It's not a new complaint... in fact I remember having the discussion back in graduate school. And this may not even ring true with many people. If you don't lead corporate prayer very often, you may never even notice. But it hit me again yesterday as I attended a National Day of Prayer service in the town where I work.
I've been to a few prayer services in my time. I've never been a big fan of simply praying along with long corporate prayers. You know what I mean. The long-winded guy prays aloud, and we're supposed to agree with everything he prays, and he goes on and on rambling over every possible topic including a few which make no sense to you and soon your own mind is rambling from what you have to do when the service is over to whatever it was that you ate that is giving you that horrid feeling in your gut. Sure it can happen in a 30 second prayer, but if someone tries a 15 minute corporate prayer it takes serious divine intervention to keep one's mind on track.
I've much preferred the "concert of prayer" approach, where the audience is actively praying while being occasionally prompted by a leader about certain areas to be praying for. That takes me out of the audience mindset and really gets me into the prayer. But still I find myself sitting (or standing) through some long corporate prayers, trying to keep my mind off my inner rumblings.
Yesterday was one of those corporate prayer services where we, the audience, tries to "pray along" with the leader's words. Actually there was a series of pray-ers to lead the assembled group. One was a redundancy guy, with the occurances of the word "Father" going well into triple digits within five minutes. But a couple of others brought back this old complaint: It seemed as though they were preaching while they prayed.
Now, I'm not one to criticize a preacher getting a chance to sermonize briefly, but is prayer the place for it? One of the prayer leaders was praying something about a church who had made a movie that will come out in the fall, and then finally asked God to bless it. I thought I was picking up some sort of radio commercial through the public address speakers for a moment! Another spent a lot of time obviously talking to us during the prayer. And I have to admit, that bothers me. To my way of thinking, the audience of a prayer is not those assembled around the speaker, but the Creator who hears from on high.
When I'm in a conversation with someone, it's considered rude or impolite if I suddenly turn and start speaking to someone else. Why is that not rude toward God?
As I mentioned earlier, we young pastors had this discussion in school. We were taught not to make announcements during the prayer. You know the type...
"And Lord, we ask that you would bless the Ladies Aid group tonight who will be meeting at 7 o'clock, Lord, and that those who attend would please bring a ball of yarn and a hot glue gun, Lord..."
Yes, I've heard almost that exact prayer.
But in school, somehow I was led back to John 11:41-42, when Jesus was praying just before raising Lazarus from the dead.
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me."
Was Jesus preaching while He prayed? It sure seems that way. Granted He said nothing about hot glue guns, but is there a secondary audience for corporate prayer? I think we'd have to say 'yes' if we took this seriously. Yet at the same time, Jesus' focus remained upon glorifying the Father, and maybe that's where our "announcement prayers" fail the test.