sent out by Tony’s son, Bart, that outlined how we would spend the better part of three days sharing ideas, stories and our lives together. All this, and my father-in-law’s church is sponsoring me so I can afford to go.

Sometimes it’s better not to question good fortune, but instead grab hold with both hands and see where you end up.

I had a moment of trepidation after scanning the list of events when I cam across one of the final activities tonight:



I know this will probably sound weird to some people who know me as the guy who will speak before hundreds (thousands if you let me), will sing, attempt to perform spoken word poetry and, yes, even deliver a sermon, but the thought of praying out loud in front of other people scares the crap out of me.

When I was growing up, public prayer was almost a Christian rite of passage. You didn’t officially get your Baptist card until you had mellifluously prayed over a green bean casserole or two. But I never felt that stirring of the spirit others seemed to experience, and the words never came easily, if at all.

For one, I always think way too much about what I’m going to say. Is this grounded in theology I actually support? Am I asking for divine handouts as if God were a giant vending machine? Am I seeking favor above others? Am I making assumptions about the sensitivities of those present that might be wrong, or even hurtful? Did I use inclusive God language? am I being graded on this? Will there be a test later???

Also, if I’m being completely honest, I don’t really know who it is I’m supposed to be praying to. Yes, I know that prayer is our attempt to seek greater communion with God, but my understanding of God doesn’t really fit with the idea of out-loud public prayer. For starters, I don’t see God as a “who,” and I’m not even sure God is a “what.” God just “is.” I don’t think God has ears and needs me to speak up to be heard. I don’t think I piss God off if I forget to pray, or that I please God if I do a particularly good job.

So who am I doing this for? It all feels more like a performance than anything else.

Then again, maybe all of this is a fancy way to dress up and obfuscate the fact that I’m a chickenshit.

My personal prayers are silent, wordless, more like a guided meditation than a narrative. I picture those for whom I’m grateful, those with whom I’m struggling, my gratitude, fears, worries and wishes. Then I imagine bundling all of this up and laying it down before a light that envelops it all.

I’m not sure what happens once the light envelops all of that stuff I lay down, but I do know it feels a lot better not to be carrying it by myself.

So how do you communicate that to a room full of trained and articulate theologians without sounding like an incoherent freak show?

Good question. If you figure that one out between now and about dinner time tonight, be sure to let me know.

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  • Sounds like a great growing edge to work with to me!

  • Alisonrobuck

    My two-cents:  you communicate it to them the same as you communicated it to us!  Honest, refreshing and not all theologically tied in a neat bow!  You are in amazing company!  I was forever changed by Tony Campolo’s sermon at the 1991 General Assembly in Tulsa.  I have never ridden an elevator – nor looked at a prostitute – the same since!!!  Enjoy every single minute…and don’t worry about the prayer part…whatever you say – or don’t say – will be honest…THAT is true prayer!

    • thanks Alison. Very encouraging. It was an A-MA-ZING opportunity.

  • Pastorchrisstark

    If only we could communicate with God as a group in the same way that we do as individuals. I think that you are right, public prayer is, in many ways, a performance. However, that does not make it any less genuine. Our limitations in human communication demand spoken word so that all can participate, specifically since the one praying is speaking to God on behalf of all those gathered. I believe that it would be refreshing to hear your description of a private prayer voiced aloud as a means of speaking for all to our Source. But if you are in a bind, stick with a Collect form (Address, Attribution, Petition, Purpose and Closing). I look forward to reading an update to this post.

  • Micki_c2000

    What makes me stumble with out-loud group prayer is the number of times I have heard it not as a communication with God but as a “correction” to the people in the room.  And the admontition to just pray like you would by yourself.. really? did you bring a projector? Lots of times I just seem to picture who or what  im praying about – i guess i figure God knows whats up. so… enjoy 🙂

  • guest

    I’m with you. So…good luck with that. Maybe you could be cool and edgy and ask everyone to join in a time of silent meditation. Problem solved.

  • Revmariat

    I totally get it.  In seminary I always stood back to let the prayer-warrior types pray in our groups and classes.    When I started serving my congregation I carefully composed the pastoral prayer every week using the guidelines I was taught.  Now I sort of make it up as I go along with what I think of as mixed results.   When I’m really feeling it the words come without conscious effort aka the Spirit takes over.  When I’m not, well, to say that my words limp along is being generous.  

    It seems, however, that the congregation doesn’t care whether  I am eloquent or tongue tied on any given Sunday.  We’ve had workshops on prayer where some have said that they appreciate the stumbles as much as the eloquence because they too sometimes don’t know what to say.  They have told me it encourages them to know that it isn’t a failing on their part – just that sometimes the only prayer we can say consists of a sigh too deep for words.  

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the other participants in your small group will already know that.  They will be looking for authentic prayer, not a performance.

    You can do it, Christian.  🙂

    • There was shared anxiety, and actually I was never put on the spot to “perform.” Great relief.

  • Given your chosen path in life (or the path on which you’ve been placed – depending on your belief), you had to face this at some point. Can’t wait to read about how this turns out!

  • Pastor Steve

    Gerry Janzen, Anglican priest (don’t call him Episcopalian – he’s from Canada!), Hebrew Scripture scholar and one of the most spiritual men I know prays publically in a simple, humble, succinct way. Don’t know how God responds, but his simple prayers never fail to move me to a new place. Yet Gerry likes to say, “I fail at prayer every day.” I suspect that this is a dilemma we ought never to get past.