“Lord I just…” | Do you believe in Prayer? | Speaking into the unknown

A couple of times recently I’ve been in situations where people have said ‘let’s pray together.’ It’s struck me that there are some interesting group dynamics going on when we do that, which I thought would be good to air.

Firstly, if God is God, then why do we need to pray aloud? The answer is clearly that part of prayer is actually speaking to one another. If we were just speaking to God then we could just all pray quietly and be done with it. The question then is, to what extent is group prayer only speaking to one another?

It has seemed to me in many situations that praying aloud in a group functions to give permission to words that would otherwise be too difficult or awkward to say directly. In other words, the dynamic of group prayer is this:

We pretend we are speaking to God, but do so in a way that makes sure that other people can overhear us, and thus we are able to say stuff that we know that they will overhear, all the while keeping up a pretence that we are not speaking to them at all, but to God.

This then allows us to say things to people that we might not have the courage to say to them face to face. It also allows us to perform an interesting trick whereby we can express our hopes and desires (Lord I just pray that the £400 we need for x would come in this week… that someone would really feel you calling them to come forward to help out with y…) without actually having to explicitly ask the community for them.

This helps in two ways. Firstly, it reduces pressure on people. They aren’t being asked directly, so don’t feel so much direct responsibility. Secondly it allows any move to help – the donation of money or time to help – to be attributed to God answering, thus building the community of faith.

The question is, is there anything wrong with this? In Zizek’s reading of the early church as the ideal communist community, gathered around an absent other, this form of prayer would still be valid: we pretend to pray to this God whom we know has died, but do so because it is a way of speaking our desires to one another. In this way, we might say that the typical emergent faith group simply doesn’t pray enough – we’ve become embarrassed about speaking our desires to one another or holding one another to account.

The other view is that this is a psychological bluff, an unhealthy group delusion which stops us from confronting one another truthfully, and that we should stop praying and instead gather for different group therapeutic or collective action activities.


10 responses to ““Lord I just…” | Do you believe in Prayer? | Speaking into the unknown”

  1. I think it was Lewis who said ‘All of prayer is thanks’

    Colossians 4:2 has always been an important verse for me.

    Not sure if you are implying you think prayer with others is a bit of a waste of time?

    I was amazingly blessed by Francis Chan on all this- Prayer: a way of walking in love.


    Blessed as ever by the thoughts.

  2. Not sure if you are implying you think prayer with others is a bit of a waste of time?

    No, not at all. But I think we need to see it for what it is – and part of that is talking to another through an invisible other. I think, in fact, that this could be used as an atheist model of prayer: prayer still ‘works’ even when God is dead.

    What I’d be particularly interested in is a group psychotherapeutic reading of group prayer, and whether this idea of making sure our desires are overheard by the community when we pray has parallels in other group practices.

  3. I’m with you on your other view. I think when people gather together and agree on something or encourage one another – this creates a positivity. However if people could meet together and encourage, challenge and be authentic directly instead of invoking their god, this would enable the people present to grow and develop as human beings.

  4. Thanks for the post.
    One additional thought. Your take on group prayer is on the whole positive – affirming of others, expressing our desires for self and others etc. But there is great potential for manipulation of others, guilt-tripping, pile expectations on others, or even just “advising” others of what you feel they ought to do in order to solve their problem(s). What’s your take on this?

  5. Yes, there is. I wanted to present a non-negative view in order to get to the psychological ideas behind things – I think to have begun with a negative view would skew the debate that way. But certainly, within all of this there is a danger that people can be manipulated.

    My take would be that this is likely to occur within the context of other power structure problems, however. And if these are attended to, then there is less likelihood that people will be vulnerable to manipulation.

    But certainly, when a powerful person prays something, people do take more notice. I can remember a number of situations where this has been the case, and has led to a pretty unhelpful skew to people’s view of where their life might be going.

  6. to take it a step further – God is God and we don’t even need to pray silently – he already knows. Prayer is part of the two way relationship God desires with us. The forming of organized thoughts in prayer, silently or aloud, is clearly more for our benefit – so if we do that with a group, it’s simply including God in our group relationship. Any misuse of this conversation, whether alone or in a group, is to be expected in a sinful world, and is certainly something God can overcome (and forgive). Good to be cautious of “editorializing” during group prayer, but no need to avoid what can be a great group experience.

  7. Hmmm….since God is dead in the world why don’t we just turn group prayer into emotional support groups and therapy sessions. Church can be philosophy club or scrabble hour. Better yet let’s make them grain silos…..zizek would love it… and have a… bonfire…. and dance a bit 🙂 Oh the fun it could all be! 🙂

  8. Dear God..
    Lord, I just…..
    Lord? Hello? Anyone there?
    You don’t say much do you?

  9. the scary prayer meetings are the one’s where people think God is talking back.

    I wanna know where you got that photo though it brought back my nervous tick

  10. I’m not sure I want to work with Zizek on this -I’m still musing on Bonhoeffer and Barth, dinosaur that I am. But I am interested in pragmatics in prayer…