Warning: NSFC (Not Safe for Church)

August 8, 2011

Our Sunday morning church ritual probably looks a lot like yours.  We have songs, prayer, a message, communion, and time for people to voice prayer requests.

We get the usual mix of prayer requests.  A couple of sick people here and there.  Someone with this need or that need.  And during prayer, we always allow for silent prayer requests.  The ones too personal to say out loud.

Prayer request time can be great, because it’s the time anyone can speak up.  It’s also a little risky, because it’s the time anyone can speak up.

But yesterday, I heard the best, not quite safe for church, prayer request ever in the history of prayer…

The Usual Prayer Suspects

Whether you’re in a mega church, a mini church, or just a small group of people, the usual suspects almost always show up for prayer request time.

There’s the people who always have prayer requests.  Serious ones too, like they got struck by lightning…again.  It’s like they live their lives as a lightning rod, or they are cursed.

There’s the people who never speak up.  Either they are exceptionally blessed, or they are struck mute by the thought of sharing their dirty laundry with others…while they politely listen to everyone else.

There’s the people who never have a personal request, but somehow, all of their friends are being smote by God.

And every once in a while, you get a hijacker.  I was in a church that had one idiot who would make a speech every Sunday…that was never relevant and almost never actually ended in a prayer request.

It’s hard to be really honest in a group of more than a few people…even if they are Christians.  That’s why the honesty of this one prayer request yesterday was such so memorable.

Prayers Not Safe For Church

So yesterday, after a few people had raised their hand and prayed for this friend or that situation, or healing, or wisdom, a good friend spoke up and explained that his extended family is reeling from a recent crisis, and it’s leading to division and fighting.

If it were you, you may have prayed for peace or reconciliation.  Something that conveyed the situation in a tidy, churchy sounding way.

His prayer request: “My family needs to get their heads out of their asses.”

It was blunt, honest, and to the point.  Everyone knew exactly what he meant.

We’re a small, laid back group, and we don’t have any little old blue-haired ladies prone to heart attacks, so we all had a hearty laugh too.

In case you’re wondering, I did not pray to God almighty, the Lord of Hosts, using those exact words…so the prayer request was more vivid and memorable than the prayer itself.

Let’s Keep the Prayers Appropriate, Christians

Compared to the usual prayer requests, I wasn’t struck by what a crude or vulgar euphemism it was.  I was struck by how honest it was.  We could’ve prayed for “wisdom,” or “discernment,” or “peace that passeth understanding,” or any other “church appropriate” euphemisms.  They’d be less descriptive, less emotional, less honest,  just a lot holier sounding.

I don’t know about you, but there are really very few times when I’m brutally honest with God.  I’m probably the most honest with Him when I don’t like what He’s doing, which I talked about here.  But I’ve been trained as a pastor to pray appropriately, not honestly.  People don’t go to church to hear others be really honest.  Honesty is inappropriate.

So I often just say the same things at home that I’d say in church.  Maybe because I don’t trust Him all that much.  I give God appropriate, little, easy prayers that have been sanitized and censored enough that they could be said out loud in church; the kind of prayers that expect so little of God, He’d have a hard time screwing them up too much.  

Maybe you’re the same.  Think of all the prayers we hold back, the things we don’t trust God to do.  Maybe we think God can sprinkle a little “discernment” or “healing” fairy dust here and there, so we pray cute little prayers for those things.  But we don’t trust Him with the heavy lifting, like removing heads that are firmly ensconced in rectums.  So we leave the big, honest, inappropriate prayers unsaid.

What about you?  Does your private prayer life look the same as the “appropriate” prayers said on Sunday?  Is there such a thing as “inappropriate” or “too much information” prayer requests?  Are you stuck giving God easy, or “appropriate” prayers?

47 responses to Warning: NSFC (Not Safe for Church)

  1. Hi Matt,

    Welcome to Monday. Interesting that you start the week with thoughts on public and private prayer.

    For myself, I avoid ever praying in public at all. Being as vain as I am, I tend to show off my insider status with God when I pray in public. That way I can use Jesus to enhance my reputation as a good guy.

    It’s also wise for me not to tell anybody, “I’ll pray for you” because that places me in a superior position, as though my mighty prayers carry more weight than your own puny ones.

    I have to pray in a closet because I’m not fit to pray anywhere else.

    But when I do pray I try to speak with the One who calls us friends, as a friend would speak to a friend. With honest words and concerns–mostly, “Gimme. Gimme. Gimme”.

    About 20 years ago I wrote a book on prayer–Why Don’t I Get What I Pray For?– reprinted as “I’m Concerned About Prayer”. This week it’s available as a free pdf e-book download on my website sidebar. The blurb names me as “The World’s Foremost Authority On Unanswered Prayer” because I’ve prayed for things and didn’t get them than anyone else around.

    The thing is, there is no inappropriate language, vocabulary or topic when it comes to prayer. His eye is on the fallen sparrow as well as the course of nations; He does not miss a trick.

    Therefore I pray for me more often than for anybody else because I’m the one who needs it most. It’s that “not as other men” thing.

    And I’ve noticed an echo in my prayers–It’s a sound I hear in that gigantic hollow space when praying with my head up my ass.

    John Cowart


    • Funny that you’d say that “I’ll pray for you” puts you in a ‘superior’ position. When I need prayer, I’ve got a few choice people who really seem to have the whole prayer game down, and they’re the first ones I ask. I don’t know what it is about them, but they do a lot of hard praying, and God seems to listen up, and I want them in my corner.

      • I agree Matt, there are people who have walk with more spiritual authority, and they are the ones I want praying for me as well.

        Just like Jesus and his disciples, when they couldn’t drive out a demon (Matt 17:19-21).

  2. Hi Matt, It’s me again.

    I thought of something you may find amusing:

    Long ago at our church, the prayer group used to put out wooden boxes where folks could place written prayer requests either anonymously or signed with just a first name. On Fridays the intercessory prayer group would meet, open the boxes ,and pray for the specific things people submitted.

    One evening I drew a slip from a lady named Mary who yearned to have another baby. I prayed long and loud for Mary to get pregnant.

    When it came the next guy’s turn to pray, he started, “Lord, if it was my wife Mary who put that slip in the box, please disregard everything Cowart just prayed for!”

    John Cowart

  3. We don’t have prayers on Sunday mornings hardly ever. There is some times a prayer at the end that if for everyone and of course, it goes a long with the message if there was one. Mostly it is lot of hand holding to build family.

    On the rare occasion that we do have some sort of prayer, it is usually for a person or situation in the community. Our home groups are very different, that is where the stuff you are talking about happens the most. They never are allowed to sustain more than 10 or 12 members for all the reasons you stated regarding bigger churches.

    Home group is the release of the spiritual gifts, and much more intimate sharing about dirty laundry. We get to be real there, and that includes prayer. What I love about things like words of knowledge is that Jesus brings forth certain things – some days you just want to hang out in the back row and be quiet – feel sorry for yourself or whatever – God is not like that. Some days he wants us to be encouraged in a time of trouble, or to be healed.

    It happened to my daughter yesterday when I introduced her to a woman in the row behind us. She has been trying to get a job in the fashion industry for over a year – she finally got a contact at a major company, yet she was feeling discouraged like it wouldn’t work out. The woman she had never met, nor had I ever mentioned anything about this particular daughter, laid a well placed word no her, “Don’t be discourage, God has a job for you where you will sketch and write.” Holt crap, it just blew her mind. We had just talked about her options for an hour on the way to the service! Her silent prayer were met right there. I just love Jesus, and she came home and whipped up 3 new sketches for the interview!

    And yes, my prayer life is very much like my public prayer life. I just pray more for my family in private than I do in public.

  4. Nice prayer request lol. I’d love to hear that from someone at a bigger church pray that from behind the pulpit.


  5. I agree. It’s something I’m having increasing trouble with. All the Christian-ese that we use becomes quite meaningless at times. I like reading The Message Bible as it is in real language. It’s not that I don’t understand the jargon, it’s just that the jargon becomes pious and exclusive. We want to reach out and talk to others, don’t we? (For study, my NIV Study Bible is better.)

    • That’s a good point. There comes a point when we’ve read our Bible so much, that we stop reading them, and just look at pages of words. It’s a good idea to get an alternate translation that you don’t know by heart, one that makes you take a second glance, or look at the text in a new way.

  6. Several weeks ago I was preaching on how Jesus told a man to “stretch out his hand” – his withered, unsightly, and embarrassingly disfigured hand – right in the middle of church and he was healed much to the dismay of the pharisees. That morning I asked if there was anyone who wanted to take that chance to stretch out their unsightly mess and a middle aged lady broke down and revealed her loveless marriage and bitter heart asking for a miracle. Wow…honesty in church…almost unheard of. Good news…a miracle did occur and she is experiencing a revival in her marriage. How refreshing!!!!

    • I appreciate your listening to the Holy Spirit to open the service like that. When we get over our inhibited selves because of fear of man, God is able to do some wonderful things among us.

  7. The prayer requests that I say in private and don’t air in public tend to run the way of Psalms….as in, smite my enemies Lord, lay a trap for them, dash them on rocks. Then I usually feel contrite, since my prayers where filled with an obvious lack of mercy. Which lead me to the “create in me a clean heart” and my bones are weak with sin kind of prayers.

    I suppose if David got away with it, so can I…..right?

  8. I can relate to that guys honesty in his prayer.

    My family can get rather…annoying ….if you will…sometimes makes you want to pull your hairs out….so it’s no suprise he was feeling like that…

    I think God is waiting for our honesty. He knows our hearts doesn’t he? What ever is coming out of our mouths can’t be worse then what’s in our hearts right?…

    I think if we look at it through that view point. it would be much easier to pray honestly to God…

  9. My private prayers look quite a bit different than my public prayers.

    First, when I pray privately, most often I am praying in the Spirit. It’s also a form of worship for me. Often, I will have such an overwhelming feeling of the magnitude of God that everything else pales in comparison, or I will end up singing in the Spirit – something I would only do in the privacy of a sound-proof room (okay, not quite).

    Second, the Lord knows what I need (or whoever/whatever I am praying for) and I continually thank the Lord for who he is and for his provision that is promised. I pray for eyes to see and ears to hear what he is doing. I pray for strongholds to be broken and an open heaven to allow the blessing and promises to be sent to earth.

    When I pray in public, I don’t pray in tongues and I pray, using words that specifically use what was said in the request – more so, because I find it comforts people when they hear they are being prayed for. I also pray with thanksgiving and faith (not presumption) that God will shake up the heavens to answer the request of the Saint that spoke it.

    • I am not trying to play the holier-than-thou card with my comment.

      When someone asks me if they can pray, I will always ask for more revelation of Jesus himself because he is the answer to everything that I seek. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to air my dirty laundry – if I’m struggling or discouraged at that moment, I will share it, but I refuse to see my situation through natural eyes. I want to be like Elisha’s servant, the one who’s eyes were opened to see the mountains full of angels prepared for the battle.

      The same providence is true for all of us, for all our prayers.

  10. I want to go to a church with THAT guy in it. Then I’d feel like I belonged. :)

  11. Matt,
    Great post! Interestingly enough, I was considering a post about whether or not God has a sense of humor when we pray – specifically relating to the recent pre-race NASCAR prayer by Nashville pastor Joe Nelms who thanked God for his “smokin’ hot wife” and ended the prayer “bogity, bogity, bogity amen.” Here’s a link to that prayer put to music….http://tinyurl.com/3wtpwp3

  12. Right on Matt. This was a great one. I can’t stand “prayer request time” for those same reasons.

    People don’t go to church to hear others be really honest. Ouch. But true. I wonder what it would be like to know that every sunday you were going to gather with a bunch of people and get a big dose of raw, broken humanity. It would probably stop a lot of people from going.

    But a bunch of different people might start going. And the mission of the church would have to shift to dealing with all the brokeness. hmmm.

  13. I hate that honesty is not welcome in churches. What’s even worse is that people write off the folks who are going through hard times that don’t quickly and easily resolve themselves on their own.

    Matt, you know a lot about what my wife & I have gone through the last few years. I won’t say we’re cursed but God sure likes to see how much we can take. When we still went to small groups and prayer time came up I would see people roll their eyes when I or my wife would contribute something. It just showed us people didn’t really care to pray about the needs…they just wanted to play Christian and praying is part of it.

    And where you said “But we don’t trust Him with the heavy lifting, like removing heads that are firmly ensconced in rectums.” I’ll be honest…I don’t really trust Him in that because He hasn’t been faithful to come through in those situations for us. We haven’t seen big sweeping acts of God in our lives to fix the serious issues we’ve been dealing with for years. Little things? Sure. They’re all over and we can trust Him in the little things. The big ones? Well, I’m having yet another big door slammed in my face with nothing opening. I know the “Christian” thing to do would be lie and say I have overwhelming faith but I have to be honest…it’s hard to have faith when He repeatedly doesn’t come through beyond the little things.

    • I hear you man. I was at the end of my rope a couple of months ago. I shook my fist at God, and I don’t know what I would’ve done if something had not changed. Desperation isn’t a good feeling.

      But it’s not like I’ve seen huge miracles either, like other people seem to have all over. I don’t know if God’s not being faithful, or if it’s some kind of “user error” on my part. I have realized that I haven’t cultivated the Holy Spirit in my life the way others have, which I believe has consequences in my mind and heart.

  14. Of the million reasons I wish I went to a large church (rather than the smaller churches my husband has pastored), one big one is to get away from prayer-request time in the middle of the service. It’s just a time for everyone to give updates on every sick family member and report the sorrows of people the rest of us don’t know. Even when I do have sick and hurting friends to pray for (or joys to share) I don’t, because a) I don’t feel like it adds any weight to my prayer to share it publicly, and b) I don’t want to make this dreadful time of the service stretch on even longer!

  15. Trained as a pastor? Wow. Lucky you. I figured it was a calling, but you have made it a career option.

    Go figure. The American churches do have their standards.

    • It was a calling. Ever heard of seminary?

      • Seminary, seminary…oh, you mean that place where degrees and certificates are handed out that prove nothing, and that one can merely purchase with a D average?

        Again, congrats on making pastor into a career option.

        • Congrats on being a judgmental, anonymous jerk, “Covenant Son.” You don’t know me. You don’t know that I support myself financially with a career in teaching, or that being a pastor is not my career. I’m the last person whose trying to make a “career” out of pastoring. You don’t know how hard I worked to earn my degree, either. Geez, you act like going to seminary, of all places, is a get rich quick scheme. What was I trying to prove by going to seminary?

          Now this is starting to turn into a post that’s not safe for church.

          • LOL! Kinda thin-skinned, are we? Shame, that.

            Church of No People is appropriate. The less the better, really.

            S. Owen

          • Huh, looks more like Covenant Son is the thin-skinned one, here.

            Also, wow. Didn’t think this would be the post to bring out the trolls, Matt.

    • Now *that* was a Jesus Juke.

      • Really? All I saw was someone being a douchecanoe.

        • Mustard Seed Year? Whining girl is more like it. I’ve seen tougher Christians with more backbone than you at the local soup kitchen, and they really had something to complain about. But didn’t.

          Way to come to Matt’s defense. Whiner.

          S. Owen

          • Okay, those last two comments made me laugh, because you can’t possibly be for real. A guy who randomly shows up on strangers’ blogs to call people “whining girls” has to be pulling a prank. Good day, sir!

          • Not for real? Actually, very real. However, this “dick” and “douchebag” has grown weary of this blog.

            See ya never. Hugs and Kisses! Good luck with the teaching gig since you failed so miserably as a pastor. :)

            S. Owen

          • Yeah, Matt, anyone gutless enough to come in here and hide their true identity isn’t someone worth worrying about at all.

  16. At my church we have testimonies and prayer requests at every service. There used to be an assisted living facility for mentally ill and disabled people right next door to my church. So we would occasionally get visitors from there, and a few would voice their prayer requests. Even though the prayer requests often didn’t make a lot of sense (for example, “my boyfriend was turned into a duck…”), my pastor always took their requests as seriously as he could. 80)

  17. Guilty. I wait and take prayer requests to friends and God once I get them wrapped in a neat bundle.

    P.S. It’s your blog, but ever debate about not responding to trollers?

  18. So, almost hate to say it, but I’m a prayer warrior. Or, to be brutally honest; a prayer whore. Feels icky to say that, but feels even icker to feel that.
    I have the spiritual gift of prayer. It’s nothing to do with me, it is the gift that God the Father decided to give me. Not the gift I would have chosen, to be even more brutally honest. “Why?” you all ask, because I know many of you struggle with prayer.
    Here’s why:
    1. I’m an extrovert.
    While people always come to me for prayer, they don’t always come to me when they want to go out for coffee, or they’re hosting a dinner party, or other social activities. It’s like they are afraid I am a sooth-seer, or a psychic or can see them naked or something.
    2. People want me to pray for them; but don’t want me to pray with them. see #1
    3. I believe that I “pray well” because I have the gift of discernment. But people don’t want to hear it. You have lung cancer? Maybe you should stop smoking. You’re loosing your house? Maybe you should stop going to the dog races? Your wife is leaving you? Maybe you should stop having affairs?
    “Listen lady, all I asked you to do was pray!”
    4. No one wants to pray for me. I guess they think I got it all figured out, and me and God are so tight that of course I don’t need anyone else to pray for me.
    Uh, wrong. It’s like saying pastors are so tight w/ God that they never sin.
    So, when I said prayer whore, it’s because people come to me to get what they want from me, with out giving anything, or caring about me (aside from my spiritual gift) or my feelings or, well to use me.

    • God bless you and your gift. Don’t give it up cuz the world needs all the people that can pray well, to lift it up to heaven. You have the same name as someone really near to me that I pray for quite often, so it will be easy for me to remember to lift you up in prayer. I am sure you have needs just as we all do. Thanks for praying for others and staying in communion with our Lord.

      • Thank you, annon. You almost made me cry. I DO need prayer. Satan is trying to attack me in crazy ways. It’s obviously a spiritual attack, but still crazy hard, esp. cause I have no one that I can go to.
        Thank you. <3

  19. So I started cracking up about the time you were discussing friends who have been “smote by God.” My husband–associate pastor of youth and worship at our church–was a little afraid to know what I was laughing about, so, naturally, I had to read this to him.

    His response?

    “Oh Lord, please help this family to find the right proctologist for their needs….”

  20. helpermonkeygirl August 8, 2011 at 7:35 pm

    Have you ever heard the “still, small voice” in prayer or meditation? It has been years for me, but those moments were/are like treasures I hold in my heart. Especially during the long dry periods of feeling like prayers do nothing more than drift off into the stratosphere. Many years ago, after my grandmother passed, I remember being so bereft and heartsick with God over the whole thing. She was a lifelong Christian but something of a pill as a person. She lived a long life, but died an agonzing death from ALS. Inch-by-inch. Long story short, I remember (foolishly) thinking maybe the hideous disease was perhaps a way to get her all shined up for her big debut in heaven. Knock some of the mean, spite and pettiness out of her. But the reality of seeing someone suffer and then die if ALS could not so easily or cavlierly be chalked up to an end-of-life boot camp. Add to that the fact that the ALS did not do much of anything to knock her rough edges off. “Why,” I cried out at one point…..the small voice’s response: “I did not say I would fix her, just save her.”

  21. “People don’t go to church to hear others be really honest. Honesty is inappropriate.”

    This is SO true. If we can actually get past the shock of someone being honest, it’s usually refreshing, but most of us don’t have the courage ourselves.

    As for your question, no. My prayers are not appropriate. Sometimes I sound like a put-out teenager, sometimes like a whiny toddler. As far as I know myself, I’m honest with God. I may not be fully honest with people about what’s going on in my head and heart, but I’m honest with God, and when I’m scared about what His answer will be because of it, I tell Him that, too. He can handle it.

  22. How about when it’s on behalf of a person who asked for prayer? Using delicate language makes it sound like something horrible is going on. “I have a request for my friend Jim Joe, who is going through a difficult time.” That sounds like you’re trying to avoid saying “Jim Joe has declared that he’s converting to Satanism” or “Jim Joe just got arrested for beating his wife.”

    On the other hand, stating the situation plainly is apparently too difficult for most churchgoers, who spend five minutes detailing what exactly is wrong with Jim Joe and why he doesn’t fix it and what his neighbor said about it and how it’s affecting his personal grooming.

    And “Please pray for a friend of mine” is so vague that it doesn’t seem like a prayer at all, just benevolent thoughts or some kind of New Age healing energy.

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