When Prayer Turns into Preaching

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 18, 2014

Matthew 6:5-8 ESV

In case you missed it, the U.S. Supreme Court on May 5 handed down a ruling on public prayer at government meetings that could have far-reaching effects.  The 5-4 ruling upheld the delivery of mostly Christian prayers at local government meetings. This particular case began some seven years ago when two women—a Jew and an atheist—took to court the town of Greece, NY, a town of some 100,000 just outside of Rochester.  The women complained that nothing but Christian prayers (often conservative) had been delivered for eight years at the beginning of their town meetings.  So they took the town to court, and the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

In its justification for its ruling, the Court cited the First Amendment of the Constitution that states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Justice Kennedy also cited “the unique nature of legislative invocations, a tradition dating to the Continental Congress…”1  Conservative groups such as Faith and Freedom Coalition and Liberty Institute celebrated the ruling as a victory and predict the increased use of prayer in government settings.  Liberal groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union were disappointed with the ruling.  The ruling likely will lead some to be more sectarian and pointed in their prayers than they might have been otherwise.

One of the problems with public prayer is prayer can quickly turn into preaching.  In the church where I grew up, the minister would often call on one of the church elders or deacons to offer the closing prayer, especially at Sunday evening or Wednesday evening services.  And there was one particular elder who, when called upon to pray, would pray for about fifteen minutes.  You knew when Elder Willie was called upon to pray, you might as well settle in for a long, sermon-like prayer. There is a fine line between offering a pure prayer and slipping over into preaching.

I have to confess that sometimes when I offer the morning prayer just before the sermon, I have to be careful that my prayer doesn’t turn into preaching.  Sometimes I am sure that it does, because it is very easy to do so.  A time or two I have run a prayer by someone earlier in the week, and the response was, “This part sounds more like preaching than praying.”  It is easy to make the shift.

Prayers before government meetings, civic club meetings, and sporting events such as football games and stock car races always run the risk of turning into preaching and the imposition of the religious convictions of the one who is praying.  If we lived in a country that was 100 percent Christian, it would a bit different.  But there still would be problems, as not even all Christians agree on what it means to be Christian and what is appropriate in a Christian prayer.  But the fact that we live in a diverse nation—which is getting more religiously diverse all the time—makes the issue of public prayer even more complicated.  As some of the Supreme Court Justices rightly noted, no prayer can satisfy everyone.

The truth is, there are right ways, and there are wrong ways, to lead a public prayer.  I have been at a number of public events or meetings when I cringed because of the prayer that was prayed in a mixed audience; prayers that I knew were greatly offensive to those who were in the minority.  I am not saying that a prayer should not have been offered; but rather, the one who prayed could have been more sensitive to everyone present and prayed a more general, less sectarian, prayer that would have inspired or uplifted everyone there.

Thankfully, the Justices added with their ruling that “the court wasn’t endorsing invocations that ‘denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion.’  Rather . . . ‘prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing, serves [a] legitimate function.”2  Justice Kagan suggested that the town of Greece, NY, “should follow the example of Congress’s chaplains by giving clergy guidance about avoiding sectarian or divisive prayers.”3  (By the way, I searched the Internet for Congress’s guidelines for Chaplain prayers before Congress, but couldn’t find any.)

So, what constitutes an appropriate public prayer?  That is the question, isn’t it?  I have been thinking about all of this the past couple of weeks, and I thought how nice it would be with someone could devise a simple, practical guide to offering public prayers for the benefit of all concerned.  Maybe someone has written such a guide and I just don’t know about it.  Even Jesus gave guidance for public prayers in his own day: sincere, not long and showy, and for the most part prayers should be offered in private.

So as discussion starters only, I would suggest the following seven statements as possibilities when offering public prayers (other than at church), whether they be prayers for government meetings, sporting events, or civic club gatherings.  We might call them the Seven Principles for Public Prayer:

  1. Remember that you are speaking for a diverse group of people collectively, and not yourself and your own person needs or your own little religious group specifically.  I have heard too many public prayers when the leader digressed into offering thanks for personal blessings or asked forgiveness for personal weaknesses.
  2. Keep your prayer short and to the point (remembering Jesus’ teaching about long, showy prayers).  There is no correlation between the length of a prayer and a prayer’s impact.  In fact, the more precise and shorter the better.  Some of the most powerful and long-lasting speeches and prayers in history (Gettysburg Address, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Serenity Prayer, to cite a few) are quite brief.
  3.  Offer gratitude for the common blessings that all enjoy as members of our community or country, such as the freedom of religious thought and conscience, and the privilege of holding, or not holding, a faith we cherish.
  4. Offer gratitude for the beauty and blessings of the great county, city, and/or country we live in.
  5. Ask for guidance and wisdom to make decisions that promote the common good and welfare of all.
  6. Ask that all present might be mindful of those who may be disadvantaged or struggling through no fault of their own, and that those at the lower rungs of society not be forgotten.
  7. Conclude the prayer without reference to any Diety, by saying something like “in the name of all that is Holy and Good,” or “to this end we pray,” or by simply saying “Amen.”

The truth is, public prayer is an integral part of the fabric of our culture.  It always has been.  The practice of prayer at government meetings goes all the way back to the Continental Congress, as already noted.  And a recent survey conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey found “that U.S. voters clearly favor such [public] prayer—as long as the prayer is generic and not specifically Christian.”   An article in the most recent issue of the Christian Century notes thatSurveys continually find prayer in general—not specified by denominational distinctions—is hugely popular.”4

The right public prayer can be an occasion for bringing comfort, encouragement, greater harmony, and unity to all concerned.  The misspoken public prayer, on the other hand, can easily turn into an uncomfortable situation that discourages, polarizes, and creates divisiveness.  When someone has the privilege and opportunity to offer a public prayer in a diverse setting, why would he or she want to knowingly let that prayer turn into preaching so as to pronounce condemnation or try to proselytize, doing no one any good?   How much better to offer prayer in such a way so as to promote greater peace, harmony, and goodwill among gathered to hear it.  Why would we want to do otherwise?  Amen.

 1Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, May 6, 2014.


3USA Today, May 6, 2014.

4Christian Century, May 14, 2014.



About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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