Somewhere in the mists of time, it got a label that stuck: “Sneak-a-Preach.” That’s when a church leader — usually a pastor — uses any element of worship that’s not supposed to be a sermon to insert a mini-sermon anyway. Most often, this happens in a prayer.
You may also be acquainted with a related phenomenon I’ll label “Sneak-An-Announcement.” That’s when the pastor has forgotten to make an important announcement and thus slips it in the benediction or some other prayer during worship. Like this: “And Lord, please bless the youth who will gather here at the church at 9:30 Saturday morning for their trip to Six Flags with $15 each for lunch money and a ride home around 9 p.m.”
We can laugh about announcements not-so-subtly stuffed into a prayer because the act is so obvious. But theologically, I have a greater problem with the sermon inserted into corporate prayer because it demonstrates a lack of thoughtfulness about the role of prayer in worship and denies the congregation a voice in prayer. This appears to be an increasing phenomenon in the Christian church today.
Before you label me a pedantic worship purist (which might be a fitting label anyway), let me quickly add that in the Christian tradition there are many kinds of prayer that are appropriate in many kinds of settings. What is appropriate in private prayer or in small-group prayer or family prayer or in devotional prayer may not be appropriate in Sunday morning corporate worship. There is a difference.
Many devout Christians find great comfort in praying the Psalms or memorizing other Scripture as prayers. These are good and pleasing and worthy of consideration.
But regular, weekly corporate prayer is different. When we gather as the body of Christ for worship — whether on Sunday or Saturday or whenever — those who lead in prayer represent the body, not just themselves. Thus it is always appropriate to pray in “we” language rather than “I” language. Such as: “We pray for your wisdom this day, Lord.” The person voicing the prayer speaks on behalf of the entire congregation. That’s a basic starting point.
Here’s the real rub, though, and the point where some of you, dear readers, will turn your hearty amens into raised eyebrows at me: Corporate prayer should first and foremost be about making intercession for the congregation, not about making declarations about God to God.
A good diagnostic question to ask is this: “Does my prayer sound like a sermon about God or a petition to God?” Sneak-a-Preach happens when the worship leader hijacks the corporate prayer experience to make assertions, declarations and proclamations — even if they are true and lovely — but fails to intercede on behalf of the people.
Sneak-a-Preach prayers use phrases like this: “Lord, we know that …,” or “In God’s word we are taught that …,” or “You, O Lord, are … .” Nothing wrong with these introductory phrases, so long as an entire prayer isn’t strung together from one declarative statement to another. The common label for such extended prose in church is “sermon.”
When prayer leaders offer intercession on behalf of the congregation, they instead use phrases such as these: “We pray, O Lord, that you would … , “ or “Hear our prayers, Lord, for those who … ,” or “Pour out your Spirit on all who … ,” or “Forgive us, Lord, when we … .” These phrases lead the congregation to lift up their petitions together to God in prayer.
Take the Model Prayer taught by Jesus as an example. In the English translation, notice the subtle implications of petition: “May thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” and “May your name be hallowed.” The only declarative statements come at the beginning and the end: “Our Father, who art in heaven” and “for thine is the kingdom … .”
In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find any example in the New Testament where Jesus modeled a prayer of declarative statements about God. In public, Jesus modeled for us intercessory prayer, petitionary prayer.
Perhaps Jesus would say unto us today: “You have turned my house of prayer into a house of Sneak-a-Preach.”