Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”
Have you ever felt someone was preaching at you under the guise of praying to God?
Did it turn you off?
Make you feel manipulated?
You were right.
That We May What?
Many dioceses are currently conducting their annual Catholic appeal for various diocesan needs.
Fine. They need to do that.
But the way this works out at the parish level can leave something to be desired.
For example, at St. Nameless the Ambiguous’s Parish they’ve been having an entry in the prayers of the faithful which goes like this:
Petition: That we may respond generously to the annual Catholic appeal . . .
Response: Lord, hear our prayer.
I cringe when I hear this—and other prayers like it
The thing that makes me cringe is the fact that the petition isn’t really directed to God.
It’s directed to those listening to the prayer.
It’s encouraging them do to something, and only in the most implicit way does it envision God doing anything.
We might call such petitions “preachy prayers,” because they are really preaching to the congregation under the guise of praying to God.
To the extent preaching to the audience is the goal, that makes this a kind of sham prayer.
Unfortunately, preachy prayers are common.
Everybody Does It
Catholics have no monopoly on this kind of prayer. They get made by all kinds of people on all kinds of subjects.
For example, I remember people commenting on the phenomenon when I was an Evangelical.
Sometimes an Evangelical minister—knowing that he was in front of people who weren’t religious (say, at a wedding or funeral)—would take the opportunity to preach the gospel at his audience in the form of a prayer.
While making a rather lengthy oration—ostensibly to God—he would run through the high points of an evangelistic message (sin, judgment, Christ’s atoning death on the cross, grace, forgiveness, justification, eternal life, etc.) and conclude with something like:
Lord, we turn to you—knowing that we have nothing of our own to bring, only to your Son’s cross we cling—and ask you to forgive our sins, so that though they be as scarlet, they may be made white as snow, and we trust only in you and your grace by faith alone, without any works on our part, that we may be with you forever in heaven. Amen.
Or words to that effect.
Preachy prayers can even turn up in formal, memorized prayers, like this mealtime prayer from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:
For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful.
This one has an advantage over the first one I mentioned (about the annual appeal) in that it at least mentions God, but it’s fundamentally the same. The person who announces it to a group is telling the group what kind of attitude it should have (true thankfulness of food).
If we don’t notice this, it is likely because we aren’t small British children who are about to be told, after the prayer, to stop being picky and eat what is on our plates.
The kids notice it, though.
Why It’s So Easy to Fall Into
Preachy prayers frequently arise from good motives:
- people need to contribute to charitable causes,
- they need to find forgiveness and salvation,
- and they need to be thankful that God has provided for the needs of this life
All those are good things.
And it can be really tempting, when you’re praying in front of a group of people, to forget that you’re really talking to God and, instead, start directly encouraging your hearers toward what ever good is on your mind.
The problem is that this isn’t what you’re supposed to be doing in a prayer.
You’re supposed to be talking to God.
What’s more, if you’re leading a group of people in prayer then you’re supposed to be representing their thoughts to God.
At least for the moment, you’re acting as the group’s representative to God.
And the group is meant to agree to what you are saying to God on their behalf. That’s why they are expected to say “Amen” or “Lord, hear our prayer” or whatever the local custom is as soon as you stop praying.
This means that the group is giving you a sacred trust. They are letting you talk to God on their behalf.
You thus have a responsibility to represent the group in a way they approve of and not go off promoting your agenda rather than theirs.
There is some give an take here. After all, you’re not a mind reader, and you don’t know what everybody in the group thinks. But you do have a responsibility, as the group’s representative, to represent its petitions.
Any time the representative of a group starts promoting his agenda over that of the group, it’s bound to cause resentment.
Particularly when you have a captive audience.
There are certain social conventions that apply in prayer settings. One of them is that the person leading prayer gets to talk and the others stay quiet.
If the prayer leader asks God for something one of the group disagrees with, it would be a serious breach of etiquette for that person to shout, “Hey! I don’t buy that! Don’t go asking God for that on my behalf!”
Similarly, the group is expected to vocally express its assent at the end of the prayer.
There is thus social pressure on the group both to let you speak to God for them and to publicly agree with what you said once you’ve finished.
That means—due to the social dynamics of the situation—that you have something of a captive audience, which in turn means that you need to be extra respectful of their views and sensibilities.
The Scandal of Preachy Prayers
If you aren’t sensitive to the group in this way, you alienate them.
Of course, prayer leaders aren’t perfect, and they sometimes say things that various people in the group don’t agree with—or fully agree with.
To cover such possibilities, I have a standing intention whereby I ask God to accept whatever is good in a prayer being made by someone on my behalf. Even if I don’t fully agree, there’s always something good buried in the prayer leader’s intentions, and I ask God to accept that.
However, if I get the sense that the prayer leader isn’t really talking to God—but to me—my attitude changes.
“Hey! You’re supposed to be talking to God right now, not preaching at me,” I think. “If you want me to do something—donate, get saved, be thankful—then say it to me straight out, and I’ll be happy to consider it. But don’t go preaching at me under the guise of talking to God.”
Even if they can’t articulate it, group members recognize that something phony is happening. It’s not sincere. It’s not authentic.
And since it’s happening during prayer—which is sacred—it’s both phony and profane, a kind of holy hypocrisy.
Preachy prayers thus come off as sanctimonious and, since they encourage good behavior on the part of the listeners, as moralizing.
Also, since there is social pressure for the listeners to agree with what is being said, they come off as manipulative.
Sanctimonious, moralizing, and manipulative.
That’s a combination that will alienate people.
Thus, despite the good intentions behind them, preachy prayers can actually push the listener away from the intended goods rather than drawing him closer to them.
This makes them a scandal in the proper sense—something that pushes people away from the good.
They Have Already Received Their Reward
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has important things to say about how we should perform prayer and other acts of piety. Among them are these:
Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward.
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward.
And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward (Matt. 6:1-2, 5, 16).
Here Jesus is concerned with one specific form of hypocrisy—performing an act of piety in a showy fashion in order to gain the approval of other people rather than of God.
He indicates that the approval of others is all the reward that such people will get. The person may succeed in winning the approval of men, but God will not reward such actions, because they are not really directed to him.
The same applies to preachy prayers.
They may be done out of selfless motives (like encouraging people to seek God’s forgiveness) or they may be done out of selfish motives (like encouraging kids to stop complaining about their food), but don’t expect them to be further rewarded.
Like self-aggrandizing acts of piety, they aren’t—at their core—directed to God but to men, so don’t expect God to reward them.
Think Before You Pray
All of this is a way of encourage prayer leaders—which most of us are at one time or another—to think about what they are saying.
Put yourself in the position of those you are representing in prayer.
Does what you are about to say really represent something they would have you say to God on their behalf? Or are you about to preach at them under the guise of praying to God?
If it’s the latter, don’t say that prayer.
If you want to encourage them toward some good, do them the courtesy of talking to them directly. Don’t wrap your exhortation in the holy cloak of prayer.
You can pray for all kinds of goods, but some of them you may need to pray on your own rather than as a group prayer leader.
Remember: These people are letting you perform a sacred task on their behalf, and you need to avoid abusing that role.
You especially don’t need to come off as sanctimonious, moralizing, or manipulative.
Most importantly, you need to remember what your real focus is when you’re praying: God.
Just imagine how God must view such prayers: “Hey! If you’re going to talk to me then talk to me! Don’t sham talk at me while you’re really talking to someone else.”
If you’re going to talk to God then talk to God—don’t preach at your listeners.
Looking for Something Good to Read?
It goes through the whole text and provides fascinating information that you may have never heard before.
It also comes with a verse-by-verse study guide with questions that you or your study group can use.
And it comes with a lectionary-based study guide, so you can read along with Mark in the liturgy and ponder its meaning before or after Mass.
Right now, this commentary is available exclusively on Verbum Catholic software.
Verbum is an incredibly powerful study tool that I use every day, and I heartily recommend it to others.
I can also save you 10% when you get the commentary or one of the bundles of Verbum software. Just use the code JIMMY1 at checkout.